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“You clearly don’t care if I come to class or not.”

This was in an email that a student sent me. It was after their first Friday class (students at our institution only have class every other Friday – don’t ask) complaining that, well, I’m not entirely sure. That Friday we met in the computer lab to set up their blogs that we would be using for the entire semester and compose their first post. I emailed relatively detailed instructions to the entire class afterwards, as their homework was to complete the work assigned in class if they hadn’t already. I’m not sure what the student was looking for: a personalized message making sure s/he was ok? A sternly worded missive about the importance of attendance, including Fridays?

I’ve written about attendance policies before. I want my students to want to come to class, not to feel like they absolutely have to and thus resent me and my class. I tell my students that there are few, if any, things that I take personally as their instructor; come, don’t come, I leave it up to them. I don’t take formal attendance. I also let them know that just about every class will include some form of in-class exercise that they hand in for “credit” and thus I know not only who has been to class but also who actually did the work. I “care” only insofar as I want them to be successful in school, but even if I could force them to come to class, I can’t force them to pay attention and to care about their education.

One of my husband’s former professor’s used to tell her students that education is the only thing we’re generally happy getting less of for our money. We’re happy when the professor cancels class. We’re happy with less homework, less requirements, less writing, less reading, less seat time, less, less, less. There are exceptions to this, those who realize that they are paying for the privilege of higher education, a privilege that women, minorities, and lower-classes have fought for throughout history. But the overwhelming message in our society right now is, the quicker, the better, which is interpreted as the lesser, the better. My students don’t seem to see education as an opportunity, but instead as a chore, and by extension, my required class a just one more obstacle standing in their way to degree completion.

As we increasingly focus on retention, we need to start targeting the students themselves and the role they play in their own college success. I’ve offered carrots and sticks, completely re-vamped my course to make it increasingly active and student-centered, and talked until I’m blue in the face about the challenges and rewards of higher education. And yet, they still blow off my class, blow off the homework, skip or ignore drafts, and write their essays at the last minute even though we devote two weeks of class periods working on them. Their grade more often than not reflects the time and attention they put into it. Late papers typically don’t bother me because I know that the student isn’t taking the extra time to write a better paper, but instead filling the extra time with anything else other than actually doing the work.

Maybe I need to turn into a, for lack of a better term, hard-ass when it comes to attendance: any absence that isn’t sanctioned by the university (sports, ROTC, major requirements, frat/sorority events, etc.) are treated the same way, completely unacceptable. Part of the problem is that the university has so many approved excused absences that it makes it hard to enforce zero-tolerance for all the other students. Ditto on accepting late work. I’ve always found that my policy of allowing students to try and make up all of the work they’ve missed before my grades are due to be more punishing than simply giving them a failing grade; the student spends a few stress-induced days producing work that more often than not doesn’t meet the basic requirements and earns them the failing grade anyway.

But there are weeks like this and classes like the ones I have this semester that make me wonder how I can do to help “retain” my students and how much growing up they need to do on their own. 

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