TITLE: When Having No Class Is Okay AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 07, 2008 8:41 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Recently, both Lance Fortnow and Michael Mitzenmacher wrote entries on how often a prof can miss a class during the semester. This is an issue for any instructor who has a professional life. Between conferences to attend and professional service duties, there will always be a conflict some time. I have a standing solution for myself, developed through many years of teaching, going to conferences, reviewing for NSF, and serving on program committees. I teach a Tuesday/Thursday schedule in a fifteen-week semester, so a full set of class meetings is thirty. Every semester, I just plan for twenty-eight. In the fall, I have standing plans to attend OOPSLA and, until a couple of years ago, PLoP. In the spring come SIGCSE, ChiliPLoP, or both. I can usually cover 28 sessions both semesters with a little calendar help. Until the 2007-2008, we always had two days during Thanksgiving week, which gave my courses a 29th meeting day. The spring has Spring Break. When my conference schedule falls just wrong and leaves me a day short, I will ask someone to guest lecture. My students don't seem to mind. I usually leave them with a good project to work on while I'm gone, sometimes larger than the usual project given that they have more time to spend on it. In the end, what students learn is less about what I do in class than about what they do with the course material, and a good-sized project is usually well worth the time alloted. When I get back, we can debrief the project and, when appropriate, discuss what I learned while I was away. Later, I can fold what I learned into future courses, which makes the two class days missed an investment in the experience I can offer. This semester I faced an unusual choice. Instead of one 15-week course, I am teaching three 5-week courses. My away time, for SIGCSE, all fell during one of the 5-week sessions. 28 out of 30 seems reasonable, but 8 out of 10 did not. So I arranged to meet my students for a couple of "make-up sessions". We held one the day before I left for Portland. After we had completed sessions 8 and 9 after break, we decided that 9 out of 10 had been enough, and we called it a wrap. I was willing to do a tenth session if students were interested, but they seemed ready to move on, so we did. The choices we face at primarily undergraduate "teaching university" are probably different from those faced at bigger, research school. First, I suspect that some if not all of Lance's and Michael's teaching is done in graduate classes. Grad students are a different audience, one perhaps better able to use time away from class productively while still learning new material. Second, at the bigger schools, teaching a class for undergrads often means having one or more graduate TAs to help. These folks are often more than capable of pinch-hitting for an extra absence or two during the semester, with no apparent loss in quality to the students. (If you believe some of the stereotypes about research-oriented faculty, then you might think that the students could be better off with a TA filling in. But I think that stereotype is overblown and often just wrong.) Another option available to us these days is videocasting. One of my colleagues who travels a lot in-semester sometimes records a lecture for his students in a classroom that supports showing the professor and the projected image in the video. This takes time, if only because there is a tendency for an instructor to want not to leave blemishes in a videocast recorded for posterity -- even little glitches that are normal in any in-person presentation. I've not tried this yet, but I might one day soon when the conditions are right. Done well, this could be better than even a well-prepared set of lecture notes and questions. -----