Reaching Out to Students in a Time of “Instructional Resilience”

Maybe it has something to do with the power outages and the shuffling and rescheduling that followed in their wake, but teaching this semester—more than any semester before—has required a lot of follow-ups and check-ins to locate students who have either missed multiple class sessions, failed to submit assignments, or have otherwise gone MIA. While I’ve encountered some issues with absenteeism and missing assignments when leading discussion sections for large lecture courses at Berkeley, I’ve never confronted so many problems with coursework and attendance in the R&C classroom.

In past R&C courses, it seems that weighing course attendance and participation in final grade calculations has provided sufficient extrinsic motivation to keep students attending class sessions regularly. Similarly, a system of gradual deductions applied to assignments submitted late has likely helped to keep writing deadlines on track. However, this semester, I have several students who have missed multiple class sessions and/or multiple assignment deadlines. When I have been able to discuss these matters with them (both in terms of the content they’ve missed and the concerns it poses for their grade) they seem generally unperturbed. Frankly, when so much of the undergraduate culture of achievement at Berkeley seems GPA driven (or at least highly GPA conscious), I’m at a bit of a loss for how to best motivate these students to do the bare minimum as far as participating and completing their writing assignments. 

One of my primary concerns is the breakdown in communication that is happening. I recognize that our students are dealing with a lot every day, and that it is all too easy to fall through the cracks at a large university, especially if you don’t have the skills or knowledge of how to navigate the system (what some call the “unwritten curriculum”). I do my best to reach out via email if I notice that students have missed a few sessions, or haven’t submitted assignments. I try to stage these interventions as kindly as possible, making clear my concern for the student as a person and my commitment to supporting them in the course. But I also don’t want to micromanage college students, or devote so much time and energy to moonlighting as a truancy officer (albeit a nice one).

I’m wondering if others in our group are confronting similar issues this semester (especially post PGE outage), and how you are dealing with them. I’m especially curious to hear about strategies for communicating care and concern and offering additional support that avoid tacitly endorsing or directly exacerbating a kind of customer service approach to teaching. In this brave new world of contingent labor and “Instructional Resilience,” it sometimes seems as if all impediments to student achievement and learning are placed at the feet of instructors—problems to be solved through hard work and pedagogical ingenuity. While I clearly want to see all of my students succeed, I also want to ensure that they remain active agents in their own learning. With at times competing institutional logics at play (changing norms and expectations that, I would add, are not lost on many students), how might we as instructors strike this delicate and important balance?