• 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

Judging Absences

... without judging students' lives.

 

October 8, 2018
 
 

My college, like many, leaves attendance policies to individual faculty. It requires reporting when a student never shows up, or misses class serially, but it leaves the professor to determine grade penalties, if any.  The idea is that there are different educational philosophies and different day/time combinations, so it’s hard to make one size fit all without some serious distortions.

Which means, necessarily, that every professor makes his or her own determination about “excused” absences. (Yes, there are exceptions for extreme cases with documentation -- the student who is hospitalized for injuries from a car accident and asks the dean of students to withdraw her for medical reasons, say.  But those are, luckily, rare.) My official position is, and has to be, that I can support nearly anything reasonable, as long as the policy is spelled out in the syllabus and the professor sticks to it. If you allow three absences before docking, that’s up to you, as long as you’re consistent; if you allow five, well, you allow five.  As long as what’s written matches what’s done, it’s enforced evenhandedly, and it’s not patently absurd, then I’ll back it up.

In my own teaching days, though, I hated hated hated having to try to discern whether a student’s excuse for missing class was truthful. It always felt like it punished the students who tried to stick it out, and rewarded the most entitled.

I bring this up because @fortunafiasco noted this week on Twitter that requiring doctor’s notes for illnesses is inherently classist: it presumes access to medical care.  We can’t presume that. The most desperate students often have the least access -- whether financially or logistically -- to the professionals whose notes would “excuse” them. She’s right. A policy that seems evenhanded on the surface actually rewards those with the ability to get to a doctor.

Christine Nowik came back with the same policy I personally used in my classes: treat absences as black boxes, and simply allocate a given number. Don’t sit in judgment of students’ lives.

I like that for a few reasons. Most basically, I hate being lied to, and any category of “excused” absences will create incentives to lie.  (I once had a student forge a note from a local emergency room, on hospital stationary, claiming that he had been confined there for several days.  I am not making that up.) I’m not clairvoyant, and shouldn’t be required to be. Letting students know upfront that, say, they have three absences to use as they see fit before a penalty sets in at least sets a baseline. 

It also encourages students to be strategic, much as they need to be strategic with “personal days” at work.  I would tell them explicitly at the beginning of the course that if they used up their allotment early, and then got sick later, well, so it goes.  Better to keep “skips” in metaphorical back pockets so that if disaster struck, they’d be okay. The same principle holds at work. Be faithful about being there on time precisely so you build credibility before you need it; then, should you have a shaggy-dog kind of day, you have the cultural standing to attend to it without jeopardizing your job.  If you know the rules upfront and think ahead a bit, you can build in some slack for emergencies. And you won’t even have to justify yourself to anyone.

This approach isn’t perfect, of course. Some students are in deeper than any policy can accommodate, which is why we have deans of students.  And what is intended as respect for autonomy can come off as coldness or distance, which isn’t helpful.  That’s where relationships come in.

Still, I prefer to err on the side of not judging students’ personal lives. Make resources available, yes. Be there when needed, yes. But some of what we teach isn’t the course material.  Some of it is dealing with organizational expectations. We know that employers value that. There’s nothing wrong with us valuing it, too.

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