• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Attendance Policies

Should a college have a single college-wide attendance policy?  

November 16, 2018
 
 

Should a college have a single college-wide attendance policy?  

I’m not referring to financial aid reporting, which is effectively mandatory. The Feds want to know if someone who has received Federal aid never showed up for class, or stopped showing up, but kept getting aid.  That’s real, but it’s not what I’m referring to here.

I’m referring to something like  “if you miss more than x class meetings (or x percent of class meetings), you will be deducted a grade.”

The idea behind tying attendance to grades is twofold. On one level, it’s for students’ own good. Students who show up tend to do better than students who don’t.  Making it official means that we don’t have to ask students to take it on faith, which is good, because some won’t. The other is as a sort of workforce training.  If I routinely failed to show up for work, I’d get fired. That’s true for most jobs. Getting students into the habit of sucking it up and coming in even when they don’t really feel like it can benefit them in the workplace.

Of course, that assumes a lot about the students.  Sometimes the actual paid jobs they already work wreak havoc on class attendance, whether because of “flexible” (moving) shifts or because of sheer exhaustion. 

At my college, and at my previous ones, we’ve allowed professors and/or departments to set their own attendance policies. That approach allows for some customization based on the class, whether in terms of schedule (once-a-week vs. twice-a-week, say), content (lab or studio vs. “lecture”), or pedagogical philosophy. It makes sense to me that attendance at Nursing clinical sites may require tighter rules than attendance in a classroom course.

Online classes make the whole question of attendance somewhat more ambiguous. Again, for federal purposes we have a definition, but for grading purposes, it’s somewhat murkier. 

I keep running across a few objections to bespoke attendance policies, though, so I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me figure out how heavily to weigh them.

From students, I’ll sometimes get complaints that some professors are pickier than others. That’s especially true when different sections of the same class have different policies. “How come my friend missed the same number of days and didn’t get penalized?”  I can answer that, but I can see their point.

From faculty, I’ll sometimes hear that some sort of institutional rule -- ideally enforced at the institutional level, say, by a dean -- would relieve them of the burden of being the bad guy. They wouldn’t have to judge one student’s excuse against another’s.

From folks on the outside, I sometimes hear that a lack of a college policy suggests that the college doesn’t take attendance seriously.  I try to convey the idea that faculty setting their own rules doesn’t imply a lack of rules, but some folks who are accustomed to a more command-and-control work environment have trouble accepting that. It can be difficult to outline a philosophical disagreement with someone who isn’t aware that he’s holding a position.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should colleges set attendance policies across the board, or should those decisions be made at the faculty or department level?

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