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Monday, May 21, 2012

Modelling Professionalism, Part II (Get Your Spitballs Ready)

In the wake of the commentalooza over Rick Hills' question about students bagging on RA jobs, I thought I'd throw up another issue to get some crowd-sourced wisdom about teaching professional conduct in a slightly different context.

I speak here of students blowing meetings.

So, let's say a student contacts you, wanting to meet with you, his prof.  You set the meeting up -- Wednesday at 11:00, say.  (By the way, these are not actual facts, Wednesday at 11:00 was not an actual meeting time, nor does this question have anything to do with anything that's happened to me recently.  So there.)  The student doesn't show.  The student then contacts you later, apologizing and giving, let's say, what I would consider a bad reason or no reason at all.  The student asks for a new meeting date, soon (say, the next day).

Frankly, part of me doesn't want to oblige.  It's not that I'm busy -- though I certainly am.  Let's stipulate that I used the original meeting time very productively on other work.  So giving the student a meeting time on Thursday doesn't subtract from the total amount of time I'd have for other work endeavors that week.  (And let's further assume I was planning on coming into the office on Thursday, anyway.) 

So why don't I want to oblige?  Well, because I'm annoyed.  But I'm also concerned that I'm letting the student get away with something if I simply reschedule.  The obvious response -- reschedule, but make it clear it's not professional to miss appointments -- strikes me as close to futile, a finger-wagging talking-to that, because it doesn't come with obvious material consequences, may not have much effect.  Or maybe it does -- I'd love to know if students, or former students, have recollections of such dressing downs making a real impact. 

So, I don't think there are consequences from a simple dressing down, and I want to establish some real consequences.  The obvious one is simply not to reschedule, or at least not to reschedule promptly (I know myself, and I could never hold onto a line that says, "I simply will not meet with you any more, period.")  But not rescheduling for a decent interval (say, a week) seems petulant (assuming I do in fact have the time).  I basically have to lie ("No, actually, I can't meet with you until next week, because ... well, I'm busy.").  That's really a non-starter, unless I want to say that I'm not rescheduling promptly as a punishment.  But even that strikes me as punishment that doesn't really fit the crime.

So is there anything else I could do, other than giving them a talking-to?  Tell them it will affect my willingness to write a recommendation letter?  That seems really harsh, and again, not completely credible: if I have enough interactions with a student to justify writing a letter, one blown meeting probably won't make the list of top 10 things I can say about the student.  Tell them that all these little things add up to create someone's impression of the student?  That takes us back to the talking-to, right?  Turn down any substantive request they make because of one procedural default?  Again that's pretty harsh -- I'm not the Rehnquist Court, after all.

Gentle readers, do any of you have a better response to this type of situation?  Am I missing something obvious?  If you're wondering, I normally stew a little bit, think about avoiding the student's request for a while, then reschedule and wag my finger when we meet.  It's not satisfying.  Is that the best I can do?

Posted by Bill Araiza on May 21, 2012 at 04:38 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Jeff is good comic relief.

I agree with those who suggest that missing one meeting isn't worth making a big deal about. If your students lack the professionalism to realize that that's bad (and feel appropriate remorse) by the time they get to law school, there are deeper issues at play than you'll be able to solve.

It's definitely alright to be less accommodating when rescheduling than you would otherwise be, and if the student complains remind them that they inconvenienced you by not showing up. But setting out to punish, assuming it's not a repeat offense from that student, is wrong-headed.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | May 22, 2012 1:18:21 PM

Don't you know that students can do no wrong, and any expectation from faculty that they act like responsible grown-ups, much less professionals, is just a reflection of ivory tower privilege?

After all, they have been swindled, to a person, into coming to your school for the sole purpose of subsidizing your immoral life of privilege. Never mind that every student enrolled in law school today opted in during awful times, when the slightest due diligence would have tipped them off that their prospects were iffy. And still you forced them to sign up for crushing, non-dischargeable debt. And you want them to do something so onerous as keep an appointment?

It's your fault that the student blew off the meeting, and you should apologize to him for causing him the stress of having to send an email at all to explain his absence. Your obligation was to love and praise him if he showed up, and to love and praise him if he didn't.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 22, 2012 12:00:00 PM

If someone doesn't show, and only sends their excuses afterwards, I would not be too peeved unless some serious inconvenience above-and-beyond being in your office for that time (which you probably were going to be anyway). Of course, you should also feel free to re-schedule the meeting to the time which is most convenient for you.

Punishing the student is straight-up silly. We all miss meetings occasionally, and so long as they don't make a habit of it I don't see why you should be so erked about it.

Posted by: Gilman Grundy (AKA FOARP) | May 22, 2012 11:20:07 AM

Mea culpa again, EJM has it right but I would qualify it in two ways. First, to my knowledge, I did not invite a friend to the park. But, if I did, that is personal information and should be deleted from the comment section. Second, I believe the original hypothetical cannot be interpreted to mean the student did not have a compelling excuse -- double bypass, flash blog mob, another meeting with someone more important. Instead the jilted professor just did not like the excuse. See classbias.blogspot.com

Posted by: Jeff | May 22, 2012 7:41:50 AM

The problem with Jeff's approach is that it treats law-professors and Walmart employees as servants and not individuals with a variety of conflicting priorities. Or put differently, Jeff feels quite happy to subordinate the practical interests of those he believes are paid to serve him to his own interests.

If Jeff and a friend agree to meet in the park, then Jeff has a reason to meet the friend (the agreement), which means that Jeff ought to go to the park. Jeff has made a practical commitment that binds both himself and his friend, and can't just blow off the meeting for no reason. Similarly, if the student blows off the meeting with the law professor for no (good) reason, the student acts rudely.

A final thought that Jeff doesn't consider is that rescheduling may not be as easy as Jeff thinks: not only does one student have claims upon our time, but so do others, and so does our dean and the rest of the faculty through our various service obligations to the law school.

I can understand why someone who likes to treat Walmart employees in a rude and dismissive manner might treat others in the same way. But suggesting that it is the law professor's sense of self importance, rather than simply the fact that the professor, like the employee, claims moral standing as a rational creature equal to that of Jeff (rather than subordinate to that of Jeff), seems to ignore Jeff's own sense of self-importance as "consumer of services and so entitled to subordinate anyone I think I'm paying."

I think it important to recognize that the no-show/no-reason problem is primarily one of etiquette rather than some major moral failing. My preferred approach would be to remind the student of that by sending her a short email suggesting that the polite and professional response to missing a meeting is to apologize and preferably warn in advance with some good reason.

Posted by: EJM | May 22, 2012 5:44:36 AM

What about when the professor sets a meeting, then doesn't show? This happened to me several times. Should you really hold it against them? I never did, and I'm very happy I wasn't so petty. Things happen. People forget. As long as people aren't being deliberate or flaky, I don't see why you can't look past that one mistake.

Posted by: anon | May 22, 2012 5:33:50 AM

Mea Culpa: I have had second thoughts. Thanks for all the guidance. Over on the Walmart returns personnel website -Wawlmwart -- I have been reminded that their dignity and privacy are in play here and although I did my best not to reveal that I was referring to actual Walmart people as opposed to hypothetical Walmart people, I think it is right that I should not have brought them into the discussion. In fact, here is what should happen in this case. When the student writes the weak excuse the next step, when you see him or her again, is a solid shove and then a statement "I am a law professor and I demand respect." If he or she persists in wanting to meet with you say, "You will have to talk to my secretary!" because surely you have your own private secretary. (You know, she is the one who helps grade the multiple choice exams law profs get from commercial outlines.) Also give him a business card with your information on one side and a photocopy of your elite school law degree on the other so he or she will know who he is messing with and missed it the 8 times you mentioned it in class.
Then I would -- and this is really important-- make an appointment with my doctor and dentist but now show up. I would email them to say I could not keep the appointment because I had accepted a position as a summer clerk and I was a visiting professor.
But, that's just what I would do. That is, if I did not forget about it. Bruce, the trolls need a snack once in a while and they are always so easy to feel.

Posted by: Jeff | May 21, 2012 11:35:13 PM

I'm not sure why the sternly worded email is being rejected out of hand as ineffective. I got one of those (actually not an email, I think it may have been over the phone) after missing an appointment as a student, and I've never forgotten it. I think the assumption that the student who misses an appointment for a weak reason also does not care what people think may be unfounded.

Also, it may help to leave anger out of it, and simply view it as useful information: it is unprofessional to miss appointments absent truly extenuating circumstances.

Re: Jeff, remember, don't feed the trolls.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | May 21, 2012 10:36:59 PM

Here is what I propose. I think you should be passive aggressive by ignoring the apology/excuse email. Then when they send a second email requesting an appointment, ignore that one too. Finally if they send a third email requesting an appointment send them an email asking them to send a list of times they would like to meet. Then drag your feet for a week before responding, only to tell them that you're not available on the dates they proposed. Then to be nice, propose the times that are most convenient for you in a very narrow window. Eventually they'll get the point.

They may get aggravated, but so what? I get aggravated at Walmart all the time. So, if I'm the equivalent of a Walmart return person I can do the bare minimum at the slowest pace allowable and the worst that can happen is someone can complain to the manager. So, in this circumstance the student can go complain to the Dean. Of course, that will require the student to make and keep an appointment to meet with the Dean, who is no doubt similarly busy.

By this time, the student will be worn down and hopefully will learn that if they're going to cancel an appointment, it's appropriate to cancel beforehand, not after. The notion that anyone in this day and age can't send an email prior to an appointment being missed is absurd. This is especially the case for 95% of our students who Tweet or Facebook every trip to the restroom and every other moment of their life. Asking for that courtesy is not asking for groveling, and it's not seeming overly important, it's just not being a jerk. Perhaps that makes me fungible, sorta like Jeff's attitude and the attitude of entitled law students.

Posted by: Walmart guy | May 21, 2012 10:07:37 PM

I will weigh in because I was one of the people who reacted in a big way to Professor Hills' post, and I just want to say: no spitballs. I think you're right to feel annoyed and want to set a different precedent. The best way to do so may be including in your syllabus or in an email to your class the point that if someone schedules a meeting with you, they must show up, and if they're unable to make the appointment they should let you know before the allotted time, and preferably by the night before.

If you already do that, though, I'm not sure what consequences to recommend, other than a 2- or 3-strikes rule. Any real consequences threaten to frighten students from making an appointment at all, lest they accidentally sleep through it, forget it, etc.

Posted by: twizzlers | May 21, 2012 9:32:23 PM

While I think Jeff's analogy is ridiculous, I will say I think the particular amount of condemnation the hypothetical student deserves does depend a bit on how the appointment was framed. Did the prof say "Oh, it doesn't matter; I should be in my office all day - how about 11?" Or something similar to imply that setting the time was a convenience but not particularly important? If the latter, the student was still wrong, but I wouldn't be as concerned as their general professionalism and prospects for life as if the prof had made it clear that they were going out of their way for the student.

Posted by: Katie | May 21, 2012 9:24:47 PM

Not kidding. Docs have appointments in order to avoid having lines of patients showing up and waiting all day -- which they do anyway. And they get paid on the basis of patients seen. Law profs do not fit the model at all. Instead they aspire to appear important and productive and, thus, "model" the behavior of people who actually are important. They are particularly good at getting miffed when their importance is not sufficiently signaled by groveling by the students. They are far more like the returns personnel at WalMart and equally fungible.

Posted by: Jeff | May 21, 2012 9:00:33 PM

I sure hope "Jeff" was joking. You don't need an appointment to see a doctor, who by the way does have a 9-5 job to make himself available to see patients. But it does not follow that it is OK to blow an appointment if you make one. In fact, my doctor charges for no-shows.

To Bill, I would certainly not write a recommendation for such a student: if a student is so irresponsible as to blow meetings with professors, he could just as easily blow interviews with judges, meetings with clients, and court appearances. Each of those things, done even once, will land a lawyer in enormous trouble. It is not about whether there are good things that could be said about the person based on other interactions, it is about whether the recommendee is someone you honestly can expect to do a good job. Someone who blows appointments reveals a deep defect in professionalism.

In some sense, I get the feeling that Bill is annoyed but thinks that a blown meeting is not really a huge deal -- so that any kind of punishment is too "harsh" for him to really stick to. I strongly disagree with that. Not only is non-prompt rescheduling not too harsh, it is inadequate.

Posted by: TJ | May 21, 2012 8:23:17 PM

I think the student's only mistake was assuming he or she was required to offer an excuse. This is because there is a different perspective from which to look at the story. The student believes you have a 9-5 job and a significant part of it is to be available to students. All an appointment means is that you are not out in the lounge gabbing it up. Thus, you have done the student no special service -- available is what you are paid to be. Consequently, not showing may not seem like a big deal and is unlike a case in which the perception is that the other party has actually done something special in order to meet. Second, I wonder why the professor thinks he deserves any explanation at all. Whatever the student was doing was more important to the student than meeting with the professor. What would be the reasoning behind thinking an explanation beyond that obvious one is owed. You do not need an appointment to return something to WalMart. On what basis is a professor any different? Having said all that, it really pisses me off when that happens. And, that's why I eventually had to resign my position in the returns department of WalMart. The company flatly refuse to acknowledge I was special status and require customers to return by appointment. only.

Posted by: Jeff | May 21, 2012 6:40:17 PM

Good grief. Be an adult and expect the same from adult students.

Posted by: Rich Mountains | May 21, 2012 6:24:05 PM

I was trying to be more lawprof-like by leaving all my typos in, Dave. Then you say it was a mistake? Great. So now I look like as big a doofus as you. Thanks, pal.

Posted by: shg | May 21, 2012 6:06:12 PM

I'm a recent grad, I thought professors didn't really want to hear about my diarrhea/family issue/bad day that made me miss one meeting/class/clinic? I guess I should have been sending much longer, groveling emails.

Posted by: anon | May 21, 2012 5:52:57 PM

Good lord. Just re-read my comment. The sentence that begins "As in some many things..." is full of typos. I won't bother dragging out the gory details, but hopefully you got the point anyway.

Posted by: dave hoffman | May 21, 2012 5:51:10 PM

I began a fine system with criminal clients back in the late 1980s, who where they were "fined" $500 for a missed meeting and could not get another meeting until they paid the fine. It wasn't about professionalism, but responsibility, there choices had consequences.

While you can't fine a student, you could require them to write a short paper (or something similar) about the impact of failing to fulfill their responsibility by showing up at meetings. The point isn't to deny them access to their professor, but like a well-crafted sentence, deterrence and rehabilitation.

Posted by: shg | May 21, 2012 5:31:06 PM

I think that the problem is that the kind of student who would be most likely to take a tough-love email to heart is the kind of student who either won't miss the meeting or will provide a very, very professional email and excuse if they do. As in some many things, people with bad judgment often do so in many parts of their lives - and the ability to internalize advice is one of them.
I usually tell people who've missed a meeting to come to office hours - Katie's solution.

Posted by: dave hoffman | May 21, 2012 5:21:27 PM

If you don't mind being interrupted, I'd tell them the times you're normally in your office and say it's their responsibility to drop in and find you at a time you're free, or that they have to come during scheduled office hours and take their chances that you'll be busy with other students. That seems like it'll get the message across that you're not willing to reserve time for them that they don't respect without requiring you to give them a stern talking-to.

Posted by: Katie | May 21, 2012 4:48:08 PM

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