It’s that time of year: when the clove-tanged scent of cinnamon slips into your mouth alongside the crispness of just-picked apples and braces you for the barrage of overlarge papier-mâché spiders and re-watch parties of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Also, it’s that time of year when school starts/has started/how-oh-how-is-it-October-already/what-do-you-mean-November-is-just-around-the-corner.
In other words, it’s that time when you might be starting — granted, only in the back of your head for now, where you toss the other vague problems-for-future-you — to think about how you’re going to change your syllabus, your lesson plans, your assignment scaffolding, for next term.
(Yes, I said it: next term. Forgive me.)
But in all seriousness.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot for my upcoming orals exam; or maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to people talk about their students while I don’t have any of my own this term (sad); or maybe it’s because as I study to become a personal trainer I’ve been reading a lot about client retention/program adherence; or maybe it’s because of all of the above, plus more ingredients not listed here.
Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about attendance, and what it means to be present; particularly as it relates to the college classroom.
Margaret Price, in her must-must-must-must-read for all teachers, Mad at School (did I mention everyone should read it? It’s available for free temporary download through the CUNY library system), discusses the idea of “presence” at length.
(In the following discussion, I will be guilty of conflating presence with attendance a bit. I do not wish to do so; we all probably know, to varying degrees, that you can easily attend something without being, or appearing, fully present. Presence itself is an important concept to me — and, indeed, to Price — and will be discussed at greater length and nuance in future blog posts.)
Generally speaking, Price observes, everything from passing anecdotes to the good old “studies have shown” rhetoric, asserts that attendance is absolutely necessary for student success. That attendance is deemed a fair barometer for judging whether or not students are motivated, interested, dedicated. Whether or not students “care.” If students don’t come to class, the assumption goes, they don’t care. And we should punish them for it.
We all know the anecdotes about students “just not caring”, a judgement that is based very often on students not showing up to class. Perhaps we’ve even told them ourselves.
Of attendance — of presence — Price writes that
… the conflation of presence, goodness, freedom, control, and individuality is used to construct pedagogies that presume that, first, presence is the sine qua none of learning in higher education, and second, that the “choice” of whether or not to be present belongs to the individual subject (65).
Attendance is good, and it indicates that students are making good choices, that they have their priorities right.
Surely, whether explicitly or implicitly, this is reflected in systems of assessment that punish students for not being able to show up to class. This value system — indeed, one that verges on moral judgement — is both reflected and enforced in syllabi that mandate that students who can’t show up, or who show up late, to more than x number of classes will automatically have their grades dramatically reduced. Will automatically fail.
Will automatically have to re-take a class that their financial aid might just be on the verge of running out for.
This tact is both infantilizing and enforcing an overly macho sort of regulation: you will be punished like a child for doing a “bad” thing, and yet the philosophy behind this punishment is steeped in an American mythology that rugged individuality can push you through anything.
Once more with feeling: if students don’t come to class, the assumption goes, they don’t care.
This value judgement and assumption about student interest and passion level might not be what professors explicitly think — not all the time, anyway — but it is what is reflected when our syllabi and assessment policies punish students for missing x number of classes.
And this is a huge problem. Because here are just some of the things what we’re really talking about when we talk about attendance:
Students having or not having transportation fare.
Students being able or unable to get out of bed, get dressed, and get out of the house.
Students feeling (un)safe enough to come to a class that might well further marginalize and do violence against one or more of their intersectional identities.
Students having (no) incentive to attend a course that is populated with content that they cannot see/hear/taste/smell/feel themselves in.
Students being primary caregivers to family members.
Students telling you they’re “sick” because they don’t know how to tell you — or know the consequences of telling you — about their depression/anxiety/chronic illness and/or pain/you name it.
Students having more jobs than an adjunct, and sleeping less than one.
Students being in an abusive relationship that may well dictate, unpredictably, when they can leave the house.
Students knowing that, even if the professor is trying to make the class “about” race, say, it will be fundamentally geared toward white students anyway, so why bother?
I could go on. I probably should. I know I’ve missed a lot.
With all this in mind, we strip down the supposedly benign word “attendance” from its disguise as a neutral, even-keeled indicator of a student’s individual work ethic to its value-laden assumptions about broader structural issues that contort student agency into shapes we are often unwilling to recognize.
Fundamentally, when we talk about attendance, we talk about race. We talk about dis/ability. When we talk about attendance, we talk about the structural violences that inhibit students’ desires and abilities to give us the benefit of their presence (and I say this earnestly, without the dripping hues of sarcasm many use similar phrases with).
When we talk about attendance, we talk about trauma and the ways that pain both enters the classroom and sometimes, prevents us from entering the classroom.
In these ways, and many more, laying out and enforcing hard-and-fast attendance policies is directly counter to anti-racist, anti-ableist pedagogies.
It’s high time we rethink forms of attendance — forms of presence — and expand the modes of participation that we deem acceptable.
Students come up with great ideas for these multiple modes of participation and presence. Just ask them. And find out what transportation assistance, child care, and health care resources your institutions might offer. Prioritize sharing these with students over punishing them, over assuming that they “don’t care.” And perhaps spare a thought or two for the dually racialized and ableist hegemonic image of the student who “doesn’t care.” Is this what we want to weave into the fabric of our syllabi, into our first-day-of-class interactions?
More on all this in later posts: for now, feel free to wade in with questions, comments, gifsets from the episode of Buffy you’re up to and how it’s helped you in the classroom (it’s helped me plenty!).
Hopefully, as the skies get dark ever earlier and the too-quick transition between fall and winter/spring terms overtake us, we can all continue thinking about attendance enforcement vis a vis racial and dis/ability justice, and how we might adjust our assessment pedagogies to resist hegemonic assumptions about what it means to show up and who gets to give a damn.