Sunday, December 6, 2009

Merry Finals Week, Ho-Ho-Ho


The Christmas season is upon us. Amidst the holly, the evergreen wreaths, and the houses decorated to brighten the bleak landscape, it is the toughest part of the semester. Everyone is exhausted, students and professors alike, but for the next two weeks, we are racing to the finish line, panting and sweaty. Somehow, we will get through it, even though at the moment, we cannot imagine how.

This semester has been particularly brutal because of the H1N1 virus on top of the ordinary challenges. Students have been coming down with the usual maladies and dealing with personal disasters: mononucleosis; concussions, and damaged knees and shoulders from playing football; colds; migraines; parents dying unexpectedly.  This semester, I had a young woman in my class whose father, aged 52,  is fighting a losing battle with a brain tumor. She is thin as a reed and always reeks of cigarette smoke. I am sympathetic but troubled by the cigarettes, knowing what lies ahead for someone with that habit. I know she is stressed out, but when the stress ends, will she be able to stop?

The H1N1 epidemic has really thrown me. Fortunately, I have not been affected by it directly, but the stress of its presence in our midst has really affected my classroom. So many students have been absent that I feel like I am continually administering make-up quizzes and going over lectures that they missed. I have always had a strict attendance policy which counts attendance as part of the grade. The semester, we were instructed by the administration to tell the students that if they felt sick, they should stay home. I understand the need for this policy in order to minimize the epidemic, but I knew what would happen.  All those first-year students who are enjoying the new freedom of college, and the seniors who have decided that they know everything there is to know, have used the epidemic as an excuse to blow off their classes.

I gritted my teeth and did as I was told, with the consequences I expected: Some students have missed 7 or 8 classes; most of these are one-day absences which indicate that they are not falling ill from the virus. A suspiciously large number of students miss class on Friday morning, a sure sign that they started the weekend early by going out drinking on Thursday night and are too hung over to come to class on Friday. One student has missed 14 sessions, about half of the semester so far. When Mr. 14-missed-classes showed up last Monday, I called his name a second time in disbelief when I was calling the roll: “You’re here?  I thought you’d dropped the class,” I told him. He had his term paper in hand—it was two weeks late.  His explanation?  He took six classes this semester and every time he was planning to come to mine, he’d have to do work for one of the other classes. He’s a senior and he plans to graduate in May. But how does he expect to make up all the work he missed in the 14 sessions he missed? That’s more than a month worth of classes. Would I give him extra credit work?  No; absolutely not. If this was a job, he wouldn't be allowed to miss a month, and then make it up with some contrived assignment. Extra work is more work for me than for him and I am not sympathetic to this kind of an excuse. 

Most professors do not take attendance at all. I started doing it the second semester that I taught here because during my first semester, I did not have an attendance policy, many students missed many classes,  and one student was out over 20 times. He came to see me after the grades were posted to demand to know why he’d gotten such a poor grade. 

My classroom: Washburn 112

Some students chafe at my attendance policy but I have seen the difference in the quality of their work when they attend classes regularly. My response is simple. I am very clear about the policy; if you don’t like it, drop the class and take something else. 

One can read a book to learn a subject, but the reason one attends classes is that the professor makes a subject come alive, using a variety of materials. The insight one gains from attending a class is much greater than what learns from reading a single book on a subject.  Learning to learn on one’s own takes time. Undergraduates must learn how to do it. I don’t think that I could do it well until I went to law school where great emphasis was put on learning on one’s own. Moreover, one did not miss law school classes on pain of death. 

When students miss class, they miss the lecture, but they also miss the class discussions; the documentary films; the group work; the opportunity to develop the ability to have intellectual discourse. While the overwhelming majority of students will not become academics, the ability to listen to various arguments, pick them apart, and understand when the charlatans in public office are trying to pull the wool over their eyes, is at the very heart of why going to classes, at least in the humanities, is important.

For a professor,  lots of student absences make it very difficult to deliver the curriculum and to manage the small groups. It’s fine for the students who come but I am left with the frustration of knowing that the absent students will only gain a vague outline of what they missed when they copy their classmate’s notes. They miss essential material but I am not going to put my notes on the web. I believe strongly in the importance of class attendance and I am not going to make it easier to skip class. 

The relaxed attendance policy has also meant that many students are handing papers in late and there are lots of phony excuses. The thing I hate the most about teaching is the way the students lie right to your face and there is nothing you can do about it. You know they are lying but how can you prove it?  Usually, it’s impossible.

I am dreading finals week. If I don’t have half a dozen purported illnesses and make-up exams, I will be very surprised. 

The second thing I hate about teaching is the grading, and now I must get back to it. 

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