It is usually exam time periods when so many special accommodation requests flood to my inbox. The easy ones are for the religious holy day observance or official event participation (e.g. athletic competitions) with official documents (or true medical emergency case – see below). More nuanced requests are the ones related to other personal events such as family vacation schedule or cheaper flight schedules. It usually gets worse in the final periods of fall semesters when many students are busy scheduling returning home for the Christmas and New Year’s break.
For small-size classes, it is usually easier to accommodate such a request as long as they can provide me some verifiable documents and if that won’t compromise the required course works. But it gets quickly challenging for a large-size class with 250 people. I not only need to maintain a fair treatment for everyone, but also must be conscious about potentially opening a flood gate of similar requests from hundreds of students with a similar desire if an opportunity is given. One fall semester, I was bombarded with the special accommodation request from students to take the final exam early so they may fly home earlier without having to hang out otherwise nearly vacant campus during the ‘no-class days’ just for my exam. I felt sympathetic of course, as I used to be a student myself. But I couldn’t approve of their such requests without a fair handling rule in place. I knew many students would want the same allowance but wouldn’t even asked me about it. Some student may prefer me being more strict to the rule so they don’t need to wonder about potential excuse for themselves. It wouldn’t be fair for them if I just give an excuse to those who came and asked me. On the other hand, if I make an open announcement for the 250-people class that I would be willing to accommodate such a request, I should be ready for a downpour of e-mails in my inbox. After some thoughts, I made a painful decision to not to allow the early exam accommodation request due to family event or personal convenience. I had to deal with lots of complaints and even tears… Heartbreaking. I still do not have a good solution for that situation. At least I try to cheer me up myself that at least I tried my best to help as many students as possible while maintaining a fair position.
Family travel issue deserves a short paragraph. It is more common with the underclassmen (mostly freshmen) in the class. I often get e-mails from students about certain exam schedules (they are posted on syllabus) because their parents want to buy a cheap plane ticket. Fine. I explain it. An advanced case would be an e-mail from a student ‘stating’ to me that he/she has to miss the exam on such date because his/her parents have already purchased a plane ticket for the break or family vacation, and I should allow them to take the test early or late. I need to suppress my urge to say “Sorry. I can’t” and write a more polite message explaining that I can look into the case but I will need to follow the general rules for such a case, which was explained in the class and clearly stated in the syllabus. If this is an urgent situation, I would try to accommodate as much as possible, but not quite so if it is just for personal convenience. Through some iterative communications, I can usually assess the seriousness and needs for accommodation, and make a decision. One notch up case from this is direct contact from a parent. I am not joking. Parents (of a college child) contact professors to ask for an accommodation of exam schedule for their family vacation. I am extra courteous in my response by thanking their interest but usually say that there is a guideline I need to follow to be fair for all the students in the class (or say I will look into the case and discuss with his/her child to make an appropriate decision).
Perhaps other professors may feel similarly. It is usually a final exam period, when students tend to report more cases of death of their family members or friend. I don’t know if there is a statistical analysis for this circumstance.** I have to be careful with this notion, as there ARE legitimate cases of real tragedy during the inconvenient times. If there was a true crisis with close family members, although I usually ask for a verifiable paperwork for such a case, I can sense from the student’s attitude. It gets trickier when the situation is for a friend or even a family of his/her friend who was sick or hospitalized. It would need a case by case consideration. One year, on a final exam day of my large introductory class, I received a phone call with panicked voice from the other side of the line. It took a little while for me to comprehend the situation. It was mother of one of my students. Her daughter was just transported to ER and is getting an appendectomy. Her English was not very fluent and emotionally shaken. She was worrying that her daughter may fail my class by missing the final exam. I assured her that I understood the situation and I can let her take the test later when she is recovered from the operation. I would keep her grade as ‘incomplete’ for now and she would get her normal grade when she takes the test. She wouldn’t fail the course because of this, I explained. Finally, she understood it and hung up the phone saying ‘thank you’ so many times. I was relieved too.
(continued in part 3)
(ps) The ‘no-class days’ are a period of several days allocated in the end of each semester before the final exam period. We can not offer any regular class, lab, assignments, or test during this time so students can have uninterrupted time to prepare for the high-stakes final exams. But many students perceive this as a beginning of the break.
(ps2) [update @ 1/30/2015] There was an article about this very issue in the Vitae of the Chronicles of Higher Education – “Dear Students, Should Your Granny Die before the Midterm…” (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/886-dear-student-should-your-granny-die-before-the-midterm?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en).