Friday, April 16, 2010

Against the "excused absence."

I don't know who came up with the idea of the "excused absence," but it's a terrible idea, and here's why. You want students to show up to class because they are supposedly actually learning something by being there. If they miss class, from an educational perspective, it doesn't matter why; it only matters that they've lost 50 minutes of instruction.

The "excused absence" confuses the issue by making it, in essence, a moral one. It makes students believe that being absent for a good reason is the moral equivalent of being in class.

Well, on a moral level, maybe it is! But why is there a moral level to attendance policies at all? College students can vote. Can't they also judge the impact on their grades and decide, as adults, whether to show up to class if they're sick, if they're feeling a little miserable, if it's an absolutely beautiful spring day?

One thing I never want to do is make judgment calls about whose absence is morally righteous and whose isn't. That isn't my job. More to the point, it doesn't matter. You're in class or you aren't, and a student's goodness as a person isn't a factor.

4 comments:

SEB said...

The only reason I use excused absences is because I have several classes in which attendance is part of the grade. This, too, is depressing, since I would much rather take the attitude you described, that students can decide to skip and take the consequences. The problem is that the students I have are nothing like self-aware enough for this to work; they are perfectly capable of skipping 1/3 of the course and thinking they've only missed one or two sessions. They are then surprised to do poorly on the exams. I basically instituted required attendance to try to cultivate better habits in them, and to keep myself from coming to the end of term wondering why I put so much work into a course that students didn't bother paying attention to. It's mental self-protection of a sort.

Anyway, the point is that when attendance itself counts toward a grade, you do have to be able to distinguish between sick days and regular old goofing off. But it was recently brought home to me that students do misinterpret this policy in more or less the way you describe (although I'm not sure my experience suggests they see it as a moral issue).

I had this student who I thought was about to graduate, who was in my class (required for majors in my field) last term. She's a single mother and her son was very sick all term, requiring frequent doctors' visits, etc. etc. She was absent a lot. I worked particularly closely with her to get her through the course anyway, through a combination of tutoring and excused absences, on the grounds that it would be better for everyone if she could finish up and move on. I should say she was extremely conscientious about doing her best under the circumstances, wrote some very decent papers, and I don't regret what I did for her. But more recently she contacted me to ask for a letter of recommendation so she could apply to the Honors program to do a double major (essentially take on a second major), which would extend her college career at least another year. I asked her about how things were going in terms of her childcare responsibilities and her son's health, because I was concerned about her ability to take on another year or more of school, based on how much extra work it had been to get her through my course. In the course of our exchange I let it be known that I thought she'd missed out seriously on the content of my course (which was a discussion-based course with written assignments - she was absent for many of the discussions). She was clearly not just shocked to hear this but actually somewhat offended, as though she thought her completion of the written assignments in the course was equivalent to learning everything the course had to offer.

Sigh.

Natalia said...

I also require attendance, K, and I don't think that necessitates distinguishing between being absent for "good" reasons and being absent for "bad" ones. There's a certain threshold beyond which the student can't meaningfully be said to have taken the class, and that holds true whether the student is flaky or ill.

(Or as an anonymous wise person once said: personal tragedy cannot be redeemed for course credit.)

ntsang said...

I like excused absences. I feel like being allowed to miss 1-2 classes a semester is an amazingly decadent and transgressive experience. Or at least it was when I was fresh out of high school and delighted that I wasn't legally required to be in class.
However, last semester, I facilitated a decal in which a student missed half the classes! He missed a few classes on account of catching swine flu, but continued to skip class after he recovered. We offered him a make up assignment and when he failed to complete it, we failed him. There were some uncomfortable e-mails, but thankfully we had a good working relationship with our faculty advisor (and there were three of us) and we called his bluff that he would complain to the department.
I still think excused absences are lovely as a whole, but I can see where you're coming from.

Natalia said...

Well, you always give your students one or two absences for free. That's part of letting them make their own decisions. Life happens, right? But those absences aren't "excused," i.e. they are still noted as absences. I don't want to know why those students were absent, because it doesn't matter.