Professor reacts to “skipping class” editorial

Dear Editor:Brad Waterhouse’s February 14 editorial, OSkip to My Loo,O made for some very interesting reading, especially for me as a second year professor who has also given some thought to attendance policies. As I read, I wondered whether or not the student perspective offered by Mr. Waterhouse would help clarify the issue for me because I always wind up asking myself when writing up a course syllabus if there isn’t a better way–a more responsible way–to think about and deal with attendance issues.

Waterhouse’s overall claim, largely implied, seems to be that attendance policies do more harm than good. He wants his audience to see them for what they are: punitive, inflexible, paternalistic, vindictive, and perhaps worst of all arbitrary. I don’t think the term Waterhouse uses, Ofrivolous,O actually captures the complexity of his overall argumentative strategy, but the term does help him connect with his primary audience, Castleton students who have needed at some point to be mindful of what a particular class’s policies are. I suspect that this is a large audience, not because truancy is a major problem here (is it?), but because a relatively small percentage of students actually do attend all their classes. Life throws us curves, and as he points out, sickness, family issues, and especially at Castleton full- and part-time jobs make it difficult if not impossible for most students to win Oshiny ribbons or plaquesO for perfect attendance.

So far so good. Most rational people would have no trouble nodding their heads in agreement. I also think most people would appreciate the qualifications Waterhouse makes, despite the fact his primary objective is to be critical of attendance policies. He doesn’t, for example, endorse Opointless class skipping,O nor does he claim that it is unfair to Odock a kid for not participating.O Such qualifiers help him to shore up his credibility, as he demonstrates that he believes in the intrinsic educational benefits of being in class, benefits that members of his audience demonstrate they believe in too when they show up for classes on a fairly regular basis.

So again, most reasonable people would find little to disagree about, so far. Things become more complicated and interesting, however, when Waterhouse gets to the primary points in his critique, points that ultimately allow us to consider where these policies come from and whether or not they actually Owork.O Are they in fact overly paternalistic and/or arbitrary? When Waterhouse questions whether docking a final grade for absences is Oan accurate representation of a student’s level of skill,O I have to say I have often wondered the same thing. What is or even should be the relationship between these two things: being in class and skill level?

Waterhouse introduces that most elusive species of human being, OThe Perfect Student,O as a way to complicate this question, and it is here that things really get interesting. The Operfect studentO already knows the course content and hence can’t possibly learn anything new. This student could ace the final on day one, or so the story goes. Should attendance policies be equally punitive to those who already know the course material or who supposedly don’t or can’t benefit from being in class? And, while we’re at it, what about this: what kind of student is typically cuaght up in attendance politics? Weaker students? Stronger students? OPerfectO students?

Waterhouse writes, OIf the policy is to keep kids in class, then it’s no good.O He goes on to suggest that the regular skippers will just Oskip anyway,O and the regular attenders Owill be there every day they can, adding to the class and getting good grades.O Several things interest me about this comment. The last phrase, Ogetting good grades,O strongly suggests that those who fall into the trap of an attendance policy tend to be the weaker students. There is, in other words, some sort of implicit connection being made between grades and attendance that goes beyond the arbitrary.

While I would probably agree with the idea that going to class means learning happens, and that when learning happens grades reflect this phenomenon, I am less moved by the suggestion that weaker students skip more than those who get good grades. My experience, actually, is quite different. Overall, I’d have to say that weaker and stronger students skip about equally, although I won’t insist that this is objectively true, not having studied the question statistically. Nevertherless, the yoking of attendance and student performance is a rich (and fraught) question, but perhaps not for the reasons one might immediately suspect. For the meantime, I’m simply considering Waterhouse’s points about quality of student work or student ability and attendance, and I hope we can agree even after this short analysis that it is far more complicated than it first appears.

Equally vexing, and equally complicated, is the equation of amount of tuition spent with level of responsibility a student should be given over the outcome of their education. The issue, Waterhouse claims, comes down to choice. The stated reason is that students should be allowed to skip classes because they are paying to attend school. There are a few unstated assumptions in play here as well, if we stop to consider. First, the audience needs to buy the idea that paying money for something should mean having as much control over it as possible. Second, the audience needs to connect the dots between that equation and the idea that education is a kind of commodity that is essentially purchased, much like a gallon of milk. I have to admit that I buy these premises on one level, namely that many schools carry so much social and cultural prestige that merely attending them (excuse me, paying to attend them) is a guarantee of vocational opportunity. On another level, however, I have never been able to completely accept the idea that paying tuition entitles anyone to anything beyond the stated benefits explicitly advertised by the institution in question. That is to say, paying tuition works like a kind of contract where the student in effect agrees to the terms and conditions set forth by the other party in the contract, namely Castleton, and its official representatives, namely its teachers.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Waterhouse simply states that his hefty tuition bill should entitle him to miss a class, especially if he’s sick, and I have no objection whatsoever. This line of reasoning, however, is often brought into play by others who find themselves in the abyss of reckless truancy. What is more, this issue is part of a larger question about the nature of higher education in general, and whether or not it is desirable to run colleges or universities under a business model of administration and assessment. Personally, I firmly believe that education is not a OthingO that is bought, although I do recognize and, sometimes appreciate, that there are those who feel it is.

Waterhouse suggests at the end of his editorial that we (instructors) should Oassume everyone knowsO that Oattendance is mandatoryO and simply strike it from our course policies. If, as he argued earlier, it doesn’t actually work, isn’t fair, and doesn’t accurately measure a student’s skills, then let it go. I am strangely attracted to this proposal, despite the fact that I don’t buy most of the points it rests upon. I think the reason is that successfully letting go of an official policy would mean that students and instructors might actually have a meeting of the minds and not have to haggle over whether or not presenting a doctor’s note actually OexcusesO an absence. We’d all understand the rules and we’d all know exactly what happens when students don’t go to class. And we all DO know, right?

Well, I’m not so sure. And I’ll offer two lines of reasoning that I typically fall back on in discussions with students. The first has to do with an idea that Waterhouse points to without fleshing out. He writes, as I quoted above, that it’s okay to penalize students for not participating. I am assuming that he means participating in a way the instructor values and has included in the course policies, but even if he means participation more generally as the student taking an active role in her or his education, then the conclusion is still the same. Attendance is a necessary precondition for participation. Not every student OactivelyO pursues an education, but the possibility for even starting to do so rests on the student being in class. And since I believe so strongly in the importance of taking an active role in one’s education, I feel compelled to require attendance.

But maybe I shouldn’t, as I also believe, like Waterhouse, in the value of choice, student choice, regardless of how much money is involved. I even believe in the value of wrong choices, but I feel pretty strongly about not facilitating the wrong choice by not being more active myself. I don’t intend to be punitive, but I can certainly see how it looks that way to some.

Nor do I want the choices of the few to negatively affect the educational experiences of the many. Waterhouse’s argument has an individual bent to it, meaning he is mostly looking at the issue as it affects individual students. Being a member of a society that places much value on Othe individual,O I can see the power of this appeal. However, education is about more than the individual, which makes it awfully hard for me, at least, to evaluate students solely Obased on an individual basis.O What I mean is that attendance allows students to participate not only in their own education but also in the education experiences of those around them. I won’t trot out the idea of OcommunityO to support this point because I think it’s fairly obvious. As my current and former students know, what my students learn in my classes depends largely on if and how they participate. If education is about more than delivering and receiving information, and I believe it is, then points of contact in the classroom become especially important for everyone involved. And this is, in the end, the reason why I continue to wrestle with the question.

And, by way of conclusion, I want to raise the possibility that maybe the reason an instructor came down pretty hard on Mr. Waterhouse recently when he was Opukin’O was not because they were being vindictive but because they felt his absence, his comments and responses to other students not being there, was negatively affecting his classmates.

Andy Alexander
Assistant Professor of English

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