Thursday, November 12, 2009

Three Easy Steps to Excellence or The Courage to Lead

Guest Writer, Abbes Maazaoui

Monday 10/19/2009, 7:00 AM. I check my email for any message sent with “High” importance. Nothing. Wonderful. Among the new messages, I spot an email message from one of my students. What could it be about? Without any particular expectation, I read it.

“Bonjour Professor Maazaoui.
I am [SM], I recently just checked my mid-term grades and I see that I have a C- in your class which basically means I didn't do what I was supposed to do but I have room for improvement and that is what I am going to do. There is no need for extra credit work. But I will bring my grade up by attending your class daily and doing all work especially with extra tutorial. As you say if I pay attention, attend class and work on my pronunciation I can improve and that’s what I intend on doing. Thank You.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here is a student who does not consider “C-” an acceptable grade. More importantly, she does not blame me for this grade. Even better, the student understands what areas of her performance need attention. No excuses, nothing, but determination and confidence in her ability to change things for the better. This Monday is already looking good!

I wanted to use this email to frame the discussion on academic excellence. I have attended many discussions and forums regarding this matter. The faculty, the library, or the bookstore was cited, at one time or another, as the key factor in our pursuit of the promised glory. I have yet to see participants address in depth the role of students. I believe that students are at the center of it all, and must be involved in the conversation, simply because they are not just passive receptors of our efforts and wisdom. As the email quoted above magisterially illustrates, students “can” do (or not do) things (“pay attention”, “attend class” “work on” their area of weakness, “improve” the result). We tend to forget that they, more than the faculty or the administration, will determine whether the university ranks high or low.

Of course, if all our students were like the author of this email, Lincoln would achieve all the wonderful goals set by the president in just one year. Unarguably, this is not the case. Fostering excellence will require courage and leadership. Here are some suggestions that can be put immediately into action:

1. Scrap (and replace) the current Lincoln policy on attendance. It is a toothless policy precisely because of its so-called built-in flexibility (“Four absences may result in an automatic failure in the course”). This loophole is at the heart of students’ absenteeism and tardiness, which are reaching epidemic proportions. Whom are we kidding? Students know it and instructors know it. Has anyone ever heard of a Lincoln professor who failed a student just because of four-five-six,… unexcused absences. Let’s have a policy that is enforceable, not subject to the interpretative whims of individual instructors. Let’s agree on a fixed number of allowable absences and then require all faculty to enforce it. Furthermore, let’s make the faculty accountable by making “attendance taking” part of the student evaluation form.

2. Every student should be required to have/buy/borrow/ etc. (in digital format or otherwise) mandatory textbooks and materials of instruction. By the way, this requirement is stated in most syllabi. Students who can’t afford to purchase textbooks should be allowed to seek an exemption from the bursar’s office. Let’s also work on a solution whereby textbooks might be “awarded” to hard-working needy students. If we can judge by the high-end electronic gadgets and texting services used on campus, only few students would qualify for any type of assistance.

3. The administration should be required to lead this effort, not (just) by sending memos and emails (that the majority of the students don’t read anyway), or by giving speeches at board, faculty and school meetings, but by going to classrooms and talking to students face-to-face. Since most students don’t show up at convocations and large gatherings, members of the Board of Trustees, the president, vice-presidents and deans should bring this message to students in class and promote these simple policies that must be upheld by all, so that there is no confusion in the minds of the students or the faculty. FYE classes offer the best time and place for spreading the message.

Yes, these are simple steps. Yet very often, the secret of success is in keeping things simple, and getting back to the basics. Sending an unequivocal message is one of them. Our students cannot afford to be absent an average 5 or 6 times in every class, nor can they go through college without ever using a textbook. If we are serious about academic excellence and Lincoln’s reputation, we have to involve students in a serious conversation and begin at the beginning.


  1. Abbes thanks for your "Three Easy Steps to Excellence or The Courage to Lead." It is interesting and thought-provoking. The main problem which makes it difficult to implement is that it rests on 3 questionable assumptions: 1. the current Lincoln policy on attendance "Four absences may result in an automatic failure in the course" is not enforceable; 2. we can agree on a fixed number of allowable absences; 3. the administration should be required to lead this effort by going to classrooms and talking to students face-to-face.

    The current Lincoln policy on attendance is what we have been able to agree on. We have not been able to agree on a fixed number of allowable absences as confirmed in various faculty discussions on absences. It is up to us as faculty who are concerned about attendance to enforce what we have, and we have been doing that in our own ways, given the academic freedom we have. The administration has other e.g. financial and administrative concerns and priorities besides academic ones. Further we have very little if any control over the administration.

    Let us start with what we have control of, which is ourselves and the students in our classes. The best way to achieve academic excellence is to demand it (whenever we can)! Let us not abdicate our responsibility to the administration or assume that the administration can do what the faculty has not done (namely, enforce high academic standards).

    Here is a friendly amendment to your proposal: If we faculty are as concerned about academic excellence as we claim to be, we the faculty should lead this effort by (1) going to our classrooms and talking to students face-to-face and (2) also going to faculty meetings and talking to faculty face-to-face. Further and more importantly, we should (3) set high standards in our classes and enforce them as well as (4) assess and monitor the enforcement process among the general faculty.

  2. As a non-teaching faculty member, I'm a little diffident about offering suggestions, but anyway, here goes!

    (1) Re the policy on absences, my suggestion would be that if there is going to be a policy that is enforced across campus, then, assuming that there would be a provision for "excused absences" (e.g. medical, athletic, and possibly others, if pre-agreed), then reducing the number of unexcused absences that will be tolerated to one or two seems quite reasonable.

    (2) The textbook purchase requirement seems more problematic to me, although I do understand the rationale. Not sure how it would be enforced, though. One option that occurs to me (that would certainly make the Bookstore ecstatic) would be to simply order books for students for all courses that they are registered for and add it onto their bills. If they drop courses, they could then return the books for credit for future book purchases.

  3. Thank you Dr. Maazaoui for your very important pointers.
    My students know that their grade will go down, and there is no appeal, after their third absence. It works! [with reminders of the threat]. However, justified absences help us to understand that rules should not be applied in military style.

    The syllabus should be written in such a way that class participation affects the grade. When participation is required, book acquisition goes up. I give "open book" tests for which a book is needed [though I am flexible about book sharing].
    I also give quizzes which are preceded by students being allowed to open their books for 5 mins and then close them when the quiz begins. These methods do not solve the problem entirely but they improve the rate of book acquisition .
    I enjoyed your comment on our administrators [or would be bosses] who issue quotas sitting in their ivory towers [no pun intended!]. Yes, dear administrators do come over and try your hand at teaching and do it without pulling rank!I look forward to the day!

  4. OK, I want to play devil's advocate on the "3 absences" issue.

    1. If we allow excused absences (that is, if we say it's ok not to be in class for certain reasons), how can we hold to a no-more-than 3-unexcused-absence policy? The mere fact that an absence can be excused would seem to mean that it's not class time per se that is important.
    2. if then we agree that class time per se isn't important--what's important is that the student learn somehow what went on in those classes, and if we have clearly defined student learner outcomes, and a student can meet those outcomes without sitting in class, why should he or she not get a passing grade?
    3. If a student misses four classes but completes all the work due for those classes and emails it by the due date and it is of good quality, should we fail that student?

    I guess what I am asking is why we get so hung up with "seat time"?

  5. I think we should have strict attendance policy. If you missed more than three classes without any excused you automatically failed the course.

    Regarding the textbook issue. I think we should make it a requirement that students need access to the textbooks. We should have a small separate allocation given to the library that will allow the library to purchase two copies of all textbooks and put them on course reserve for each course taught. This at least guarantees that there will be access available to the textbooks for those who can't affort them.

    It is my understanding from the faculty forum the university is having its attorney check into the requirement that book voucher getting through financial aid will be only for textbooks and not else. If we can legally do that, then that would help.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed AM's thought piece. I told myself I would not get involved in the faculty's dialogue, but the professor that is still living deep inside of my administrative exerior was inspired to comment: 1) The absence policy in geniune, authentic HBCU tradition is in the hands of the individual teachers who (should) know their individual students' backgrounds and needs. If your threshhold is four absences, that is what you enforce. If it is two, that is what you enforced. You did not wait for your colleagues, but in the classic HBCU's (1870s to 1960s) every single faculty member did enforce an absence policy strictly. But first they would personally contact a student who missed two in a row to ask "What's up" with that? In my experience, students were so flattered when "The Professor" contacted them on the phone for just being late and possibly in danger of being absent, that they shifted their entire attitude to trying to show they cared enough about themeselves as much as their prof did. Tardiness and unexcused absence were never again a problem. But not al are that responsible. For those others, a strictly enforced policy is the only thing that will work. These youngsters, like my own father many decades ago, get the idea and turn their whole life around to following policies, rules, and good sense. 2) For future discussion -- I advocate that faculty members should wriite and e-publish their own textbooks. There are e-publishers that do this on contract with professors and make available the text to students at a fraction of the going exorbitant rates. Moreover, the profs receive a modest royalty for their efforts. 3) No way. That is your job as faculty in the classroom to beat the drums for students to do those things they are expected to participate in, even in convocation!!