A Punitive Attendance Policy

As the semester ends, I’m bracing for another round of complaints about the attendance policy of one of our tenured faculty members. The policy is, especially from the perspective of many students, especially strict—miss six or more classes (TTH) during the semester and the student receives an automatic F. No questions and no exceptions, except (presumably) those that are formally authorized disability accommodations. Inevitably one or more students, many of whom work or have care responsibilities, run afoul of this policy, and they come to me in significant distress. The faculty member clearly states the policy in the syllabus, which is required by our college. To me, the policy—especially when it reaches my level—is punitive, but my faculty member is adamant that it is part of his/her right as the instructor to structure the class as appropriate. How do I handle this situation?—Prof. Punitive Policy

Dear Professor Policy,

I’m sympathetic to your situation, and to the issues this policy presents for students. I’m going to side with your faculty member briefly, before addressing the larger issue. To me, six absences seems like a lot. In an average 15-week semester, that’s 20% of the class, a not inconsiderable amount, even on a campus in which students have multiple responsibilities in their lives. More to the point, missing one-fifth of classes makes it hard for students to keep up with the work. So it doesn’t strike me as an unreasonable cut-off (indeed, on many campuses the policy is a possible grade reduction after 3 absences and possible failure after 5).

So I don’t think that 6 absences is a draconian limit. The problem here seems to be the “automatic” part of the penalty, with no exceptions. For example, does the faculty member allow excused absences for demonstrated illness, religious observance not covered by the college calendar, etc? Does your colleague make a distinction between excused and unexcused absences at all? That might be a place to start a discussion.

Finally, does your department have an absence policy? The danger here is that the college’s requirement that faculty announce their policies on the syllabus doesn’t account for the possibility that these policies could vary widely, leaving students with a sense that rules around attendance are arbitrary and at the discretion of individual faculty members (which, to be honest, sounds like how it works at your institution). This is worth a department-wide conversation to hammer out reasonable attendance guidelines for the department. Of course, your colleague could still argue that it is their academic freedom to set their own policy, which it is. But having a department-wide consensus on what counts as a reasonable framework, a conversation in which your colleague has had the opportunity to participate fully, helps students understand that the faculty member is an outlier to an otherwise consistent set of rules.

—The Chair

1 Comment

  • LYNN BURLEY says:

    This policy is standard in our department and our college (although instructors can choose their own): dropped from the class after the 6th absence in MWF or 4 absences TR classes. The only “excused” absences are those of university sanctioned events (travelling athletes, music, debate team or other such stuff). I explain to students that I am not spending my time trying to figure out what constitutes “excused.” If you have the flu, you can get a doctor’s excuse, but if you are having bad cramps, headache, and general misery due to your menstrual cycle, you don’t get a doctor’s note for that, and I’m not going to try to figure out if your headache is a good enough reason to miss class. Or your cat died. That’s pretty devastating, but good enough to miss class? Or your child is sick but you are not. Or your car wouldn’t start for the third time this semester. I’m not judging those things! You are here or you are not. That’s it. I also explain my idea of social constructionism in that we are building knowledge together in the classroom and every voice needs to be heard and every ear needs to listen, so attendance is important. I have found when students understand the policy and the reasons for it, I do not often get complaints.

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