Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

Dear Student: Sorry, You’re Too Late to Sign Up for My Class

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No matter where they teach, what they teach, or who takes their classes, college instructors have a common pet peeve. Every semester, it’s a good bet that at least one student will try to enter a course weeks late, swearing he or she needs it to graduate.

Last week one professor shared such a request with me: “I am a senior Psychology student looking to add your class. I understand it is really late … but I need the credits to graduate.”

Some professors tell me that when they get a request like this, they have to fight asking the obvious question: Where the heck were you weeks ago? And they have to listen to students swear on all they believe to be holy and true that they they’ll do whatever it takes to catch up and excel.

If you’ve been teaching for any significant amount of time, the altruistic part of yourself might be struck with a bolt of guilt here. Maybe you envision this young person, who had been destined to graduate from college since his time in the womb, falling short of his degree, all because you wouldn’t let him into your class at the eleventh hour. Ultimately, you’re balancing that vision against the possibility that professorial tough love could teach a young adult lessons about planning and responsibility.

So there are a number of reasons why professors bristle. Late-arriving students rarely do well, most professors told me, and it can take a lot of handholding to get them up to speed. And some teachers said that students who enroll because they “need to graduate” are less likely to care about the process of learning, and more likely to view the class as a commodity that must buy just to get that degree.

So as with the previous three installments of this series, this week I asked a handful of professors: What email, real or fantasized, would you send to a student who asks to enroll weeks into the semester?

Jenn Sims
adjunct visiting professor of sociology
University of Wisconsin at River Falls

Dear Future Super Senior,

Of course you need my class to graduate. All students need my class, or some other introductory-level social-science course, to graduate. You were told this freshman year and it has been listed on every progress-to-degree report that you have received since then. I think your emotionally manipulative “I need your class to graduate” really means “I put off taking it for four years, irresponsibly forgot to enroll this semester and only just now realized I’m not going to be able to graduate this spring because of my own error.” And while I have the greatest sympathies for any of your relatives who may have already bought tickets and made plans to attend commencement, there is a reason that classes begin when they do: because a full semester is needed to study and master the course content.

So unless the Ministry of Magic is going to give you a Time Turner so you can go back and complete all the readings, activities, and assignments we have covered since the start of term, no, you may not enroll in my class at this late date. Poor planning on your part (or on your advisor’s part, if you prefer to levy the blame on someone else) does not necessitate emergency action on my part. You are, as they say, a day late and a dollar short; though in this case “day” means month.

Kevin Heffernan
associate professor of film and media arts
Southern Methodist University

Dear Student,

Thank you for your email.

The course is already over-enrolled, with 43 students on the roster and an enrollment cap of 40. In addition, the add/drop deadline passed last Monday, a date that our academic calendar reveals to be the beginning of the third week of class. A student enrolling in the course now has already missed almost 200 pages of reading and the first short paper assignment.

Were I even to provide it, I can’t see how my request for an administrative override of the add/drop policy would be granted. The comments that you were “screwed by your advisor” and that “the lady who works in the department office didn’t know what was going on” seem not to square with my experience teaching in our department for five years. A more likely culprit, doubtlessly familiar to you through coursework in our department, is unconscious fear—in this case, fear of graduation, which is deeply repressed but which is finding its inevitable expression though what Freud described as an unconscious desire for punishment by a tyrannical superego, what Allan Schore called “dissociated shame,” and what Karl Menniger called a “guilt substitute,” in this case the administrative deadlines of the university.

This course is offered in both summer school sessions, so I suggest you enroll for the first summer session and earn your degree in August. Many students finish their degree in the summer, and there is no shame in doing so. I sincerely wish you the best of luck in beginning the next phase of your life journey, and I assure you that life gets better and that change and growth are not as scary as they may seem to you right now.

Angela Jackson-Brown
assistant professor of English
Ball State University

Dear psychology student:

My first instinct is to tell you “no, you have missed too much time to add my class now.” But I am going to reconsider and say “yes, you may join the class.” Who am I to penalize you for “forgetting” to register for a class you need to graduate? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I knew you wouldn’t get to make that big walk come May because I decided to be such a stickler to department and university rules. So, consider this your lucky day/week/month/year. However, there is a stipulation. One itty, bitty stipulation.

So far, my students have read two novels, five short stories, and six poems. They’ve taken ten pop quizzes, prepared an extensive annotated bibliography, written one 15-page paper and two three-page, short-response papers. They have participated in approximately 120 hours’ worth of class time and spent countless hours doing homework and preparing for class discussions. Their next assignment—the midterm—happens in three days.

So if you are serious about joining my class, you have three days to get caught up. A student worker will be available to administer the pop quizzes, and all of the other assignments will be due on my desk no later than the hour before the midterm is slated to begin, three days from now. Do all of those things, and you are welcome to join. Oh, and if you do decide to join, you are out of absences, so please, stay healthy for the remainder of the semester (and don’t go killing off any grandmothers).

Best always,
Nothing in life is free (not even chances)

Mark Naison
professor of African-American studies and history
Fordham University

Dear Student:

When applying for one of my classes, especially one as popular as “From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop,” you should be borrowing from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what my class can do for you, but what you can do for my class.”

So, what can you do for my class? What can you, as a psychology major, bring to a study of popular music? If you can write a 1,500-word essay comparing the psychology of people who enjoy rock-and-roll with those who enjoy hip-hop, I will admit you to the class, provided your essay is written in complete sentences and has a bibliography and footnotes.

However, those approaching me looking for customer service are not likely to get a warm welcome. I value students who have a true passion for the subjects I teach and think they can add something to the experience.

Linda Villarosa
assistant professor of media and communications arts
City College of New York

Dear Psych Student:

"There are no accidents." That's a quote famously attributed to Dr. Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis.

If you'd like to add my class, please write a 700-word analytical essay, using Freud's theory of the power of the mind's unconscious desires to explain why you missed the deadline to enroll–which is clearly and prominently stated on all university materials, including the public website. You have until the end of the day, 11:59 p.m. If you deliver a well-researched, well-argued essay, on deadline, I welcome you into the course.

Danielle L. McGuire
associate professor of history
Wayne State University

Dear Student,

So, it's three weeks into the semester and you want to add my class or else you can't graduate.

I will allow you to register for my class only if you agree to the following terms:

1) You meet with me in person right away to go over the syllabus so I can show you just how far behind you are. During this meeting you need to make a plan to get the books and do the reading and complete the writing assignments that are already overdue. I need to agree to your plan of action.

2) You maintain perfect attendance. Since you already missed six classes, you have no wiggle room at all this semester to take a day off or have car trouble. You're going to have to make sure you're in your seat for every class.

3) When you are in class you must be 100-percent present—no phones, no tablets, no computers, no secret headphone into one ear, and no sleeping. I want to see you taking notes and participating with your colleagues in class discussion.

Any violation of these terms will result in me giving you a very poor or failing grade, which will make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to graduate on time.

Email me at once to make an appointment and we can get started.

Takiyah Nur Amin
assistant professor of dance
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Dear Student:

Congratulations on getting to this point in your education. Please note the following:

Today marks Week 7 of the semester. We are well past the drop/add period and barreling toward spring break. Your academic advisor should be working with you on taking a summer course or a class next fall to complete matriculation requirements. At this point, I cannot simply let you in to the course, because we are well into the material and I have no mechanism by which to add you.

In the future, if you need to request a permit for a class I hope your reason for the request can be a little more compelling then “let me in so I can graduate.” Most of us would like to have students in class who have some interest in the content. This is especially true if you are asking for entry to a course that would be an elective for you. My goal in the classroom is to help you learn, not to help you complete a checklist to exit the institution. Sigh.

Good luck in your endeavors.

Confused and Tired Professor Who Fields Lots of Requests for Permits Each Semester From Students Who Don’t Give an Actual Hoot About What I Teach

David J. Leonard
associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University at Pullman

Dear Student,

Do you show up for a date one hour late and say “Sorry, but there’s a good reason”? Do you show up to a movie after 30 minutes just to catch the end? Surely you wouldn’t ask the director to catch you up on what you missed. But I know that’s exactly what would be happening if someone put a spell on me and forced me to put you in my class. Otherwise, that ain’t gonna happen.

My only suggestion, McFly, is that you call Doc from Back to the Future. If you can somehow get a DeLorean to take you back several weeks so you can enroll in the class like everyone else, then maybe you have a chance to graduate.

I will be teaching next semester. I believe registration for next semester starts in a few weeks. The fact that we are closer to that period than to registration for my current class says everything about why the answer is no. It is no today, and it will be no tomorrow, so you can stop writing the “Please, I will do anything!” emails.

Enjoy Back to Future and free time.

Lisa Guerrero
associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University

Dear Student,

First, let me say, congratulations on graduating! What an accomplishment! And how exciting that it has come as a complete surprise. It’s nice that your advisor kept it a total secret from you. What’s life without the element of surprise? Especially for such a huge event in your life? How fun.

Now, assuming that your advisor did, in fact, actually advise you, I’m guessing you were aware that you needed some final credits to graduate way before the sixth week of the term.

You may want to rethink how you approach a professor to get into her class. Maybe something like: “This class looks really interesting, and I have been wanting to take it for a while but it never fit in my schedule. I apologize for the lateness of my request, but my advisor and I were trying to determine what my best course of action was.” Saying “I need your class to graduate” is basically the academic equivalent of saying to a prospective prom date, “I’m really not into you, but you’re all that’s left, and I just really want to go to prom.”

The fact of the matter is I don’t enroll students in my class after the second week. Of course, by denying your request I am still doing you a great favor (just not the one you were counting on): I’m teaching you that when things are really important, you need to act like they’re really important and have all your ducks in a row. Having your ducks in a row won’t always guarantee that things will work out, but it will guarantee that it won’t be because of you. This time, it’s because of you.

Enjoy Summer School

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