So here I am in gay Paree, visiting Maria on her semester abroad. The weather has been cold and wet, and the eating wonderful; you can read all about it on Maria’s blog. I will say only: hot chocolate at Angelina’s, and soupe de poisson at La Coupole.
While she’s in class this morning, I have been working on my syllabi for next semester (which at U. of Delaware, with its elongated winter session, starts 2/8). I’m starting out in my hotel room on Boul. Montparnasse; when this darn computer gets charged, I will move to one of the many iconic cafes round here, Le Select. Alas, you can no longer smoke a Gitane inside, but at least I will sip on an espresso.
As always, doing a syllabus is a heady Charlie-Brown-kicking-the-football feeling: this time, I’ll finally get it right! (By the way, that football thing has to be one of the truest metaphors ever concocted by man. Hats off, not for the last time, to Charles Schulz.) I feel this most pointedly in attendance policy. Not to belabor the obvious, but it bugs me when students don’t show up to class, for multiple reasons:
- Disrespect—it’s like not showing up for a business appointment. Plus it’s unseemly: they are wasting their, their parents’, or (if on scholarship) the university’s money.
- Not having been at previous classes means you are not up to date on the conversation, so you will not be a good participant in discussion in subsequent classes. (I should say that mostly I teach workshop-type writing classes, with 18-25 students.)
- Probably most important, I feel I am being paid a good salary mainly to teach stuff to students, and to the extent they are not there, they can and do learn less stuff from me.
I can predict how many will respond to the foregoing: just be a hardass, don’t coddle the little darlings, etc., etc. Part of my Charlie Brown experience does in fact entail envisioning a new hardassness, in either of two ways. First, treat them as adults, and let them suffer the consequences (in their poor performance and hence poor grades) if they don’t attend. Second, install a zero-tolerance policy. Each time you don’t show up. your grade suffers. I am going to guest-teach a session for one of my friend Bruce Dorsey’s classes at Swarthmore, and I was very impressed to see such a policy set out in his syllabus.
But for me, both options have problems. The trouble with the first one is that, under it, students will not show up. True, they will ultimately suffer consequences so that cosmic justice prevails, and possibly (but not likely, IMHO) they will learn a valuable life lesson), but negative outcomes 1, 2, and 3 in the above list will all occur.
The trouble with the second option, to be honest, is that it creates work for me, work that I don’t like, I’m not especially good at and that I feel I am not being paid my generous salary to do. It only begins with taking attendance. Then there’s the issue of what constitutes an acceptable excuse, because surely some excuses are acceptable. For major things, like serious illness and major religious holidays, there is an apparatus by which the student can get a note from the dean. But what if your grandfather died, or you have a bad cold and you’re constantly coughing and sneezing? What you do then is e-mail the professor and ask if it’s all right if you miss class because, etc., etc. At that point the professor has to exercise Solomonic wisdom and decree that yes, indeed, it is all right, or no, alas, it is not. That is exactly the sort of wisdom I do not wish to exercise.
What I usually do, and what I will probably do this semester, is say, without a dean’s note, students are allowed two absences a semester, after which I will decrease their grade. This will mean that I will have to take the roll, which I’ll do the best I can.
What do you guys think? Those of you who are professors, what do you do?