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The Flexible Instructor

You may have noticed that your students turned out different from what you expected at the start of the semester. Should you make a mid-course correction to accommodate these differences? Please have a look at this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Gooblar, who teaches at the University of Iowa.

The writer believes that certain things shouldn’t change, but suggests asking students to anonymously report what’s working and what’s not, and then to recalibrate accordingly on assignments, deadlines, and such. He cites evidence from psychology indicating that adjustment to new reality is a hallmark of mental health. He says his students often don’t meet expectations at the first of the semester.

But unfortunately this means the adjustment ends up being downward in terms of requirements. When was the last time your students said, “We want more work! Make it harder!”

It’s tempting to say your syllabus should be treated as gospel, but this is a bad example, since the gospels vary widely in interpretation. Students can be very clever in working the angles and exposing weaknesses in the language of the syllabus, rooting out loopholes like a Philadelphia lawyer, as one teacher put it.

Somewhere there must be a sweet spot between extreme rigidity (think Captain Ahab) and the remark by H.L. Mencken that “My principal principle is flexibility.” The former is tragedy, the latter comedy. Mencken also said that a good politician must rise above principle—a practical view not without merit in a democracy.

Community college teachers in the Gulf Coast region, contending with the effects of Hurricane Harvey, have demonstrated nimble adjustment to a new and harsh reality. Instructors who don’t care to teach online, for instance, have been compelled to do so. This is flexibility at its best.

One hazard of bending syllabus rules occurs when you make changes for some students (disabilities aside) and not for others. Word gets around quickly, especially with social media. Even Captain Ahab didn’t have to contend with smart phones and video recordings.

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