Thursday, January 11, 2007

We Finish the Clever Carl Saga With These Two Posts

I think Carl has a point, if not a blunt and rusty one. The number of students who consistently don't show up and get an A or B is considerably outweighed by the number who consistently don't show up and get a C at best. Consistent under-attendance usually, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with things like not reading the book, not studying, not getting missing notes, and not paying attention to schedule changes. The sort of things that contribute to good test scores for most people.

I offer nominal "class participation" assignments, which usually count for 10% of the grade, so I know who's showing up and who isn't, but that's about it. If I make attendance compulsory, it seems like two things will happen: a) The people who don't want to come won't come and will probably flunk (which is generally the case now), or b) The people who don't want to come will come, and will disrupt the shit out of my class.

If they don't care enough to *show up* to an obligation, why should I expect them to care how they behave once they get there? I tend to think that by the time I see students in my classroom, the damage has been done. Either they care and are there to try and learn, or they aren't. I'd rather have a few chairs empty if it means everyone else is motivated to be there. If they get surprised at their bad grade (and they rarely do - it's the ones who think they deserve an A instead of a B+ that squawk the most in my experience), that's too bad.

I care about my students, really I do. I like it when people are engaged and connected. I like it when they visibly get what I'm saying. But I am not going to expend extra time and effort to tally up attendance and micromanage and hand-hold. The sooner these kids are disabused of the notion that someone else will always wipe their nose and tell them what to do and when - that they don't have to be responsible or accountable - the better.


I didn’t much like Clever Carl’s attitude when I first read his attendance policy manifesto (“I get paid anyway” was probably the low point of it). But I have warmed up to several of his claims.

  1. Is the course about learning, or is it about obeying orders? If it’s about learning we should make sure that the purpose of the course is to see that they have certain facts, concepts, skills, etc., not that we use our power over their academic credentials to maintain a captive, respectful audience for our lectures. If my lectures are superfluous for some people, then that’s my problem, not theirs. If I’m getting paid to teach something that many students could learn just as well from a correspondence course, then I need to fix something, not cover up that inconvenient fact by making their presence part of the grade.
  2. Yes, without attendance requirements, some students will learn the hard way that attending class is really important for their grade. That troubles me, because I have the power to scare them into attending and thus I could save them the hard lesson. But while attendance requirements may teach some people the importance of attendance the easy way, they fail to teach the students that getting a good grade requires a choice on their part to do the work. Many first year students who are required to attend, just as they were in high school, think that this is still the old high school game where no one reads, no one takes notes, and everyone still does well. They’re angry at me, not themselves, when it turns out differently. It doesn’t matter what exhortations about reading I put on my syllabus—they don’t believe me. If they have to make a choice, very early on, about whether to come or not, often something clicks and the first-year suddenly realizes that this is grown-up land where you make choices in order to fail or succeed, not kid-world where you’re forced to sit through church, school, parental lectures, etc. all 'for your own good.' The attitude that one should get credit just for enduring the requirements is a childish attitude that is perpetuated by attendance requirements.
  3. Putting yourself in the classroom all by itself does not necessarily accomplish anything. I was shocked when I learned this. I’ve given a whole lecture on a single paragraph of text, and have students who were in attendance come back after the test and say they’ve never 'heard of it.' “Making the effort” (however pathetic, halfhearted that effort is) may not include learning anything at all! I’ve had D students who would have failed by a significant margin without the fact that they came most of the time and got credit for just being there. Never asked a question, never came for help, rarely took notes and didn’t do the extra credit. Just came and sat there, then failed the tests. And got college credit for it. That seems really wrong.
  4. It does make a difference if they are paying for it. Not because they should be able to dictate the requirements, but because several of them who have an aversion to your teaching style, nervous tics, dress, voice, etc. will work their annoyance up into a full blown rage after a semester of both paying and being required to sit there and endure you. I am a kind, understanding teacher who bored a few students, and required them to sit there and be bored. Now they are my mortal enemies, for only those reasons. I’m only exaggerating slightly.
  5. Morale matters. Throwing a dozen captives into a group of engaged, interested students always seems to lower morale and makes people less likely to want to make comments or ask questions.