In comments on my earlier post about what happens to a college course in progress when the professor teaching it dies, a lot of folks raised interesting questions about what would be the fair policy to adopt with respect to student grades. I think actually implementing whatever we might agree was a fair grading policy could be complicated by practical considerations, like whether the professor had left behind updated grade records that were accessible to his or her department, whether he or she had already written a final exam (and a guide to grading that final exam), etc.
It’s an interesting set of questions, but that’s not the subject of this post.
Something else that came up in those comments was that a goodly number of commenters had actually been in a course where the professor died, or fell ill, or had to withdraw from teaching the course to deal with a pressing emergency of some sort. In such situations, someone either has to jump in to take over teaching the course — sometimes without much information from the original professor about how to teach it, or with very different views than the original professor about how the material ought to be covered — or the course ends up being concluded prematurely. I think this, as much as the issue of how to calculate grades at the end of the term raises some big questions, many of them connected to what the students enrolled in a course are owed.
For example, if you enroll for a particular course, you have some reasonable expectation that you will be taught a particular clump of material. Usually this material is described broadly in the course catalogue, and in somewhat more detail in the course syllabus distributed at the beginning of the term. Often, you’ve enrolled in the course because it fulfills some requirement — maybe for your major, or your school’s general education program (or “distribution requirement” as some schools cast it), or possibly even a prerequisite for another course you are planning to take. Learning what you are “supposed” to learn in the course can matter to you because failing to do so may jam you up at some future point. It can also matter because you wanted to learn that material. (Believe it or not, some people choose their courses because they want to learn what’s taught in them.)
It’s not just the material, though, that influences class enrollments, but the professor’s manner of teaching. There were some professors I had in college who were so compelling in the classroom that I would take pretty much any course they were teaching. Even if the subject matter wouldn’t have interested me on its own, I could count on those professors making it interesting (and relevant, and challenging, too). There were also the professors (happily, many fewer in number) who were the inverse of that, who could take the most interesting subject matter in the world and make it drier than dry.
Not to take teaching style into account when choosing classes would have been foolish.
But, as much as students enrolled in a particular course may want or need to master a certain body of knowledge by the end of the course, and as much as students may have done the legwork to find the courses taught by professors whose style works best for them, professors are human beings and sometimes unforeseen stuff happens before an academic term reaches its happy conclusion. The more unforeseen that stuff, the less likely it seems to be that departments will have had time to mount a well-considered response.
Back in the last millennium, when I was in the third year of my philosophy graduate program, I was part of my department’s response to unforeseen stuff.
If memory serves, it was the second week of the Fall quarter. I had already started going to lecture meetings for the writing-intensive philosophy course for which I was slated to be a teaching assistant. (It was sufficiently writing-intensive that the TAs for that course were given an extra $500 for the term to compensate for the additional grading volume.) But then, I was asked to go to the ancient cosmology class and talk with the professor.
The situation was that he had been very recently diagnosed with cancer (which had already gotten into his lymphatic system), and he needed to start chemotherapy. He had been warned that the chemotherapy would probably leave him feeling pretty crappy, and that he should get someone to cover his classes. I had been a student in his history of cosmology sequence my first year, and had been the TA for the modern cosmology course in the sequence the spring before. He thought that if I were willing to take on the course, I could do a good job with it. And, he’d be somewhat available to consult with me as I jumped in and planned lectures, even coming to observe those lectures on days when he didn’t feel too crappy. (He also let me borrow his notebooks for the course, but it took a fair bit of work to decipher his handwriting.)
As the professor was floating this idea before me, my department was exploring other options. If the situation had presented itself before classes had started, they would have simply cancelled the class, but apparently in the culture of the university, canceling a class once it had started meeting was viewed as one of the worst things ever. Thus, they had contacted a couple of actual professors at schools in southern California (one a classics professor, the other a philosopher and historian of science who had actually studied with the professor whose cosmology course needed coverage). The way I heard it, there was some worry about whether either of these fellows would be happy actually teaching the material as mapped out in the syllabus the students had already received. Plus, each was already teaching courses that had gotten underway at his respective school.
Plus, as bona fide faculty members, each would cost a lot to employ as a substitute. A graduate student, on the other hand, was pretty darn inexpensive.
For some reason, at the time I didn’t think much about the economics of covering a course whose professor needed to fall back partway into the term. Instead, I attended more to the fact that I had taken the course that needed covering pretty recently, that I had assisted in teaching a related course even more recently, that I had a really good working relationship with the professor who created the course, and that I was already there and ready to step up to the task. Possibly it was also a way for me not to have to think too directly about the fact that a faculty member who I really liked and respected was pretty sick. There was material to be taught (and notes to be deciphered), and I was in the right place to help him by doing that.
It’s a good thing an academic quarter is relatively short, because from week two of that quarter to the end, I ran on adrenaline. Teaching a subject with a lot of technical details while keeping the philosophical “so what?” in clear focus is a lot of work, certainly much more work than it is to learn that same subject. I was grateful to have really good mentoring from the professor. In fact, he made a point of telling me that I should take his assigned readings and broad storyline for the course and make them my own, giving my own take on how different scientific advances connected with overarching philosophical questions.
I don’t know whether the students in the course that term actually knew that my version of it departed somewhat from his. The times he was well enough to come to my lectures, he was nothing but supportive. And by the end of the term, the students seemed to have learned the material that he and I had wanted them to learn.
Meanwhile, I now had experience teaching a course essentially independently (and with very little prep time). Plus, I had been able to take away some stress from a professor who mattered a lot to me at a time when he needed to conserve his mental and emotional resources for other things.
I did, however, have to negotiate with my department, after the term was over, about pay. They had gone ahead and paid me the normal TA stipend for that term — not even the TA stipend plus $500 that I would have gotten if I had stayed with my original assignment to the writing-intensive course. If I’m remembering correctly, I got them to pay me that extra $500 for my trouble.
In this case, I think things went reasonably smoothly for the students, and less so for the substitute professor and the department working out the details of the personnel change — and this was a case where the personnel change took place really early in the term, with a lot of support from the professor bowing out, and taking full advantage of the fungible nature of graduate student labor. If it had happened later in the term, the transition would have been much harder. If the professor had been really incapacitated, the transition would have been much harder. If the department had had to secure the services of faculty from another school (whose own departments would then have to make arrangements to re-staff their own courses in progress), the transition would have been much harder. Even if I had been midway through a stack of grading for the course I was originally assigned to grade, the transition would have been harder.
All of which is to say that re-staffing a course already in progress is not trivially easy. Faculty members are not completely interchangeable, and all of them are equipped with a maximum of 24 hours per day. Getting a course covered at all when its professor suddenly falls ill or has to attend to an emergency is a major undertaking. Expecting that the person covering the course will display complete fidelity to the original professor’s teaching style or detailed plan for the term might be asking too much.