Teaching a Course Someone Else Designed: Helping Students through a Disruption

This week, I’ve been writing about the work of teaching a course you didn’t design. Sometimes this happens because a department has mandated a rigid syllabus for all sections of a course. Sometimes it’s because a faculty member takes leave without much notice, and the class must be taught as it was already planned. And sometimes it happens because something has gone wrong in a class. In my time as a college teacher, members of my department have taken unexpected family leave and unexpected medical leave. Just a few days before Spring 2020 launched, a member of my department quit; another was fired mid-semester. Once, I’ve been in a department when a faculty member passed away after a brief illness that started just a few weeks after the semester.

Each of these experiences presents a disruption to the course. Even when the reason for the faculty member’s departure is positive (an adoption goes through faster than expected, for example), students are required to learn the expectations of a new instructor, which can be stressful. When multiple such events happen at the same time (which is quite feasible if campuses insist on employees returning to a physical campus this fall), students may find that many of their classes are disrupted.  In a small department, if two faculty members take leave at the same time, then students may experience disruptions in all the courses in their major.

To be clear, I am not saying that students cannot handle this, though I think we should be sensitive to the grief that students can experience with the loss of a faculty member, particularly if it touches on trauma in other parts of the students’ lives. If two faculty members take medical leave to recover from COVID, what is the impact on students, especially those who may have already lost a parent or grandparent to the illness? On those who work in nursing homes and see COVID-related suffering there, too?

These are just a few of the reasons why I think a full return to physical campuses is likely unwise. But even if campuses aren’t COVID hotspots, faculty should be prepared for a high rate of leave-taking in the fall. That could mean more instructors are teaching courses they didn’t design and starting that teaching midway through a semester.

When you are stepping into a course midway through a semester, you have to navigate not only the course work but the emotional work of helping students navigate the unexpected change. Some things to remember.

  • Some of them don’t like you. That’s why they signed up for this course, which you were not scheduled to teach. If you see a familiar name on the roster, be extra kind. Do not allow previous negative experiences with a student to color your new experience of them.
  • Some of them are worried about their previous professor. Provided appropriate information about that person’s absence, protecting your colleague’s privacy. Even positive information about improvements in health or the birth or adoption of a child is personal and shouldn’t be shared unless your colleagues requests it. In some cases (like an arrest that results in termination), news about the person’s departure may be public; in those cases, avoid sharing gossip or information that could harm a colleague’s family, co-workers, or other students.
  • If your colleague left after harming others, be available to listen to students express concerns about the dismissal of your colleague without sharing personal information about that person. Know contact information for the counseling center and Title IX coordinator, as well as your obligations as a mandatory reporter, should students need to share information with someone else. Provide the practical help students may need in making an appointment. Consider if an all-class visit from a counselor is needed.
  • If many cases, you will be entering a classroom where trust has already been broken. Students may have wasted half a semester or more and learned little; perhaps there were weeks of no classes held, or work has been assigned but not graded. Be prepared to hear valid (as well as opportunistic) complaints about the course. Don’t take them personally. Practice a standard response that affirms students’ experiences and also points them in a positive direction, like Thank you for sharing that with me. I know that many students in this class were frustrated with their experience so far, and I can understand why they feel that way. I’m hopeful that the remainder of the semester will be positive and productive for us.
  • One difficult situation happens when a previous instructor continues to have contact with members of the class and may attempt to shape students’ current experience of the class. If you teach at the college level, you may not be able to do much about this, other than to make sure that the previous instructor is removed from the LMS and inviting students to share any concerns they have with the other person’s departure with a counselor or your chair. In F2F classes, I also recommend showing up to class early so that students gather in the classroom to gossip (not that they can’t do this elsewhere, but at least if you are present before class starts, they won’t be doing it immediately before class starts); in online classes, be sure that you are watching discussion boards closely to avoid flare ups there.

For most students, the biggest complaint will be about grades, especially if they have not been receiving them regularly. If there is a mountain of ungraded work, work through it quickly to provide letter grades to students, then offer anyone who wants it the chance to revise the just-graded work for an entirely new grade. This may feel generous to you, but remember that the point of grading is to provide guidance so that students can perform better in the future. If they have turned in 5 assignments but received no feedback on any of them, then they can’t be faulted for not improving. A generous revision policy is the only reasonable response, and it still creates an unfair burden on students because they should have been able to be improving all along.

If students are satisfied with their grades, let them progress; if they want to revise, they will need more than a letter grade to guide them how to do it. In that case, you may wish to consider individual or small group conferences to discuss their work and how they can improve it, or you can offer a single replacement grade. For example, if a student earned Ds on three previously ungraded short papers, consider a single alternative that would replace these grades (like one longer paper). You don’t want to put so much pressure on a single grade (like the final exam being the only determinant in the course grade) that it contributes to pressure to cheat, but some students will happily choose one large assignment to knock out over revising work they already did.

This also may be a place where contract grading works very well: easy student creates a plan for their final grade and completes it, then earns that grade. This may be unmanageable in a large course, but offering it to students when it’s possible gives them the control that they have lacked throughout the semester, which most will appreciate.

sad paintings depression degas the absinthe drinker

Above, Dega’s The Absinthe Drinker (1876) shows a couple seated next to each other at a table in a cafe, drinks in front of each of them. He wears a hat tipped back and is smoking. She is dressed in a long red skirt, a ruffled shirt, and a hat. Her shoulders slump forward, looking exhausted. Even students who are relieved at a change in instructor may be tired, stressed, and doubtful about redeeming the remainder of the course.






One thought on “Teaching a Course Someone Else Designed: Helping Students through a Disruption

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  1. To this I’d add: Make sure you understand course policies, such as grading schemes. This means you need to read the syllabus.

    As you might have guessed, I learned this the hard way. This was an online course that I didn’t design, and which had some problems that I had to overcome. One day, I emailed my grading policy. As to be expected, someone pointed out that it was different from what was in the syllabus; the points were weighted differently. (Students will ALWAYS find these things! 😎 )

    This laid the ground for a major problem. That was because, near the end of the semester, a particular student would pass according to the syllabus’s version, but fail according to mine, and she complained to the higher-ups in the department once I said I was going to use my policy. I was eventually told by my immediate boss that I should grade according to the syllabus.

    This isn’t the end of the story, though.

    When I read the syllabus in exact detail, I noticed that one of the activities was given a certain number of points, and the LMS included it as part of the point total, but the syllabus said that it was not to be included. (This was one of the flaws in how the course was set up.) After I deducted these points, she was no longer passing the class.

    Needless to say, this got her mad, because her old total was a passing grade. Also, the syllabus didn’t allow for a curve, so I couldn’t include my policy of curving grades a bit (to make sure people with similar numerical grades get the same letter grade).

    Then I looked over the work she had submitted, and there was one assignment towards the end of the semester which she hadn’t done. It was worth enough points so that if she only did something vaguely correct, it would still put her into passing territory. So I told her to do it, explaining that she would pass if she did it.

    Amazingly, she said no, she wouldn’t do it. So she failed the class.

    Once again she went on a tirade about how this was all unfair, that she was keeping an eye on her point total, and that she had every right to pass. She was even going to file an appeal with the college demanding that I give her a passing grade, explaining in detail what happened. I sent an email reminding her to make sure she included my offer of re-doing an assignment.

    I didn’t hear anything from her after that.

    She didn’t ever get her grade changed, either. I wondered whether she explained her situation to someone, who then called her an idiot for not taking me up my offer.


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