Essay on an unusual approach to classroom attendance
Attendance Not Required
Fifteen years ago, my attendance policy in media ethics class was considered so unusual that The Chronicle of Higher Education did a news story about it, titled, "Ohio U. Professor Will Take Any Excuse for Students' Absences."
The article, still online, shared my reason for accepting any excuse, as long as a test or project was not scheduled for that day. I wanted students to assess their priorities. What was more important — attending class, or nursing a hangover from a Thursday night on the town?
I continued to teach at Ohio until 2003, when I became director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. My contract was entirely administrative. In other words, I did not teach a class again until the fall 2012 semester, when I took over the media ethics class of a faculty member who passed away suddenly. (See the essay "24 Hours" in Inside Higher Ed.)
More on classroom absences momentarily.
As an administrator, on a few occasions, I had to cope not only with stringent attendance policies of faculty but also their own attendance in assigned classes.
Case in point: In 2009, my administrative team began to see declining enrollments in our degree programs in advertising and journalism and mass communication. We identified two primary causes for the drop in pre-majors. We were requiring an "English Usage Test" before students could become our majors, and it seemed that students were not getting sufficient instruction in high school on grammar, spelling and syntax — essential in our disciplines.
Then we discovered the attendance policy in our required orientation class. Students failed the course if they missed one, yes one, class.
We changed that attendance policy in 2010.
As director, I have had to take action on occasion when instructors cancel too many classes. Official Iowa State policy states that faculty members are "required to be on duty during the academic year on those days when classes are in session." Professors may arrange for others to manage their responsibilities when they are away from campus while classes are in session.
However, before professors can take time off for personal or professional reasons, they are expected to fill out a form specifying dates they will be gone and how their courses and other obligations will be covered.
Of course, accidents, emergencies and illness can strike without warning. In those cases, we ask that the instructor contact the main office so we can post information on classroom doors or arrange for others to take over classes.
We do not police these policies, but we do expect faculty to adhere to them. You may want to consider that level of trust with your students.
After taking over our media ethics class, with one day’s preparation, I had to create a new syllabus within hours. That’s when I decided to implement the attendance policy that attracted so much attention at Ohio University in 1997.
Here’s an excerpt:
You can miss as many lectures as you like, as long as an exam or project is not due that day. Simply write a brief e-mail to me explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment – don’t explain symptoms). Send the e-mail to me before you miss the scheduled lecture or deliver it within 24 hours. Note: Title your absence email "462 Absence."
The attendance policy also has a section for late and early departures from class. Nothing can be more disturbing to the instructor or the class as a tardy student clumsily opening the door during lecture or a student leaving before the lecture ends. The latter also suggests something the teacher said was so disturbing that students just had to leave when they really only had to relieve themselves.
So I designate a row of chairs near the exit as "liberty seats," meaning students may come and go as they please if they sit in that row.
But what about students who violate the attendance or seating policy? Again, an excerpt from the syllabus:
Failure to Follow Attendance Rules: If you miss a class without e-mailing an excuse letter, your final grade will drop by 50 points out of 1000 for each occurrence. If you come late or leave early, without taking a reserved seat in the back row near the rear exit – and then fail to write an email explaining why you had to leave — your grade also will drop by 50 points for each occurrence.
How will I know who’s who, who’s lying and more, if I don’t also take roll? Well, I can download photos of my students from the registrar’s office so that I can identify them if I have to over time. In other words, students may be able to get away with skipping class and not emailing me initially — which only encourages future infractions — but sooner or later I catch up with them and their lies.
And remember, this is a media ethics class. If you lie in any ethics class, you go to hell — literally, I tell them.
But the best part of the attendance policy is compiling the class report detailing just why students miss class.
Here are a few examples, names withheld, of course, from last semester’s ethics class:
It just so happens, tomorrow is my birthday. Not just any birthday you see, and I know you like us to be honest; it’s my 21st ... at midnight, tonight. I should also add, I am a senior and the last person I know to turn 21. So, I have this weird feeling that tomorrow's 9 a.m. class is going to come up and hit me like a brick wall. I don't think I'll make it, but hey, you never know! I could rally!
I was absent for 462 yesterday and here’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. While I was walking to class, a raccoon was in my path that was squirming and running around. I knew something was wrong since it was out in the daylight, so I called animal control. They asked me to keep an eye on it so it wouldn’t run away (although I’m not sure how much help I would have been if it had). By the time the animal control woman arrived, I was 30 minutes late for class with a 10-minute walk ahead of me. I didn’t want to be rude and show up that late, so I didn’t come into class.
As a final gesture to students, I post a chart that summarizes why they missed class and why others who had taken the class previously also missed. Categories include:
- Career-related conflicts: Working for a student media outlet or part-time job.
- Academic-related conflicts: Working for other classes or student organizations, sororities, fraternities, etc.
- Family-related conflicts: Dealing with emergencies, weddings, outings.
- Romance-related conflicts: Indulging in Valentine’s Day, excursions, rendezvous.
- Health-related conflicts: Dealing with illness or honoring medical/dental appointments.
- Overslept: Falling asleep in rooms, newsrooms, etc.
- Funeral: Coping with death of parents, relatives, friends, associates.
What surprised me was how reasons for missing class at Iowa State in 2012 were so similar to reasons at Ohio in 1992-2003. The world has changed so much since then, especially in the digital classroom. Nobody missed class because of Facebook, for instance. In fact, the only technology-related absence concerned a student missing class from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2 to attend a Microsoft conference in Seattle.
To view reasons for missing class in a downloadable chart, click here.
Also consider this: Stringent attendance policies may be necessary in small workshops, labs or other group-related classes. I get that. I also know we’re very good at finding reasons why students should attend our classes but usually not very informed about why they actually skip.
In the end, it’s their tuition dollar and their grade.
As I explained to my class, my attendance policy may look lenient at first blush, but I also can document that students with the fewest absences also almost always boast the highest grades. There is a correlation there, and I have the data to prove it.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.