Professors Cancelling Classes for Conferences

Bobby Chesney poses a question for students: “does it bother you when a professor cancels a class in order to attend a conference or workshop?” This solicits an interesting discussion in the comments section and a response from Yale Law student Will Baude, who contends teaching is a “sacred trust” and that there should be a “strong presumption against sacrificing class” to achieve “professional ambitions.”

Teaching is already neglected in hiring-and-firing-and-tenure decisions far more than it ought to be by any right. Professors have monetary and other incentives to skimp on teaching class and put more effort into writing articles, lobbying students to place them, consulting, trying cases in their spare time, and otherwise living the sort of active scholarly, lawyerly, or intellectual life that legal academia makes possible.

Michael Froomkin, a Miami U lawprof, argues that allowing professors to attend conferences and such is necessary, especially for non-elite universities, in order to attract the best teachers. He hopes this is balanced by the fact that “it’s in the students’ interest to be taught and supervised by people who are involved in new and important things things in an active way.”

One should hope. While my perspective, as one who taught many years at schools less prestigious than Miami, much less Yale, is that teaching is indeed secondary in most institutions to scholarship and, increasingly, grant seeking. Still, especially for professors under the burden of 4/4 teaching loads, attending conferences is a vital way of recharging one’s intellectual batteries and reconnecting with scholarship in one’s field.

The mythical case of the old professor teaching from yellowed notes crafted decades earlier when he was still seeking tenure is thankfully much more rare in practice than in the popular mind. Still, there is a tendency to find a comfort zone based on the ideas extant when one was a graduate student and struggling assistant professor and to stop growing. Indeed, far too many professors stop going to conferences altogether once they’ve achieved tenure. That’s a far more serious problem, in my view, than cancelling a couple of classes a semester.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. S7 says:

    It depends if it’s one of the professors Bush had hired at CIA because Rice leaked the covert WMD program at CIA.

  2. just me says:

    I think this is one of those “it depends” type answers.

    As a student, I will be honest, I don’t think I would have cared about class being cancelled for a conference, and if I leaned one way or the other, it would probably be “fine” with the class being cancelled.

    But as a parent, looking to pay the tuition for classes on the horizon, I don’t think I am entirely okay with it, if it happens often. I think there is a fine line between proffessional development and abuse of position. I think much more than two cancelled classes a semester is problematic.

    Although, when I was in college-not a large one but not a small one either, basically a midsized state university, proffessors who knew they were attending a conference often had other proffessors cover thei classes for them. Looking back, I honestly don’t recall too many outright cancelled classes-there were some, but not so many I would think there had been a problem.

    It has been almost 15 years since I finished my masters, so things may have changed some on campus, I know the tuition has gone up significantly since then.

  3. I don’t remember any classes cancelled in my undergraduate or law school due to conferences. I remember just a couple cancelled due to sickness. There was one civil procedure class in law school that was cancelled, or more accurately the class was made optional and the location moved. The professor was doing a pro bono case for the ACLU and had a hearing set at the class time. It was if a march should be allowed or not, so there was a minimal amount of time to go through the steps. So the student’s could see the proff in action as the alternative to the class.

  4. Some classes are easier to cover than others; for example, I could get a colleague to teach my American government class, since I have colleagues that teach that class regularly and others have enough knowledge of the topic that they’d do fine. Get away from a lecture-based gen-ed or core class, though (or the 1L equivalent), and a sub would be pretty much useless because they simply wouldn’t have the detailed knowledge to keep the course on track. Universities by and large just don’t have that sort of overlap in research and teaching areas.