Monday, April 09, 2007

The Show Must Go On: When to Cancel Class

I believe I have noted before on this blog that cancelling class -- when and how to do it, or if one should ever do it -- can be somewhat of a fetish among academics. If I had felt I could cancel class today I would have: my throat is still sore, and there is a small possibility that if I talk too much today I will lose my voice. My ears are playing a faint little bell chorus that no one else can hear. After I drove the half hour between New Haven (aka Shoreline) and Middletown (aka, Zenith) I felt that this alone should have qualified as my work for the day. Furthermore, as the day progressed, it got sunnier and warmer, a phenomenon which is always likely to cause even more absences than senior thesis students (theses are due this week) would account for on their own. But I had already cancelled class once this semester because of snow, and the paper they are writing for Monday depends on the book we are discussing today. So I taught.

What was even more disorienting was that, as opposed to most of the semester when I have prepared for class between lunch and the actual class hour in a somewhat, ahem, compressed, way (read: very focused, *very* fast), today I was ready to teach when I got to school, since I was ill all weekend, and thus couldn't bear to do anything but re-decorate my blog and prepare for class.

But back to cancelling class.

I once worked for a Famous Academic who used to boast that s/he had never, ever cancelled a class, for any reason -- much less being sick. This may have been true, but I also know that during my time in that job, I stepped in to deliver a quick lecture now and then when life was too pressing, and I suspect past assistants had done the same. I actually learned to lecture in this way: Professor Famous would look at me and say, "Could you go to class this afternoon and give a lecture about the Tax of Abominations? Of course you could." S/he would smile brightly and swish out, calling over one shoulder, "Don't forget the justification for federal intervention that was sought in English Common Law! And," (disappearing down the hall) "the foreign policy implications!" And being a graduate student who wanted to appear competent, I would smile brightly and call out to the Vanishing Self, "Sure! No problem!" and then dash to the right section of the library and swot up fifty minutes on the assigned topic, for which I would be paid -- get this -- twenty dollars.

In addition to learning to lecture, I also learned that Real Faculty never cancelled class. So I didn't for many years, no matter what. And of course, everyone knows that you have to teach with a hangover or the Goddess will strike you dead, but no illness of any kind kept me from my appointed rounds. I would teach with all manner of colds and viruses, teach until my voice disappeared, and then gesture at them wildly. Early in my teaching career at Zenith, I recall walking into the lecture room and explaining that I wasn't sure whether I was going to throw up or not and that I might have to dismiss class somewhat abruptly if it became apparent that such an event was imminent. And indeed, some thirty minutes later I was struck by a wave of nausea....well, let's draw a curtain over that. Face was saved. But barely.

Once when there was a blizzard and no one could drive, because I lived close to Zenith, I cross-country skied to class. I was effing intrepid in my youth. And you should have seen the students' faces when I thumped into the room carrying skis and poles.

This is, of course, all over. I missed my first class for illness ages ago, and now I am experienced enough to know that if I teach until I lose my voice, I don't get it back for a full week. One day of compromise is better than compromising the whole week. But there is a kernal of Professor Famous's conceit that sticks with me to this day: while I know it is perfectly ok for them to miss a class, I still have this nagging feeling that it is not ok for *me* to miss a class. So by this logic, if none of them showed up, but I did, it would be better than if all of them showed up and taught themselves without me. Which is utterly stupid.

In other news:

For a more elevated commentary on the public-private distinction, something I have been writing about in the last few posts about my blogging trials, go to this post from GayProf. This man is a gem, and a great writer to boot.


Bardiac said...

I totally connect with the idea that we're not supposed to cancel classes. I have a couple times, but not often.

But I think we should take better care of ourselves and actually cancel a class rather than drive ourselves into the ground. On the other hand, my ability to teach well when I'm really sick is pretty low, so the students aren't really getting a good go. And so long as it's once or twice a term, then they'll probably consider it a bit of a good break.

Hope you feel better quickly!

gwinne said...

I really dislike cancelling class for illness and such and yet (1) I have never received a negative comment from a student about cancelling class and (2) I always saw cancelled classes as a blessing when I was an undergrad, even after the hassle of getting to campus on time for class. So where does the "no cancelled classes!" anxiety come from?

tracy said...

So, what do you think of canceling a week of classes so that the prof can attend a conference...common practice within my college but - is that common in the profession?

Of course...most of the courses in my college are taught 1x a week for three hours...