Tomorrow is the start of a new semester. As always, I updated various rules and policies in my classes in response to problems from the previous semester. Every semester a student finds a clever (or nor so clever) way to twist a policy or creates some new problem that requires yet another policy.
When I first started teaching, the rules and policies were very basic. A class syllabus was only one and a half pages-and most of that was a listing of all the topics. Each year more and more was added. In some cases, this was due to the university adding some new requirement (those are usually of zero interest to the students, so I would put them in tiny font to save space). In other cases, as noted above, I had to add them in response to students. At first I was reluctant to add policies and naively hoped to rely on common sense (“yeah, you have to turn in the paper before the end of the semester to get credit for it”) and good intentions. Yes, I had read Hobbes long ago. Yes, I should have known better. But I was young. Not surprisingly, I quickly learned that I had to add rules and policies.
Some of the reasons I added more polices and rules were positive ones. The first was so that students would know these rules and policies upfront, rather than finding out when they happened to do something (or try to do something). Another reason was fairness-every student had to fall under the same rules and policies and this meant codifying my practices about such things as extra credit, make-up work, late dates and so on. A third reason was to set limits on what the students could and could not do in the hopes that they would be less likely to, for example, try to text answers to each other during tests or skip class relentlessly. If they elect to do those things, then I can simply point to the syllabus and note that they were dutifully informed.
Of course, I also added more rules and policies when I heard stories of students contesting grades and making complaints against professors. While this is not very common, I had no desire to be open to a long and problematic academic adventure of this sort. Less seriously, I also noticed that it was not uncommon for students to assume that if there was not a written policy on something, then that entailed that they could do whatever they wanted. I also noticed that students seemed to be more and more inclined to miss or not do work and then come in with various excuses. Hence, I started piling on the rules.
I suspect that actual laws often grow in number the same way, assuming that people are acting with good intentions. If people just did what was sensible and acted responsibly, that would really cut down (but not eliminate) the number of rules that would be needed.
I do actually review my rules and policies to see if they can be removed or need to be changed. Sadly, I have never removed a rule, only added more. I have modified them, however. In some cases to tighten up loopholes and in others to make them more fair. That sort of review is, unfortunately, rare in the “real” world. Some of my review questions are as follows:
- Is the rule needed or can people be counted on to act correctly on their own?
- Is the rule fair?
- Is the rule clearly worded and concise?
- Does this rule improve the learning experience, impede it or neither?
- Is the rule insulting?
- Is the rule reasonable?
- Will the rule create more trouble for me or reduce it?
- Would I be willing to abide by this rule if I were a student?
As the Spring 2011 semester starts, my students will be ignoring my new 7 page syllabus (which includes two forms-one for requesting an extension on the paper and one for special circumstances).