Attending to attendance



Sound pedagogy involves communication, not just of the ideas we teach, but also of the expectations we have and the demands we make. Especially with regard to policies that can incur a tension-filled backlash, a few minutes of explanation can help students approach our classes in the spirit in which we offer them.

One issue where “buy-in” can be particularly tricky is attendance. At large urban institutions like mine, where many students live off campus and cannot merely roll out of bed, don some approximation of near-appropriate dress, and drag themselves 100 yards to an adjoining classroom building, arrival at any point during a 75-minute period is often presented as a feat of epic proportions.

To those facing such daunting odds, the syllabus item “Attendance is required” is a slap in the face, as praise for the heroic has been replaced by sanction for failing the obligatory.

Here, then, we need an explanation, or better yet, a clarifying discussion. The one I have in mind starts with an admission: There are certainly bad reasons for requiring attendance. Perhaps the worst is the one I hear most often, “If they don’t come, they won’t learn the course material!” Students know better than anyone what’s wrong with this reasoning, and with very little prodding they’ll raise its two principal flaws.

First, they will tell you that in some cases the statement is simply untrue, and when it is, it’s hard to imagine why they should come to class. If professors cannot offer a meaningful learning experience, one that adds something to the readings and assignments, then letting their students spend class time doing something—anything—else is an act of compassion with no educational downside.

Second, if it is true that not showing up inhibits learning, then—as students are quick to point out—their absences will be punished when we assess (via tests and papers) their knowledge. Given that fact, why take additional points off for the causes of their ignorance?

The virtue of this brief discussion is that it paves the way for the crucial question: Why should students have to come to class? Assuming they should be free to reject learning, what would be the source of an obligation not to?

A good way to approach this issue is to ask about our obligation to show up. Students have no problem with that one. “You have a responsibility to create a learning environment; skip class and you shirk that responsibility.” The logic is simple enough.

It’s also, you can then point out, open to extension. To explain why, it’s helpful to backtrack a bit and ask a few very basic questions: “What are the class periods for, anyway? How should they add to the material that you read or the papers that you write?”

If students appear stumped by these questions, ask them to reflect on something that will most assuredly not stump them: “Can you tell me something about the classrooms that have not worked for you?” It shouldn’t take more than about three or four nightmare stories (with non-interactive PowerPoint lectures being the subject of at least two of them) to see a common theme emerge, one that you might subtly tease out by asking, “Why is this conversation—the one we’re having right now—working?”

“You’ve engaged us,” they’ll insist. “In those nightmares, we weren’t part of the process. The subject material was coming to us, but it wasn’t coming from us, or, better yet, through us.”

Okay, they probably won’t say exactly this. All the same, it shouldn’t take much to bring out the key insight: College classrooms work when they take advantage of what they do, which is to put people together, in time and in space. They are meeting places, social places – places that have the potential to offer something you can’t get everywhere: an intersubjective learning experience. (They definitely won’t say that. Still…)

Those failed classrooms? “My hunch,” you can submit, “is that they were emphatically asocial experiences, ones in which the others in the room were of no consequence. And in such instances, what was the purpose of your presence? Why would you leave the solitary comfort of that bed only to form part of a lonely crowd?”

The message here is that the classroom should not be the space where pre-existing knowledge gets transferred from teachers to students. It should, rather, be the space where what counts as knowledge is determined. Drive this home: “On any given day, our subject matter will not be [fill in the topic of the class]; it will be you and [that topic]. We can never know precisely what it will be ahead of time because its meaning will be shaped and formed in the discussions and activities you (yes, and I) will create.”

End here with panache: “On any particular day, if you—any of you—don’t show up, what we all learn will be different. In a sense, then, there are as many teachers in this room—i.e., people with obligations to show up—as there are people. As such, it only makes sense that your grade should reflect not just the learning you’ve received, but also the learning you’ve imparted.

(Here you might throw in a quick aside: “And this explains the penalty for cell phone use too. Texting, after all, is a micro-absence from class.”)

Prepare yourself for objections. “Hey, I didn’t sign up for that kind of obligation!” But they did. Remind them that just by being in college they have agreed to abide by codes of honor and basic standards of conduct. They have accepted that their enrollment is contingent upon upholding rules, such as those on drugs and alcohol. All such policies require their support for a simple reason: They are the foundation of an effective learning environment.

“And so,” you conclude, “is my attendance policy. See you next time.”

Of course, if the class I’ve described doesn’t sound like the one you have in mind, then none of what I’ve just said will be of much use. Neither, I suspect, will an attendance policy.

Author Bio: Peter M. Lindsay is an associate professor of political science and philosophy at Georgia State University.