I don’t suppose you can ever guess what will turn someone’s crank. Witness the explosion of interest in an essay about something as vanilla as attendance. The questions swelling my inbox after a previous post about this post boil down to two issues: the burden of mandatory reporting and student athletes.

A few readers reminded me that retention isn’t the only reason they’re compelled to report attendance figures. Some financial aid – especially that which benefits veterans – is contingent on (sometimes pro-rated according to) attendance. I do not live in a universe free from governmental information gathering. I’m sorry if I made it seem otherwise. Yes, I report those statistics, too. But I collect the data from quiz scores (meant to spar review and discussion) and from (what I hope are) pedagogically meaningful assignments and exercises. I do not “call roll.” Calling roll is an empty throwback to elementary school. It constitutes a missed teaching opportunity.

Other (frustrated) colleagues told me tales of woe about student athletes who missed as many as 20% of the semester’s class meetings. Like those professors, I cringe when we make the post-season. I wear school colors to class and yell at the occasional tourney game. But I’m torqued by every successful step forward in the brackets. Every win extends the streak of class absences.

But absences aren’t a problem for me. If students see the value of coming to class, they come to class. If they don’t want to come to class, they needn’t. I don’t make a distinction between the student who plays an away game, the one who returns late from break in Vail, or the sick one who sleeps through an alarm.

Let’s imagine they all three (the athlete, the skier, and the sleeper) miss class on the day one of ten quizzes is given. I won’t re-test any of them. They can’t make up the quiz. Instead, these three will find their quiz average divided by nine. Their classmates’ grade will be divided by ten. The practical advantage of coming to class is that the influence of each assignment is lessened. If you can’t be present, you had best be better.

That’s my corollary of a maxim eloquently offered by author Neil Gaiman.  About 14 minutes into his 2012 commencement address Gaiman suggests that to succeed professionally, one must be any two of three things: (1) talented, (2) pleasant, and (3) punctual.  “People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time.  People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good and they like you.  And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you,” he opines.  Perhaps that allows consideration of a more complicated absence scenario.

Naj is out for three days (again, the reason doesn’t matter). But Naj is part of a group. And the group has a short film due Friday. Some of the project work is done in Wednesday’s class (which she missed). Some of it is assigned as homework. Her absence could well impact the group’s work and grade.

The tendency of student groups is often to divide responsibility not only evenly, but also interchangeably. That’s understandable but probably immature. An editor needn’t be present on a location shoot. A scriptwriter shouldn’t be on a scoring stage. The trick for those who oversee a lot of group work is often helping students to see that their contributions complement a whole without being identical.  Perhaps a group contract can help in that endeavor.

Taking responsibility for her absences, Naj should volunteer for tasks her attendance allows. Maybe that requires an understanding of a job’s component slivers. She might not have time to edit, but it’s possible she could be responsible for ingesting footage from memory cards, organizing it in server bins, and labeling it for the editor’s ease of use.

Identifying possible contributions in the face of absence doesn’t come naturally. Professors have to be relentless coaches, persistently asking “What pieces of it can you do?” Otherwise, students tend to accept a defeatist’s binary view of their own attendance. We must drown out the default “I can’t because…” with the alternate configurations an experienced eye can see.

I’ve seen some motivated-but-sometimes-absent students (a basketball player and an ROTC officer come to mind) make that approach work for them. But I’ve also seen disengaged students point to their absences as excuses for limited contribution. In neither case, however, is roll call an assessment factor. Instead, their grade is informed (though not entirely determined) by peer evaluation. The people most affected by Naj’s absences get to tell her whether she is ably shouldering her priorities and responsibilities.

This assessment offers both Naj and her classmates a taste of the adult world. It lets them practice the negotiation which characterizes professional relationships. It makes them rank their own priorities – instead of begrudgingly mimicking those of the professor or institution.

You have to take roll. I have to take roll.  But we don’t have to link roll-taking to the benefits and responsibilities of attendance.  And we don’t have to arbitrarily punish students for not valuing our (admittedly brilliant) lectures. We don’t have to dock them letter grades for missing more than three class periods. What workplace does that? We can, instead, help them approach a work-life balance. We can prepare them to be valuable employees who also take family leave days.

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