In 1980, A.K. Verma got a job with the Central Public Works Department as an assistant executive electrical engineer. A decade later, he requested some of his accrued leave days. He hasn’t yet returned to work. In fact, he was finally fired Thursday. Thursday, January 8, 2015. The Indian civil servant remained on the payroll but hadn’t been to work for a quarter century. Verma’s sacking coincides with my recent meditations on course policies and syllabus construction. Some colleagues have been reading along and asked why I haven’t really addressed the issue of attendance. Taking attendance in a college course is Mickey Mouse. It’s bush league. It’s yet another symptom of college-as-extension-of-adolescence. It ineffectively prepares students to fulfill expectations of the working world. And it’s frequently mandated by administrators.
RETENTION’S SLIPPERY SLOPE
Folks above my pay grade on the academic totem pole hope that a strict reporting of attendance will result in retention. You can hardly blame them since it’s significantly cheaper to keep a sophomore than to recruit a freshman.
Teacher notes that Mary has missed three class periods. Teacher reports Mary to the Office of Academic Success (insert your institution’s euphemism here). Your College’s version of a Truancy Coach from said Office contacts the Resident Director of Mary’s dorm. The R.D. contacts the Resident Assistant on Mary’s hall. The R.A. knocks on Mary’s door and sniffs for drugs, offers a shoulder to cry on, suggests visits to the counseling service, tutoring center, health provider, and professor’s office.
But nobody tells Mary’s mom, of course. According to FERPA (The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act), college students are responsible adults. Mary gets to decide who does and doesn’t receive information about her academic performance. And she surely doesn’t want Mom privy to this sort of nonsense.
Your College wants Mary’s Mom’s money. But its employees can’t talk to Mary’s Mom about the issues which jeopardize its collection. They might hope a brigade of Student Service workers will cultivate Mary’s sense of adult obligation. But positive connections with professors and coursework are more likely agents of maturity (and retention). In short, your attendance philosophy actually matters.
THE WORTH OF STUDENT WORK
When I read about Mr. Verma’s… um… sabbatical, I wondered “What in the world does the Central Public Works Department do?” I mean, if they (a) don’t notice Verma’s absence or (b) can get along for years without him, does the CPWD actually accomplish work of any importance? Is anyone outside the CPWD affected by its achievement? Is the CPWD even necessary?
Now turn those same questions on Mary and her class. If she doesn’t turn in her essay, who cares? Does anyone else – inside or outside the class – need her? Does anyone view her contributions as necessary? If the answer to these questions is “no,” chances are the professor’s attendance policy is primarily punitive. Or perhaps it closes a loophole of indemnity in a way that chiefly benefits the institution. But it misses opportunities to instruct and retain.
My attendance policy is this: Miss any class you want to. As many classes as you want to. But if we do something in class (take a quiz, hang lights, position microphones, make speeches) and you’re not there… congratulations, you’ve just earned yourself a nothing. Make-up exams are for cosmetologists. Everything else in the grade book just becomes more important to compensate.
STRATEGIC ABSENCE, VALUABLE ACTIVITY
Won’t that encourage folks to skip days when no activity is planned? Maybe. But, first, students have to find those days. That is to say, they have actually read the syllabus (including the clunky, algebraic parts about weighted averages) and intentionally choose low-impact days. Honestly, isn’t that the way we schedule absences in the adult working world? An accountant doesn’t take leave in March. That’s the height of the tax season. He takes leave in the doldrums of May. But he does take leave. Do we give students practice in similar strategizing?
Furthermore, such a policy motivates me to actually plan and assess valuable class activities. Just in case you’re in any doubt, 19-year-olds seldom identify lectures as “valuable class activities.”
Admittedly such undertakings may arise more organically from the syllabi of studio-sized media production courses. In a typical intro class meeting, I might show three video clips to punctuate a lecture-y discussion of camera movement. Then I divide twenty students into groups. Each group gathers around a camera. Each person in the group completes five pans and five tilts. I wander around the studio with a clipboard. Ta-da… an assessed activity. And, by a not-so-subtle coincidence, skills practice as proof of attendance.
“For next Thursday’s assignment, your group will submit a one-minute video story that includes eight specified camera moves,” I tell them. This follow-up is the clincher. It makes the competent contribution of each germane to all. Homework such as this makes Mary’s class attendance valuable to someone other than Mary. And if the assignment concludes with peer assessment, then Mary understands she is responsible to persons and not chiefly to policies. Her work (and thus her attendance and retention) matters – not only to faceless university bean-counters – but to students with whom Mary shares lunch. If she starts skipping class, there are now five other people with her cellphone number who will actually call or visit the girl. (Yes, I do know that there are perils to group work. I assure you, every professor of Digital Filmmaking steps in those steamy piles of drama. But let’s leave them for another day, shall we?)
RÉSUMÉS, NOT TRANSCRIPTS
Expanding accountability even further – beyond the classroom – tends to make students even more serious about attendance. Imagine your final assignment is participation in a competitive night of presentations showcasing the semester’s best from multiple sections and professors of a Speech course. Or a public reading of the three best screenplays from your writing class. Or a communal screening of all final video projects. Or a requirement that students enter the films they’ve made into one or more regional film festivals. Or simply the announcement that you’re on the lookout for summer interns to assist with your current research project.
Transcending mere assignment, a philosophy of “important attendance” offers students something they cherish even more than grades: fatter, shinier résumés.
A last word about working-world attendance: life is unpredictable; resurrect the pop quiz. Five minutes, five questions at the top of the hour (really cuts down on late arrivals). Swap papers to grade (because more assessment doesn’t have to mean more work for professors).
“The answer to number three is ‘intercutting’,” you announce.
Joe raises his hand. “The paper I’m grading says ‘montage.’ Is that close enough?”
“What’s the difference between the two terms, Susan?” you ask. Susan looks at you dumbly. After all, it wasn’t her paper. She didn’t ask the question. But she stutters and offers half an answer. “Help her out, Marcel,” you say. And suddenly, a discussion of last night’s reading swirls around you. Ta-da… another assessed activity. And, by a not-so-subtle coincidence, knowledge exchange as proof of attendance.
Passive lecture consumers may say “I was present.” Engaged students might, instead, claim, “I was here… and it mattered.”