The Attendance Policy

My students are tasked with writing a persuasive essay for the final paper of their freshman writing courses at Local U.  One of my students, who had a terrible time getting himself up and out of bed in time to make our 8 a.m. class, has decided to write his paper in opposition to the Freshman Writing Program’s attendance policy.

We were discussing the policy one morning and I, as is my wont, was playing devil’s advocate.  Before we were through, my boy challenged me to write a paper in defense of the policy, and his call was quickly picked up by the rest of the class.  Since I never assign my students something I’m not willing to do myself, I accepted the job.  Here’s the first draft of my final paper.  I can tell you right now that I’m not satisfied with quite a lot of paragraph 4.  As always, critique is welcomed.

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Several years ago, the Local University English Department established a strict attendance policy for its Freshman Writing courses.  The policy states that students are allowed three absences without penalty, and that every absence after the third will cost the student one letter grade from his or her final score.  For example, a student who earned an A in the course but  was absent five times will leave the class with a C.  The rule makes no distinction between excused and unexcused absences, and it is up to the individual instructors to monitor student attendance and implement the policy.  Although the rule is met with nearly universal disapproval by students in English 101, I contend that the policy is not only fair, but that it is necessary.

Freshman year is, under the best of conditions, a profoundly difficult time for students.  Most freshman come to college straight from high school and have little, if any, experience in being responsible for themselves.  Most students are living away from home for the first time in their lives and are expected to attend to all of their own needs; to make sure they are out of bed in time to get to morning classes, to see to their own personal care and laundry, and to budget their time so that they can balance the responsibilities of their studies with their desires to experiment with their newly obtained freedom.  Students are often ill-prepared to deal simultaneously with that freedom and the responsibilities of functioning in an environment which demands their mature and attentive participation.  One of the objectives of those who teach freshman in particular is to create an environment where students can learn to balance what they have to do with what they want to do.

Because the successful completion of freshman year is a prerequisite to the successful completion of college, it is important that students be given an opportunity to learn to function as responsible adults as soon as classes begin in September.  The point of freshman classes goes far beyond the material listed on the syllabus; most responsible freshman instructors understand that they are educating their students not only in the discipline of the course, but that they are also teaching their students what is required to successfully navigate college life and, eventually, the professional world which the students will enter after graduation.  Freshman instructors impose deadlines and require that the student demonstrate a great deal of initiative and comprehension of the material because that is what professors expect of their students and employers expect of their employees.  The three-absence attendance policy is a good one in that it reinforces the expectations of the professional world, and is, in fact, more generous than the expectations for attendance at most businesses.  If a teacher failed to teach more than three classes in a fifteen-week semester, for example, it is likely that person wouldn’t be hired back.  The policy reflects the conditions which the students will encounter in their professional lives.

Opponents of the rule claim that it is unfair because it assumes that attendance in the course is necessary for a student to do well.  While it is true that a one or two students come to freshman writing classes with a strong set of foundational skills and perhaps could do well in the course without attending every class, those students are exceptions rather than the norm.  What is true is that many students come from a high school environment where they’ve been told that they are good writers, and they have convinced themselves that that is enough.  While they may have been good writers in a high school setting, the expectations for college-level thinking and writing are quite a bit more rigorous than A-level work in high school.  Those who teach freshman writing know that very few  – if any – students wouldn’t benefit from the work that is done in the classroom, and many of us spend a fair bit of time trying to gently adjust students’ opinions of their own writing skills.  Because clear, thoughtful, and expressive writing is a vital for success in college, it is critical that students begin their college experiences with a strong and comprehensive understanding of the writing process and of how to compose clear, professional, ethical, and well-researched pieces.  The skills necessary for good writing cannot simply be read in a book, memorized, and reproduced; they must be practiced.  Learning how to be analytical and critical of one’s own writing is a process of trial and error that is best understood in the context of group work and guided examples.  Consider a player on a sports team; a player who fails to report to practice sessions won’t be allowed to remain on the team for very long because his or her skills won’t be as polished and consistent as the players who do practice.  Skillful writing is similar in that it is less a knowledge than a practice.  Writing well is far more than understanding the structure of a sentence or proper citation techniques.

Freshman writing classes at LU are about far more than the reading and writing assignments.  The class meetings are often filled with lively discussions about current events, dissection and analysis of readings, and the implications of the use of language.  It is this collaborative effort, where teacher and students interact and learn from one another, that is at the heart of the attendance policy.  If a student thinks of the course only in terms of completing the required assignments – of meeting the page numbers for their papers and of properly citing sources – the student is missing most of the point of 101.  In fact, the greater objective of the freshman writing classes is training in how to think.  My own professional experience has shown me that students benefit greatly from guided class discussions about the material that is assigned.  More often than not, students report to me that they didn’t really “get” the reading assignments until they were discussed in class, and they will write that they see things differently at the end of the course than they did at the beginning.  The instructor is there as a model to the students of what academic inquiry looks and sounds like; the instructor demonstrates active reading and listening skills, opens up new approaches to questions raised by texts, and asks questions designed to get students thinking beyond the obvious concepts of plot and character.  The instructor encourages students to ask their own questions and to wander out beyond their comfort zones of “right and wrong” answers to test the limits of their own thinking.

Students also have the opportunity, in class discussions, to learn from one another.  Each student comes to class with a different set of experiences which color his or her understanding of the material at hand.  Learning to engage peers in academic conversation, to disagree respectfully, to question fruitfully, and to challenge one another’s thinking is a vital part of any college course, but  is especially important in freshman classes.  Students who miss more than three classes are missing opportunities for active engagement.  One cannot learn to participate in academic discourse from a textbook.

Finally, students who disagree with the attendance policy claim that because they are assigned 101 classes and have no choice in which classes they attend, there should be more leniency in the rule.  While there may be some merit in this point – it is true that I, as a mother of two small children, would not choose to take a class that would conflict with my ability to be home after my daughters return from school – it is, at its heart, an insufficient argument.  A student can make use of the University’s add/drop policy to switch sections if he or she finds they have a critical conflict with the course that has been assigned to them.  It is true that the employee does not often get to dictate the terms of his or her working day, and finding a way to balance outside responsibilities with school or work is an important skill that mature adults should possess.  The fact that the policy applies to all 401 courses, regardless of the time of day they’re offered, evens the proverbial playing field for students.  A student in one section doesn’t get to benefit from a more lenient attendance policy than a student in another section whose instructor is insistent that students be in class.  Though many may look upon the policy as being strict and unforgiving, the consistency across the program is fair in that each student is held to the very same standard.

Freshman year is, in my mind, less about academics and more about maturity.  Students come to their first college classes with apprehension and excitement, and it is up to the professors who teach freshman classes to give their students the skills they’ll need to succeed beyond their first year.  The 101 attendance policy is an important part of a student’s development into a responsible, mature professional, and it should continue to be a component of the freshman writing curriculum specifically because it fosters in students a recognition that rules – even the ones that are unpleasant and difficult to follow – are put in place for valid reasons, and often have serious consequences when they’re broken.

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16 Comments

Filed under composition, critical thinking, Local U., student chutzpah, Teaching, The Job, writing

16 responses to “The Attendance Policy

  1. Laurie B

    I’m out and about and like all of your blogs and frequently discuss this blog with my BEW. I’ll have her read this one. BEW came out of a Div III school, The College of Wooster, (Ohio). They have a first year seminar program that is outstanding. You might find a link or if you email, we can send it.

    There are many options, you might find them interesting in content, critical thinking, research, references, documentation and presentation.

    I have never met a grad of this school that was anything less than brilliant.

    If you would like more info about the seminars or COW in general, please let us know.

    Hang in there, other than time your family, the time you spend teaching is the best gift you can give to society.

  2. I realize this isn’t terribly helpful, Mrs. C., but other than a couple of typographical errors, I found nothing wrong with this piece of work. I can see where some wiseass student might think s/he has an opening to challenge you, but s/he would have a weak argument, at best.

  3. OMG, you are sooo much more patient than me.

  4. Oops, I meant “patient than I.” That’s what I get for cutting class…

  5. This is unrelated to your post, but I couldn’t find another way. How do I email a Grammar Wednesday topic to you?

  6. Professor Rob

    Another freshman vs. freshmen error, but that is a minor typo. I just thought it was amusing based on my comment a few days ago.

    In your 4th paragraph, I don’t think you need “What is true is that. . ..”

    I’m not crazy about the use of the word “vital” as a noun. While that is common and almost exclusive to the medical profession, here it feels as if something has been omitted. Like a noun.

    I love your sports practice metaphor. Particularly effective for this group, I suspect.

    There are a few indefinite “it”s, including a few at the beginnings of sentences, but that is one of my pet peeves, not everyone’s.

    Of course, none of those points will mean anything to your students. You are probably more interested in feedback on your points. Overall, I think your arguments are solid. The contention that being required to take a given class should mandate some sort of leniency eludes me. Either that point may need a bit more explanation for an outside reader or that complaint is ridiculous. I presume the latter.

    That being said, may I suggest you close with this?
    “Wah! I gotta go to class! Wah! Wah!”

  7. A few salient points…

    1) Some of your freshmen students are not straight out of high school, there are military veterans attending college who don’t need to be treated as children in need of supervision.

    2) University classes are paid for by students, either outright or through loans and grants, therefore if a student chooses not to attend, it is their loss and should be nobody’s concern but their own. If they have to repeat a class (and pay for it again), that’s their problem, not yours — you and the university get paid whether the student attends your class or not.

    3) Most jobs in the working world start at 9 a.m., not 8 a.m., which poses an undue hardship on students who may be parents of small children in finding day care or getting their children to school safely, while non-student parents have an extra hour in the morning to complete the same sorts of tasks. This is especially hard on single-parent families, typically headed by females who also earn ~27.3% less than males. University schedules seldom take these concerns seriously, but I think they should if they are to be a part of the solution to helping disadvantaged students succeed in college.

  8. Laurie B

    I beg to differ with Aine, point #3

    Jobs are jobs and they start at all times of the day. Be there on time or get fired. That’s responsibility, that’s life.

    I understand that single parents, or any parent, might need extra time to get things right for the day. Deal with it. Get up earlier, make arrangements or choose to work at a very flexible schedule retail store at low wages for the rest of your life. You are pursuing an education to make your life better. That requires work, creativity and some sacrifice.

    Children are not the problem per se, but it’s really not our problem that you chose to have a child. Figure out your own life. Trade child care, go to school part time, find preschools for your child, figure out what you have to do.

    Disadvantaged, you say? Not anymore than many generations of women that have gone before you.
    Your job is multi-fold. Be a good parent, be a good student, and do what has to be done to get the job done. You chose your life, now go make the best of it and stop whining. The world gives us what we are willing to work for and none of it comes for free.

    Your instructors are there to teach you what you need to know to succeed in your pursuits. That probably means that you have to show up on time, ask questions, contribute to the discussions, be responsible, do the work, do the research, and then write well thought out and well written papers. That’s your job right now.

    Show up and do your job or pay the consequences. You know what Mr. Trump would say.

  9. Laurie, do they do distance learning? Ohio’s a bit of a commute..

    Heh. Michael, you’re adorable, and I love you. I’m in the midst of teaching Beanie the difference between objective and subjective pronouns – she’s doing a lot of “Me and Jeanie” lately…

    Godsweigh, I got your email and it’s a great question. Watch this space!

    Professor Rob, I want to protest that “it’s a first draft!” but the truth is that I probably would have missed that, so thank you again. That bit in the fourth paragraph is supposed to sound like “What IS true..” to contradict the previous statement, but I see where it can come off as wordy (my problem is that I actually speak like that…).

    Thanks for catching the “vital” thing; I was either going for “it is vital” or I forgot the noun “skill” for which ‘vital’ would serve as a modifier. I’ll fix that in my final draft.

    I’ve never been a stickler for the indefinite “it,” but I’ll go through and adjust those; doing so would set a good example.

    Aine, you make a lot of good points, and I REALLY appreciate the counter-argument; one of the things I’m trying to get my students to understand is the Rogerian method of argument -I want them to truly apprehend (and appreciate) where their opponent is coming from. I want them to learn to really LISTEN, and your providing counters to my arguments helps me to articulate my own thinking. I may incorporate your objections in my revision. Watch this space.

    Yes, Laurie – that’s the big idea of my paper. I think I need it to be a LITTLE tighter….

  10. Sorry, Mrs. Chili. I’ve been in paper grading mode so I am nitpicking everywhere (still not sure how some newspaper writers got their jobs).

    Aine, I could not disagree more and here is why: I was a “non-traditional” student. I worked full time (a career-type job) and went to school full time. “Life” definitely got in the way which prevented me from completely committing to my major until I actually quit my job and dedicated myself to finishing the program (thanks, Mrs. Rob). I never once even considered that the school or a professor should compromise for me and my circumstances.

    I also detest arguments about students paying for their education. An education is NOT a good or service to be purchased. Tuition is to cover the costs of educating students who receive the PRIVILEGE of attending any college. Not attending class is not upholding their end of the bargain. If a student’s goal is to receive a piece of paper in the end of it all, he should go to a diploma mill. There are plenty of those and they are a lot cheaper.

    Having children does not negate Mrs. Chili’s argument that some things necessitate classroom instruction and practice. If a student has children and can not attend class prior to 9a, he or she should take a different section. If one registers for a class at a given time, the assumption is that the student can attend class at that time.

    Forgive me if I come across as hostile as that is not my intention. Having been an older student with a life, a family, a job, and a history in the real world, I have little patience for students that claim they “don’t have enough time.” I have even less patience for students who feel they are automatically owed something just for paying their tuition.

  11. Professor Rob, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Aine, my response to your first objection (aside from the fact that – this semester, at least – literally ALL of my students ARE fresh from high school; I have NO non-trads this term) is that the policy is designed for students who haven’t yet reached a level of maturity and responsibility that non-traditional students – and especially those coming from the military – have attained. Adults would have no issue with the policy because adults are accustomed to accommodating rules and, not for nothing, are in college for the purpose of learning. As a non-trad student, I couldn’t have imagined skipping classes; I wanted ALL I could get out of it.

    While I agree with you that the true financial cost of a student failing the class is ultimately borne by the student, I disagree that this is a valid argument against the attendance policy. One of the things that I fight consistently against is the idea of “I’ve paid my fee, now give me my B.” If I hear one more student use the “but I pay your salary” excuse to try to guilt me into changing their grade, I might pop a gasket. The fee is your ticket to admission; whether or not you pay attention to the movie is up to you.

    Finally, I’m going to take issue with your contention about jobs and start times. I can only speak for myself (and my husband, because I’ve witnessed the last two decades of his professional life), but EVERY SINGLE 9-5 job I’ve had started at 8:00 to account for the unpaid lunch hour. Even if that weren’t the case, the university offers courses at reasonable times – hell, even in the depths of winter, it’s still light out when the students get to their earliest classes – and, again, if the time is a hardship, the student can petition to get into another section. I know for a fact that my student is trying to claim that it’s less fair that the policy be applied to an 8 a.m. class than to, say, a 3:30 p.m. class, but I don’t think that argument is valid. Again, employees don’t get to dictate the terms of their working day, and it’s not as if the university is forcing kids to attend third-shift classes.

    I’m off to revise my paper (fixing Prof. Rob’s nitpicking (THANK YOU!!) and including some of Aine’s objections). I’m submitting it to my students on Friday. You guys have been INCREDIBLY helpful in this process, and I’m grateful. I’ll post my revision and, if I can manage it, my student’s position paper, too. Watch this space.

  12. Aine, where can I find these jobs that start at 9 AM??!?!?

  13. Laurie B

    Dear Mrschili. O offered the College of Wooster seminars as a resource for your consideration, not as a semester you should undertake.

    I’m not sure if the current alumni magazine is on line but among the offerings were (i’d have to go find the magazine so I’m guessing at titles here) Frankenstine in society, The holocaust and where we are now, Life in small towns..each of them a semester long. What fun.

    We’re home this weekend and have to clean the place up for company next week so I’ll locate the issue and send you more info.

  14. kathy

    All i can say is “Bravo!” I wholeheartedly agree with your points. I was a novice university prof who only taught one year. While i did not have to deal with arguments over attendance policies in lecture, these issues did come up in lab and clinical situations. The work world starts on time (7 AM for most hospital jobs!), and attendance is mandatory; the world of school classes should prepare students for this.

    i will be back…. i am glad i stumbled on your blog. I am a grammar stickler also, much to my students’ dismay.

  15. Kit_Kat

    Oh, how I wish I could have taken your freshman English class! I just found your blog this evening and have a feeling I will be up for many more hours reading it.

    When I took Engl 1301 it was held in a room with desktop computers lining the perimeter. Each student sat at a horribly uncomfortable chair with their backs to the center of the room. No one ever looked at each other, no ideas were exchanged, no thoughts flew through the room and there was no “community.” We were given a topic and for the next hour or so sat at that clunky computer and typed our papers. It was so lonely and depressing and not conducive to creativity.

    I really enjoy reading about your teaching process and how much you love your job! I always regret not getting an English degree. I guess there’s still time, right?? And I have to say I’m a little nervous to comment because of all the “grammar nazis” out there. Ha ha.

  16. Hi Mrs. Chili,

    I am a project manager working for Pearson Education – we would like to use this article in as an example in a college level English textbook. I would love to discuss this in detail with you – please get back to me via e-mail as soon as possible!

    Thank you!
    Candice

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