I recently came across a report from a student—some math classes, according to what I heard, do not encourage attendance, since all that matters is how you do on the test. Now, it turns out that this report was inaccurate. The professor herself wrote me,
“While it’s true that there is no specific grade attached to course attendance or participation, this student’s understanding of my expectations [or my understanding of their understanding!] is not accurate. In fact, our course syllabus states, “You are strongly encouraged to attend lecture every day.” And it is in lecture that we discuss content of weekly quizzes and the supporting work that we expect to see for each type of problem. Attendance is particularly important in this course since we will study a fair number of supplemental topics that are not covered in our text book.”
If the student’s report as I heard it had been true, it would have been against Case Western Reserve University policy which clearly states that “[s]tudents are expected to attend classes regularly.” All that is left open is the way in which poor attendance might affect the evaluation of the student’s overall course work. It is the professor’s right to not evaluate attendance, but that does not affect the importance of showing up. Clearly, attendance is part of coursework.
Still, you might wonder, why? In my experience, students often misinterpret the lack of a precise grading rubric concerning some element of class to indicate that something is not actually educationally important. But grades are not the only indicators of importance. There are several different kinds of reasons behind the importance of showing up.
The first comes from accreditation. Credit hours are given in a way that correlates with contact hours with professors in class. These classes might be online or on campus, but the credit hours reflect having been in contact with the professor a certain number of hours per week. These accredited hours are the class times. So students have to attend class to honestly earn their credits, and professors have to uphold attendance to fulfill their duties to the accredited institution. Here the work is purely formal, involving an agreement on convention. If we decide to do our work here, the rules of the game demand that we do certain things to earn what we do.
The second kind of reason comes from the idea of feedback in learning. Contact hours are accredited in part because during that time, professors can see how things are going for the class and fine-tune the teaching as they go. The questions raised by the class, the quality of the discussion and the presence or lack of comprehension all give professors active feedback of how things are going for the class and with the students. Combined with individual student work, class discussion helps professors anticipate where the course might best go in its emphasis —and over several years, syllabus—to realize its goals. This, in turn, fine-tunes education for students over time. Part of the work students do in class is thus to show where the class is working and where it could be fine-tuned.
The third kind of reason concerns community. Part of why contact hours are accredited is that collective learning is valued for its benefits to all. The idea here is not that every group will teach you more than you could teach yourself, but that on the whole learning together is more likely to create a learning community and thus a learning environment. Moreover, there is a moral idea here, that learning should be shared in a community. Education, according to this line of reasoning, is just as much collective as it is individual. Part of the work students should do in class is to contribute to their learning community.
The fourth kind of reason concerns research. In classes where there is live inquiry, not simply regurgitation of programs, the class itself is a research process for everyone involved, the professors included. The idea here is that the class is a research team of a sort. In such classes, it is important for people to be in dialogue and working together on the same page, in order for the class research to evolve across the semester.
When students don’t show up regularly, their reentry is disruptive, throwing off work that has been done and wasting time with catching up on old conversations that established premises and conclusions. The research team gets strained. The work of class thus partially involves, at least in some classes, being part of a research team that creates an evolving inquiry.
The last kind of reason concerns the idea of education as a transformation of our way of seeing and being. According to this idea, which is older even than the liberal arts and indeed gave rise to them, education is not about learning skills or acquiring knowledge. Rather, it is about becoming a different kind of person. This may involve skills and knowledge, but it is greater than these. It involves a shift in habits and in sensibility. Here, reaccustoming of sensibility is key, and near daily work together in person is a simple and fairly reliable means to advance it. The work of the student is thus in part to show up and be personally involved.
In sum, going to class is at the heart of education’s work for many kinds of reasons. It is what we have to do to go by the book and be honest in an accredited system, and it is what we should do insofar as we are part of a learning community, the reasons in support of which are of many kinds. Finally, it is part of participating in a way of life where, in person, we change who we are and develop our sensibility together.
Professor in Ethics