What happens when your prof doesn't make it through the term?

At the end of one of my class meetings today, one of the students noted that her professor for another of her courses this term died about a week ago.

Not that anyone said out loud that this semester is what killed him.

Anyway, a few other students asked her what was happening with that course to finish out the term. She said that the home department for the course was giving the students the benefit of the doubt and giving them all A's. (I don't know if this is for the final exam/project/whatever in that course, or for the final course grade. I suppose it depends on whether the deceased professor left current and easily accessible grade records somewhere.)

So, the students are sad for their departed professor, but not sad about their grades.

Maybe this is a reasonable arrangement for the students. But as someone on the teaching end of the relationship, I feel pretty uncomfortable about this policy.

I'd prefer circumstances where my students see me as more valuable to them alive than dead.

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I would think that there would be a better solution, after all what the students are paying for is an education, not a grade. I am afraid i would feel shortchanged when a class didn't complete.

By Eric Juve (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

An art history professor of mine broke his legs while looking at some art (art is @!#$ing dangerous, or at any rate, Cristo's umbrellas certainly were), and was unavailable for the rest of the semester. The course was taken over by his (non tenure track) assistant, who did a fabulous job and whose lectures I actually preferred to those of the famous professor.

I had to finish out a semester for a colleague who was suddenly taken seriously ill. This meant that I was teaching an (uncompensated) overload. What am I gonna do? Tell the dept that I won't do it?

Hmmm... perhaps handing out A's isn't all that bad...

(Colleague is fine, but sitting out the rest of the year).

I recall a sociology class where the instructor's wife was pregnant with quads. A little under 2/3's through the term he had to take a leave so this other guy comes in. He'd taught other sections of sociology so he starts passing out HIS syllabus. I had a copy of the one we were given at the beginning of term, went through it and his and told him I agreed to the original syllabus, not his and that he would teach to the original syllabus.

I did my college education as an adult so I was a little rougher on instructors and professors. And I'm known for gravitas so I usually got my way.

I have had a prof die during the term. It was handled by cancelling his labs for that week, (it was a lab course), and eliminating some of the office hours for the other prof that ran those labs for the rest of the term. Thankfully, there was an empty week in the lab schedule so that the cancelled lab could be added at the end.

The ability to do this is one of the reasons I favour, when possible, having classes taught by two professors. Obviously, this is easier in lab courses where you have several sessions and at upper levels can become simply impossible, (when the class starts the term with seven students, it's kind of hard to split them up).

By Rick Pikul (not verified) on 01 Dec 2009 #permalink

Yeah, I've had professors leave mid-term to return to India. Another prof just picked up where he left off. I can't believe they're are just handing out A's. I would have probably loved it at the time, but now it seems a bit unethical.

I looked at the Spartan Daily and didn't see news of any recent deaths so I assume the professor was from another campus. I guess that means there's still hope that I'll get the letter of recommendation from by thesis chair.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Ideally, there should be some backup plan. I could see canceling up to a week of classes while they put the plan in motion, but there should be some way to cover the rest of that class: another professor in that department, an adjunct, perhaps a professor emeritus, or even an advanced grad student (who could certainly use the teaching experience).

Since described university is a state school in California, however, I can also see how they might not have the money to implement a Plan B. The contingency account that presumably would cover such an event may no longer exist, or it may already be depleted for the year.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Wow! I didn't think things like this actually happened (the As not the dead professor). It almost sounds like that urban legend that seems to exist on every campus that if your roommate dies they will give you all As.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Tony P,

I'm surprised that worked. I doubt it would have worked on me. (Indeed, I already feel my hackles rising ;)) Or rather, I'm surprised it worked because of the description you gave. It sounds like bullying ("not what I agreed to", "rougher", "got my way", "told him he would teach") and that often generates antipathy rather than accommodation.

Most syllabi have an explicit "subject to change" and I think taking over a course is a perfectly reasonable reason to change a syllabus. I'm not sure what it means, even, that you "agreed to a syllabus". A syllabus isn't a contract, after all. You may have selected the course based on the syllabus, but, after all, people make decisions about a course based on all sorts of misunderstandings or partial information.

As long as the amended syllabus reasonably met the course description and purpose, I don't see you have a leg to stand on, much less the moral high ground.

I do think it'd be reasonable to negotiate with the replacement and it's certainly important to make any specific needs known (e.g., if you were taking a course on symbolic logic intending to go to grad school in philosophy, you may *need* the soundness and completeness proofs rather than a substituted in section on critical reasoning). I'm often happy to accommodate student interest (and like to build flexibility in my courses for that occasion).

Please don't kill me for an A.

On the occasion of the Kent State murders, my university semi-shut down. Students were offered the option of accepting the grade they had to date, or finishing the course. A fair number decided to finish. None of mine ended up with a lower grade than they would have gotten if they had bailed.

When I was chair, I scheduled some slack in my schedule so that a death, or sickness, or whatever could be covered without much disruption.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

A few years ago in an Introductory Logic 4 week summer course that met for 2.5 hours M-Th, the professor was visibly very ill on Wed of week three. A test was given by the teaching assistant on Thu (which the instructor had previously prepared) and he was not in class. Unknown to the students, he had slipped into a coma (and later died). That day I was asked to teach the last week of class for him and paid appropriately for it. I was an upper level graduate student at the time and had previously taught the course. I used his book and syllabus though of course the style of lecturing was different. I think the transition for the students was reasonably smooth. If I remember correctly, I had only one "I want to take the test again/do extra credit because the professor was clearly ill before and didn't prepare us properly" (or something similar). The chair of the department made it clear to me and to the students that (reasonable) requests like this should be accommodated.

Another story - when I was an undergraduate in Topology, the professor had a mother in Norway who had become very ill and he was going to miss the last few weeks of the 15 week term to go to be with her. We had recently taken our second exam and there was just a final scheduled (no other sources for grades). The professor handed back our exams with the grades on them and a "final" grade for the course. We chose right then whether we wanted to accept that grade for the course or we wanted to take a final (individual choice, not vote as a class). I was happy with my grade so I just took it as did many other students. The professor was replaced with another very competent professor in the math department who lectured the last 2 or 3 weeks and gave a final exam for the few who wanted to take it. Class was noticeably subdued and many people were absent (especially closer to the end) since their grade was already determined. But more people came to classes than you might expect.

We had a lecturer who mysteriously disappeared in the middle of a semester - no-one would say where she'd gone. The class was taken over by someone who wasn't due to start until the next year, and who had a two hour commute each day. It went reasonably smoothly, in the circumstances, though he seemed pretty worn out by it all.
Giving As seems a bit rubbish, but I suppose it might be necessary in certain circumstances. I know some of the courses at my department were pretty tightly focussed on the research interests of a particular member of staff, and in small department particularly it might be hard to replace them. Personally I'd have been inclined to give them marks based on any work so far, and on their overall average.