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Policies as Pedagogy?

posted: 2.26.14 by Nedra Reynolds

Since I’ve heard more than my share of grandmother excuses, I like what Traci Gardner had to say this week about her late work policy and how it’s going.  As I was reading her post, it struck me that we usually don’t see the making of a policy (so close to police) as either rhetorical or pedagogical work, but when the policies and guidelines we write (and revise, and revise again) enable our students’ best learning, I do think that they qualify as sound pedagogical practice.

When I first started teaching, I was surprised how much care and thought went into something as simple as, say, an attendance policy. No matter how much we may want to restrict any or all absences, an instructor’s or program’s attendance policy cannot contradict what the college or university says about sanctioned events or religious observance. So in our case, a phrase near the end of our standard attendance policy (“Generally speaking”) tries to give room for exceptions–because policies are absolutely necessary but should also be flexible. Traci’s post illustrates that veteran teachers keep adjusting their policies for clarity and fairness and to maintain standards even when accidents and illness and tragedies and emergencies intervene with the work of the course.

For small, workshop-based classes that depend on collaboration–whether that’s partnered peer review or the small-group design of a brochure–attendance is crucial, and an attendance policy becomes one way to convey to students the kind of class they have joined and what the values and expectations are. For example, writing-intensive or workshop-style classes rarely have lecture notes or quizzes that can be reproduced or made up, so the attendance policy can emphasize or reinforce the goals and structure of the course, which may not be what some students expect.

Sometimes new or adjusted policies become necessary when the curriculum changes. For example, when our department made the shift to portfolio-based teaching and assessment several years ago, we didn’t anticipate one particular wrinkle:  in our plan to give students plenty of practice runs before opening night, so to speak, we lowered the weight of several projects to 5 or 10% of the final grade; we evaluated drafts for “process and potential” in keeping writers focused on a final portfolio. But some students figured maybe they would just skip doing one or two of those projects and take the zero–and still pass the course!  When we became aware of this line of thinking, we added two passages in the standard syllabus that indicate the necessity of submitting every project by the due date in order to pass the course.

Policy shifts are also necessary, of course, as technologies change and our dependence upon them increases. I’ll admit that I had a policy of no phones or electronic devices for a few semesters, and I have seen the policy statements of others that threaten to take phones away or kick students out of class for having them out. Stories circulate around the campus of instructors having all students turn off their phones and then place them on the teacher’s desk, out of reach.

These days, however, I use both my phone and a laptop in most of my classes, so I can hardly ban them!  This year my policy on “Courtesy and Civility” says this (among other things):  You may use your phone or other electronic device when invited to do so. DO NOT text or check social media sites during class. If you are caught texting, tweeting, Facebooking, shopping, or playing a game in class, you will be asked to leave and will be given an unexcused absence. While it may sound like I’m taking a tough stance, I haven’t yet asked anyone to leave, and I probably won’t.  I have remarked, “I see that phone,” to a student who was paying attention to a screen rather than to a class discussion, and I will continue to call them out for being distracted, or I will ask them to close screens when something or someone deserves our undivided attention.  I also suspect that my policy in the fall will have different language or a lighter tone.

Since policies are necessary, it helps if they can be flexible enough to reinforce our pedagogical goals.  Because writing policies requires a keen awareness of appropriateness, maybe we should ask students to write them along with us!  I know that some students sympathize with the “no phones” principle; I have heard some students say that it can be a relief for them to unplug.  They get tired of being “on” all the time, so they might welcome the chance to contribute to a course policy about electronics.  Any time that policies enhance opportunities for learning, they are worth writing well, revising regularly, and including others in the process.

[Photo by Farm 8 from Flickr]

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