As another semester comes to a close, I collapse into my office chair and let out a deep exhale. My loud sigh is fashioned from a recipe of one-part exhaustion and one-part elation, for even though I have been teaching college English for over 10 years, I always experience a little shock come culmination time. That pinch myself, how in the hell did I make it, thank goodness they actually made it feeling, all while the black hood of classism and academic achievement hangs on the back of my Humanities office door, always manages to find me the last week of the spring semester. I have to believe the heaviness is because of the hood.
Academic hoods are classic tokens of graduation and vary based on the degree and school of study. Some find them to be comical, especially when paired with flat mortarboards or rounded tam hats. As for me, no amount of optimism and wishful thinking can change the fact that the hood bears a remarkable resemblance to the same attire worn by the grim reaper. What better way to depict one’s entrance into the real world than with the death of life as one currently knows it to be. That’s the irony with new beginnings—they all must come as a result of an ending.
For my students, I try to remind them that graduation marks the end of a season where doors will be held open for them. Whether it be the tutoring center door, the counseling door, the gym door or a professor’s office door, college is the last stop where people are assembled in a communal space all with the shared goal of opening locked doors.
It’s the reason I chose to teach at a community college with the mission of open access, but not open exit. It’s the reason I proclaim it a civil right that everyone be afforded a quality education and upon my own graduation, I knew I wanted to be part of that civil rights movement. This is also the reason I have taken a controversial approach to my teaching pedagogy by refusing to lock students out of my class. Even my closest colleagues will likely disagree with my willingness to allow students to come inside no matter how late they show up, but my reasoning stems from the same reason most professors lock their doors.
A classroom without respect is nothing more than a pit of snakes, full of disorder and lawlessness. As a professor, I am not only there to teach the curriculum, but often a college mission will require me to help students become more civically responsible. To me, that means moving from an egocentric point of view to a more socio-centric approach, considering at all times what is better for the collective good.
At the course level, I also have to make sure that the environment is conducive to all people being able to learn, and this is where my philosophy becomes debatable. Most professors refuse entrance into their class after the start time to avoid the creation of the snake pit. Rightfully so, professors find tardiness to be disorderly, disruptive, and disrespectful to the professor as well as the other students.
I can appreciate this sentiment, especially as I envision a student loudly entering the class, fumbling with items as well as the iced coffee they still managed to stop and get all while offering up an animated “excuse” for why they are so late. That student should indeed be left outside of the educational expressway to drink their Venti Mocha Frappuccino and figure out the meaning of life. That student, however, is not the one I am opening the door for.
I allow students to come to class, even after the proverbial bell has rung, because I struggle with a different type of pit. I struggle with the pitfalls associated with literally or figuratively locking students out, and in turn suggesting that if you don’t come early enough to receive all of the knowledge there is no point getting any of it. In an institution designed to promote a love of learning, I am hesitant to enact such punitive justice that addresses the student’s immediate misstep, but does not consider the bigger picture.
That picture includes many marginalized students who have been locked out of a worthwhile education for far too long, many first generation students destined to change the legacy of their entire family by finishing college, and many professors who spend their office hours explaining to students information they missed behind the professor’s own principled refusal to let a student enter the class even 10 minutes late.
While I do not wish to place a value limit on knowledge, I do place a high value on my time. My office hours can be better spent, and as a result, I allow students to still enter my class even after my lecture has already begun. This does not mean that in coming late their grade won’t be impacted or they won’t potentially miss an opening activity or quiz worth scored points. This also does not mean that I will allow them to come inside being noisy or distracting. I have a specific requirement on how someone should enter my class and a zero tolerance for tardiness on exam days. We role-play this requirement during the first weeks of school and we discuss the individual and social responsibility associated with coming to class on time.
My policy does, however, mean that my students, some of the most vulnerable populations in higher education, can and should come to class to soak up as much information as their minds can possibly absorb. Missing the bus, being the sole provider for younger siblings, working two jobs and more will not be allowed to stand in the way of burgeoning scholastic potential. When a younger brother has a day off from school, bring him to college with you. When a babysitter calls in sick, grab your baby, your books, and your diaper bag and still come to English 110.
In talks with other people in academia, it seems my philosophy on late students is in the minority. I can’t help but wonder if my own existence as an African-American woman contributes to my resistance toward locking people out of knowledge. I can’t separate who I am from the approaches I have to teaching. In the same way that I am often the only African-American professor in the English Department, in a committee, or in the room, I find myself looking for keys to unlock doors in every hallway that I enter.
Once in my classroom, students can attest to the fact that my academic rigor is matched only by my commitment to methodologies rooted in student success. My grading style has also been described as hard, but fair, and since changing to my current late student policy I actually have more students making it on time even though they know the door will be open and if it’s locked they always know they can knock.
It’s irrelevant how well one teaches if the students are not in the room. I’ve learned I can be a snake charmer luring them with my song, or even the grim reaper in my dark hood dancing to my pomp and circumstance. But after all the degrees are framed and the accolades have collected dust, I would much rather be known as a locksmith, exhaling at the dawn of each summer and unlocking doors previously left shut.