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Sunday, September 10, 2006
On Cancelling Class
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 12:42 pm

(To my students who read this blog: no, this isn’t a notice that I am cancelling class).

James Joyner notes a conversation that started at ProfsBlawg by Law Prof Bobby Chensney who asked on his site:

Here’s a question for the students out there: does it bother you when a professor cancels a class in order to attend a conference or workshop?

[…]

And so the question arises: Do you view this practice as beneficial? Problematic? Or perhaps just a minor cost imposed by the fact that your professors are, at the end of the day, both teachers and scholars?

Yale law student Will Braude responds on his blog (with a post entitled “Teaching Law and the Sacred Trust”):

So I think a very strong presumption against sacrificing class even further to one’s other professional ambitions is at the very least an ideal. I would like to hope that is not too much to ask for.

I can’t disagree that one oughtn’t cancel class lightly;however, I think the presumption that attending conferences and such is simply about furthering professional ambitions misunderstands the enterprise.

He also notes that Felix Frankfurter didn’t cancel class and missed part of his confirmation hearings for SCOTUS. As such, one guesses between the “sacred trust” comment and the Frankfurter example that Braude doesn’t think that normal conference attendance is a worthwhile reason to cancel class. One wonders: if cancelling class to attend one’s Supreme Court nomination hearings isn’t a good reason to cancel class, what is?

Although commenter (at ProfsBlawg) Mark probably captures the most common response from students on this topic:

As a 3L, I am in favor of class being cancelled at any time, for any reason.

I think that Law Prof Jonathan Weinberg gets it right in a comment at Discourse.net when he states:

…I don’t think that the conflict is between teaching classes (doing my job) and attending conferences (self-centeredly blowing off my job). Attending conferences (either to present papers, or just to learn stuff that feeds into my teaching or writing) is my job, just as teaching is. Being a member of a scholarly community — including the part of that community that isn’t in Detroit — is a big part of what the university pays me to do.

College professor should be teacher-scholars, not just teachers and not just scholars. It is the case that the least prestigious the institution, and the greater the teaching load, the more the professor is a teacher and the more prestigious the institution the more the professor can be a scholar. It’s all about time, resources and expectations.

There is a problem, however, when the professor becomes a mere teacher and a problem obtains when they become scholars for whom teaching is a side activity at best, or at worst, an irritant.

Conference attendance normally takes place in the context of a professor presenting their own work. As such it isn’t just (or primarily) attending panels. Of course, the attending of panels has its own utility, as it is a form of professional education. It is a way to hear new information about one’s field—which can sometimes (and indeed has) led to use in the classroom.

I would note that had I not attended conferences over the last several years I would not have been asked to write a chapter for this book and nor would have a book contract or several other academic opportunities. There is no way that my students would be better served if I were cloistered in Troy all the time.

Further, conference attendance can have the following effect, as noted by James:

attending conferences is a vital way of recharging one’s intellectual batteries and reconnecting with scholarship in one’s field.

Ultimately I think my students are better served by my having me engaged in those activities than had I not cancelled the occasional class.

Given that almost all conferences take place during the academic year, it is impossible to attend them if one doesn’t sometimes cancel class.

Of course, if one cancels class multiple terms per semester, then that’s a serious problem.

Filed under: Academia | |Send TrackBack

13 Comments »

  1. Not to mention that cancelling class is virtually unavoidable if you are on the job market. Last year I got away with only cancelling class twice, but that was largely due to luck (one interview was by coincidence around the time I was giving midterms), having a very favorable teaching schedule one semester (WF, so I could go on interviews Sunday and get back Tuesday night and still be able to teach) and going to two conferences that didn’t interfere with my teaching schedule.

    I don’t cancel class lightly, and have gone out of my way to avoid doing so (perhaps to the point of damaging my job prospects, if you buy that interview order has an effect), but cancellations happen.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence (guestblogger) — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 2:47 pm

  2. This is pretty simple.

    Does your physican cancel an appointment and send you the bill anyway? Do you pay your dentist for work not done?

    Tuition costs have far exceeded income growth for years. The least the school can do is conduct the course.

    Educators who pursue personal tasks and career improvement should not do it during class hours.

    Comment by K — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 3:08 pm

  3. K,

    Well, going to conferences and such isn’t personal activity.

    Going on job interviews are, but then again the University, when hiring a prof for one year at a cut rate knows full well that the prof will have to go on interviews.

    And your analogy fails insofar as the prof does not bill the students.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

  4. K:

    Or think of it this way (which was my point): do you really want college profs who don’t publish or who don’t have the opportunity to leanr more about their trade and rely, instead, on whatever they learned in grad school?

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

  5. K: I’d argue that your physician would probably reschedule your appointment rather than sending you a bill for work he didn’t do. And I’d be happy to offer a “make up” class if it were really necessary - but most of the time, there’s enough fat in the schedule that a little (say 1 of 30-40 classes over the course of a semester) can be trimmed without hurting the class.

    And, bear in mind that in pretty much any other occupation employees get vacation and personal days; professors don’t, unless they’re out of commission due to illness.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence (guestblogger) — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 9:08 pm

  6. I intended to be provocative.

    It was pretty much the standardized responses I expected. Oh, I couldn’t publish, oh, conferences are too important, oh, we would be too dumb to teach if we didn’t keep up, oh, we don’t hand the student the bill.

    And, by the way, other professionals don’t get sababaticals or summer vacations or several long breaks during their year. They don’t get paid for personal time and vacations because they don’t bill during that time.

    The academic sloth was BS when I taught as a graduate student. And it is BS now.

    Comment by K — Sunday, September 10, 2006 @ 11:35 pm

  7. For what it is worth, while sabbaticals are technially possible where I teach, they are radically rare. And, for me anyway, summers are hardly off times.

    That there is academic sloth, as you put it, is no doubt true. Indeed, I have seen it myself. However, I also think you are conflating some items that are hardly slothful with others that aren’t. Just because a particular activity results the cancellation of a class does not equal laziness on the part of the faculty member in question.

    And, for that matter, I am sure there are lazy MDs as well.

    I think you are painting with an overly broad brush, and indeed speaking of that which you know not in this case despite what you may have observed as a grad student.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 6:11 am

  8. Don’t get me wrong: I am not asking anyone to cry me a river over my work load. Indeed, I have a great deal of choice about a lot of it. I would even concede that my colleagues at research institutions have it pretty darn good in terms of class loads, TAs/graders and such. Of course, they also have far some severe publication pressures than I face.

    Still, I would caution against drawing too many conclusions about other people’s work loads.

    And I would also note that the narrow issue here is whether the cancellation of a handful of classes in a problem or an expected part of the job for any academically active professor. I would (and have) argued that it is the latter.

    You want to call it sloth, fine. I would counter that it is less work to refrain from attending the conference and writing the paper than it is to go.

    If you wish to state that the value of those conferences only redounds to the prof and has no positive effects on the students, you have that right. However, it is my experience that you are wrong on that count.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 6:20 am

  9. Conference attendance normally takes place in the context of a professor presenting their own work. As such it isn’t just (or primarily) attending panels.

    That’s a total understatement! It is all too common at social science conferences-especially those of the regional associations- that there are more people on the panel presenting papers than in the audience.

    I would amend your statement to read “that conference attendance normally takes place in the context of the hotel bar, and various restaurants in close proximity to the venue.”

    Comment by Ratoe — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 11:11 am

  10. Let me amend: in my case the only time I attend a conference is when I am a participant.

    This is true for a lot of people, although I can’t cite stats.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 11:14 am

  11. Professor Taylor sure gave a lot of attention to remarks by a commentator who does not even care to identify himself by name. It has been my exeperience that when someone starts an arguemnt with, “This is pretty simple,” the person really does not have a point.

    Then, somebody who identifies himself or herself as “Ratoe” suggests “that conference attendance normally takes place in the context of the hotel bar, and various restaurants in close proximity to the venue.”

    Yes, the dirty little secret is that there is no such thing as a conference panel. Actually, there are only drinking binges and fancy dinners, and we never discuss anything of professional substance during these sessions devoted solely to gorging ourselves. And it is all at state expense (for those of us lucky enough to be at public universities).

    The truth is out! Now what?

    Comment by Professor Matthew Shugart — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

  12. Matthew,

    Lighten up-I was being sarcastic. Although something I said must have touched a nerve….

    Comment by Ratoe — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 2:53 pm

  13. By the way, at least Steven and I are actually paying out-of-pocket to go to conferences; I had rather generous (by political science standards) conference support in grad school and at Millsaps (over $1000/year), but that’s pretty rare; I think tenure-track faculty at SLU in my department get around $500/year in travel support, which might get you to New Orleans or Chicago for two nights if you’re lucky. Very few of us are on the alleged gravy train.

    And, as Steven notes, going to a conference is extra work at an inopportune time; I’d rather not be writing a paper for SPSA this semester, or reading and making notes on a half-dozen conference papers over my Christmas holidays.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence (guestblogger) — Monday, September 11, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

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