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Documenting Absences
November 10, 2013 - 9:02pm

I’ve recently started writing an “Ask a Professor” column for the Metro news publications. My first piece was giving advice to undergraduate students on what to do (and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do) when they miss class.  While it seemed to strike a cord with most of the professors and instructors in my social media circles when I shared it, one piece of advice rankled some:

2. Secure Proper Documentation

Often, your reason for missing class will be legitimate, but be sure you can provide proper documentation. Your professors have seen it before: After a suspicious number of grandparents “die” right around the time when major assignments are due, they know to require evidence of your reasons for missing class. This means anything from an official notice from the university excusing your absence to a filed police report or insurance claim from a fender-bender that caused your to miss class.

This, some people pointed out, seemed draconian and more than a little unnecessary. Personally, I don’t require any of this; I give my students the benefit of the doubt. But I have had students come to me with funeral cards, police reports, and even clippings from a local paper in order to “prove” the reasons why they missed class were real, not because I had asked for them, but because other professors had. As this was advice for a general population of students, I wanted to indicate that there are professors that require documentation; better to have it and not need it, right?

(I also covered the oversharing students seem to insist on doing in lieu of documentation.)

Except of course when you can’t get proper documentation. I primarily teach students from lower socio-economic means. What if they are uninsured and thus can’t call to file a police report regarding an accident? Or if they get the work done on their car under the table, thus no receipt? Or if they are uninsured and thus unable or unwilling to go to the doctor when they (or their kids) are sick? Or if their reasons for not coming to class legitimately none of my damn business?

I’ve written about this before; I want to create a classroom environment where my students see the value of coming to class and thus want to. Therefore, I also tell my students that they are adults and that I trust them that if they miss class, that it is for a good reason. I want them to behave responsibly, like staying home and recovering if they are sick. It personally drives me up the wall when my kids’ elementary school demands documentation for when they are sick; they’re throwing up, it will pass, why do I need to go to the doctor to know to keep them hydrated and give them plenty of rest? Why should I demand the same thing from my students that I resent as a parent?

But I think it also reflects the increasing surveillance and intrusive strategies expected of those who teach college classes. We are expected to “make” students attend class, for their own good. While class attendance is important for success and retention, the burden of proof has gotten out of control. Not only do most people who teach do so off the tenure-track and thus have little time nor the resources to monitor every single student they teach, but also means that often students have to spend an unnecessary amount of time and energy securing documentation, or stressing out about not being able to get the right paperwork. I know students who have legitimate reasons for missing class but can’t “prove” it and thus give up. How does that help?

I offered the advice in my first piece not because I agree with it, but because students need to know that there are professors out there who do.  Hopefully this will spark a conversation so that the next person who writes an advice column addressing the same issue won’t have to include it.

If you have any suggestions for possible topics for a future advice piece, let me know in the comments. And follow me on Twitter to read my upcoming adv


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