90% of Life is just Showing Up

empty-desk-clipart-i1[1]During the last week of school, I received an e-mail from a student asking for an extension on her final project/paper. I had given this assignment to my sophomore level American Literature the third week of school, and I had expected that they would be working on the assignment at least all during  the last half of the semester. The assignment was to read a novel  written during the period we were studying (1870-2000) and write a paper in which the student drew connections between the material we had read and discussed in class and that drew on outside resources to discuss this novel. They were also expected to put together a 3-5 minute presentation that they would share with the rest of the class.  So, two days before the day of the presentations, one of the young women e-mailed me to ask for an extension. I told her she could have an extension on the paper but that she still would have to present during the presentation time. I think commented that she had missed a lot of class and that that would reflect in her grade.  She wrote back that she would have attended more if she had known that attendance counted.

I was quite astonished. First of all, my syllabus clearly states that attendance is important because the class depends on discussion, but furthermore, I was astonished that anyone would assume that attendance was not important. Didn’t this student think that something might happen in class that might be important?  She did confess to being a little intimidated by the other students who seemed to know more than she did. I pointed out that if she had come to class regularly, she might have felt less intimidated.    Why would a student sign up for a class and then not attend? Why wouldn’t she understand that coming to class would help her understand the material?

In one of my Freshman Comp classes, attendance dropped from 26 the first week to 12 who actually took the final.  I am not a dull teacher, but even if I were a dull teacher, don’t students realize that the only people they are hurting but not attending class are themselves? I am not the one paying for college.

I have attended enough College Orientation meetings to know that the refrain “Go to Class” is often repeated.  I know every student hears it many times as they begin college.

The young woman who asked for an extension did not pass. When I looked at my grade book, I realized that she had not turned in either of the other two writing assignments I had given, I am sure this is because I gave them in class, and she was not there. She did not check Blackboard to see if I had posted them. (I had.), nor did she ask me if she had missed anything, nor did she ask her classmates.

While this young woman is extreme, I routinely have students ask me if I am doing anything “important” in class when they tell me that they are going to miss class. I am always aghast. Why would anything we do in class be unimportant? The underlying assumption is that they only need to come if we are doing something “important.”  I do not know how to combat this attitude.  I will not call students to find out why they have not come to class. I hold up my part of the education bargain. I teach. I advise. I do whatever I can to help students who are doing their parts, but I cannot help students who do not come to class.

Our nation is embracing something called the “Completion Agenda,” which is pushing colleges to increase the numbers of students who complete something, a certificate, an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree.  This is noble. Clearly an unfinished anything is worth less than a finished anything. Ask any number of people who almost finished their Ph.D.’s but ended up ABD instead, however, teachers and administrators can only do so much. If students do not understand that they must do their parts, we will continue to have the abysmal completion rates.


3 thoughts on “90% of Life is just Showing Up

  1. I see this with my fellow classmates a great deal more than I would expect at a college level. Granted, I am several years their senior, and perhaps have a bit more perspective on the matter, but I have been equally guilty in the past of not attending classes. Lesson learned on that count.

    Thinking as I do now, the importance of class attendance makes perfect sense; I can no longer put myself in the mindset of someone who thinks of class as a bother. Despite this, I seem to recall wanting to attend college even at an age much closer to what is considered “typical.”

    My initial reaction is that perhaps the importance of attending classes is not stressed thoroughly enough. However, on further reflection it occurs to me that it should not need to be stressed to students who are, ostensibly, adults. It should not be necessary to state such a blatantly obvious fact, yet it somehow seems to be so.

    I am only vaguely familiar with the Completion Agenda, but it seems to be an admirable goal. However, I wonder if the scope of this agenda is too narrow. According to “What’s Wrong with the Completion Agenda—And What We Can Do About It” by Debra Humphreys, three out of four new college students are academically unprepared to succeed (article here: http://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-wi12/humphreys.cfm). The author notes several other interesting issues with the Completion Agenda.

    Perhaps the K-12 system is not sufficient to produce college-ready students, in terms of both academics and motivation. However, I think there is a certain devaluation of learning in our culture that also may be at issue. Regardless, even if there are factors beyond the student’s immediate control, it absolutely does not absolve them of their own responsibility in the matter, and that is perhaps the most important point, even if it is also the most difficult one to remedy.

  2. You mention that you are several years older than your fellow students. I find that attendance is not a problem for “older” students. I have become convinced that high school grads should be strongly encouraged to take a year or two off before they start college. Doing something instead of school, working, volunteering, traveling, ANYTHING would help young people figure out what it is that they actually want to do. They would not going to school just because it’s the “next thing”..

    • I do think the age difference helps. I wonder though, what would be necessary in order to overcome the societal and parental pressures that exist around entering college right after high school. I can certainly recall extended family members telling me that I wouldn’t amount to anything since I wasn’t pursuing higher education at the time. While not as overt, I can recall similar pressure from the school system when I was in high school.

      There is a bit of info floating around regarding gap years during college, but I don’t think the gap year concept really addresses the problem. Getting prospective students to spend some extended time outside of the classroom finding out what they can be passionate about as adults would, I think, go a long way toward producing students who are more likely to graduate and more likely to pursue an educational direction that they’re really motivated to stay on top of.

      A bit of preliminary searching reveals that there doesn’t really seem to be anything in the way of initiatives intended to promote waiting before pursuing a college education. My gut feeling is that something like that would be unpopular, unsuccessful, or both. However, I think that if something like that existed, it could be beneficial for students and institutions both.

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