Friday, December 16, 2011


I’ve never really come to terms with taking attendance in college classes. Maybe it’s me.

Yes, there are good pragmatic, and even academic , reasons to take attendance. Financial aid rules require noting a “last date of attendance” for students on aid who drop classes; you can only get that right if you bothered taking attendance. (“Dunno – maybe Octoberish?” won’t fly.) Financial aid is important enough to both colleges and students that one does not dismiss this lightly.

Attendance obviously matters for any class involving group work. If half the group doesn’t show up on a given day, that leaves those who did show up in a bad spot. (That’s especially true if you have stable groups over time, as in the case of group presentations.)

There’s also a reasonable argument to the effect that showing up for class on time is analogous to showing up for work on time. Yes, some workplaces are more flexible than they once were, but even that has limits. (In my observation, the flexibility is usually in exchange for more work – the old “you can work any sixty hours a week you want.”) We teach by what we do; if we want to graduate the kind of students who can be depended on, the argument goes, we need to inculcate the habits of promptness in the course of what we do. That means requiring students to show up for class.

More recently I’ve been confronted with arguments from social justice. This argument relies on data showing that attendance in class correlates strongly with passing grades – one of the great “no shit” findings of social science – and suggests that “attendance optional” policies wind up defaulting to pass rates that correlate too closely to economic class. If we want to raise the chances of the least advantaged, this argument goes, we have to push a bit. That means requiring everyone to show up.

I can concede some truth in each of those, but somehow, it still just doesn’t feel right. (Full disclosure: I have the same misgivings about “college success” courses.) At some level, especially outside of group-based courses, I can’t help but think of class as a resource that students are given access to in order to succeed at their courses. Students who take advantage of that resource will tend to do better than those who don’t. Figuring that out is part of the process. If some student is a gifted autodidact, I can’t help but shrug and say more power to him.

My ambivalence is compounded by online classes. What exactly does ‘attendance’ mean in the context of an asynchronous online course? It’s getting harder not to notice that the trend towards more prescriptive attendance policies for onsite classes is occurring at the same time as the explosion of online classes, for which there isn’t even a place to be.

Of course, attendance policies carry with them the inevitable haggling over “excused” absences. In my teaching days, I hated that haggling enough that I just banned it; instead, I gave the students a set number of “cuts” they could have without penalty, and I counted the top three out of four tests. My argument to them was that in any given workplace, nearly everybody got some level of benefit of the doubt, but that it was finite; miss too much, even for good reasons, and people just get tired of hearing it. The great relief of online courses, paradoxically enough, is that they curtail the perceived need for surveillance (i.e. excuse verification) even more; either you got the work done or you didn’t.

This may wind up being one of those cases in which I just have to swallow my own misgivings and roll with larger pragmatic considerations. (Certainly I have no intention of messing with Title IV.) But it still doesn’t sit right.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a way to satisfy the need for Last Date of Attendance and suchlike without getting too infantilizing? Is there a better way?