Absence, that is.
I was revising my attendance policy the other day, partly to line up with what other people do around here, and I got to wondering why I even had one in the first place. In the past, I’ve used attendance as a factor in students’ participation grades, essentially lowering that grade, which usually counts for 15% of the course grade, after a certain number of absences. But I also had a mechanism for lowering a student’s final course grade if they were excessively absent, as in missing more than two full week’s worth of class. This policy was similar to what many other instructors had at my last university.
But was it necessary? Or, looking at it from the other direction, was it even effective? The truth is that I’m not sure. Every semester, I’d have one or two students who skipped enough classes to have their final grades suffer. These students often didn’t have great grades in the first place, having missed so much class. So their absences hurt them in terms of their actual performance in the course, and it hurt them in terms of the attendance policy. I’m not sure I’m comfortable any more with that kind of double-whammy.
Attendance does matter to me, though, but not in some vaguely moral sense, like absenteeism implies an inherent character flaw. No, it’s just that my classes go much better when everyone shows up. My writing courses are typically capped at 22-24 students, and I build in lots of active participation and group discussions. One or two absent students per day doesn’t do much to the classroom dynamic, but three or four can be a problem. The room feels different. There’s less energy, and that affects both me and the students. I don’t think of my attendance policy as punishing individuals so much as encouraging the kind of attendance habits that benefit everyone.
Of course, any attendance policy can be read both ways. And, as I said above, I’m not sure what I had in place before was all that effective. So, I’m going to try an experiment this term: I’ll keep attendance as a factor in the participation grade, but drop the potential final-grade reduction. In its place, I reserve the right to harangue any habitual absentees.
I’m curious how other college writing teachers approach attendance. Is having an attendance policy too “grade school”? Is it effective? Is it ethically supportable?