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.
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.