Discourse and Attendance in College Classes

Many of my posts on RCL have been about discourse. None has been directly about discourse in classrooms, but I do try to make my classes sites of civil discourse. This is both because student dialogue is what makes the classroom fun and exciting for me and because I believe it is an essential part of college. (See this.). The discourse that occurs in classrooms and elsewhere on college campuses is an invaluable part of the college experience.

As I’ve discussed previously, I think there are 2 basic reasons to engage in discourse: to maintain or nourish a relationship or to convey information. (See here.) In college classrooms, I will simply assume, the latter reason is paramount. That is also hugely important elsewhere on college campuses—students learn a lot from each other—but the first reason is also hugely important as students make connections with others, some of whom will be life long friends and some of whom will be business associates.

This post is primarily about classrooms, so it’s the conveying of information that is relevant here. In particular, its what is relevant when asking whether attendance should be required in college classes. My own view about this has changed over the years. In the past, I’ve marked people down for poor attendance or multiple tardies or made class participation—for which attendance is a necessary prerequisite—a separate and substantial part of students’ grades. At a certain point, though, colleagues convinced me that making participation a part of a student’s grade was unfair to those students who have significant psychological issues with speaking in class. At first, I responded to that by allowing the “participation” to be outside of class—either in office visits or email. Eventually, I dropped it as a requirement and instead made it only a way to improve one’s grade. I’ve never stopped believing, though, in the importance of attending and participating in class.

Over the years, I’ve had students approach me about taking a class without attending. Some had very good reason they could not attend courses during the day when the course was offered—needing to work full time to support their family, for example. My standard reply was always something like “no, attendance is required” or “you can’t pass this class without attending, so no.” More recently, I have been questioning the wisdom of that. The issue has to involve consideration of the sort of information that is conveyed in classes.

As a philosopher, I am not at all concerned that students learn biographical facts about philosophers and only somewhat concerned that students learn even basic facts about different theories. My main concern is in getting students to see how to do philosophy. What that means is that I want students to learn how to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions. I want to convey to them how to do this well.

Given what I want the students to get out of my classes, my question becomes “is attendance necessary for students to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions?” Another way to ask the question is to ask: “do individual learners need professors to learn how to do those things?” I think most do.

Classically, education has three stages: grammar, logic, rhetoric. I prefer to think of these in terms of mimesis, analysis, synthesis. The idea is that young children must memorize information, imitating language and such, and until they have some minimum amount of knowledge, they can’t be expected to do anything else. Once they have that, though, they can move on to the second stage wherein they can use logic to analyze things, figuring out what goes where and why. They can even question—analyze—the bits of information they previously learned. Only with mastery of analysis can they move on to the third stage wherein they can make something new, synthesizing something from the parts of what they have analyzed.

Teachers are clearly needed for mimesis—someone has to provide the student what it is that should be learned (memorized, imitated). Perhaps teachers are also needed for the beginnings of the second stage, pointing students in the right direction as they begin to do logical analysis. One needs to understand basic rules of deductive logic to do analysis well and I suspect most of us need someone to teach us that. But does everyone? Frankly, I doubt it though I suppose how much teachers are needed here will depend on how much of logic is innate to our reasoning abilities. It seems even less likely that teachers are necessary for the third stage, though clearly someone to give us direction can be useful and I think it likely that most of us learn best in dialogue with others. If that is right, attendance in class would clearly be useful. So perhaps that is the answer to my question: most people need direction, they can only get that in class, so attendance should be required.

What, though, if some want to learn without professors? Some certainly can do so. Whether they should be allowed to do so when in college is another question. After all, if they are able to do so, why should they enroll in college at all? If they do enroll, the college can simply say “you are enrolling here and that means accepting that we know best how you will learn (or at least recognizing that we get to decide), and we deem it necessary for you to attend courses.”

Some will no doubt think that the sort of view just attributed to a college is overly paternalistic. On the other hand, some people will be unfortunately wrong when they think they can teach themselves collegiate level material. Some people, after all, read great books and completely misunderstand them. I have met people who thought themselves erudite for reading Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and others, but whose comprehension of those authors was abysmal. Such people would be well served by a policy requiring course attendance. Without it, they would lack comprehension and thus do poorly on any assessments.

Still, presumably some can read those materials and do well. (In other systems, after all, attending classes is—was?—not expected; one studies a set of materials and then is examined.) Others might not do well, but do well enough for their purposes. They may, that is, only want some knowledge (or some level of skill)—happy to have read the texts even if their comprehension is limited—and be happy to get a C or C- in a course. They may have reason to want a college degree independent of learning well. (In our society, after all, many seem only to go to college to get a degree to signal to employers that they are worth hiring. It’s hard to blame them for this given how our society works.)

So a student may have good reason to enroll in a college, register for a course, and not attend. But what should we think about this and what should professors do? Some professors, of course, may be annoyed or insulted if students are apparently unconcerned to attend regularly or show up on time. I was in the past, but no longer am. I still, though, have a hard time tolerating feigned surprise at grades from students who obviously did not prioritize the class. I would prefer a student who says “its not worth my coming to class; I’ll just try to pass without doing so” to one who lies about how hard they are trying to do the work. Frankly, I am coming to think that if they pass, the former simply deserve congratulations. (If they don’t pass, they can’t expect me to be upset. I can root for their passing, without being surprised if they don’t.) But, honestly, I’d be hugely surprised if they did at all well without attending. That is the main concern—the best pedagogy.

Why would I be surprised if a non-attending student passed? Frankly, I think that the vast majority of people learn better in a class with a professor than they can without. If nothing else, in philosophy and other humanities classes, they learn something very important—how to engage in good civil, honest, and productive discourse. That does affect how they perform on exams and papers. What I expect in all of the writing my students do—whether on a short essay exam, longer essay exams, or papers—is well-written and well thought out, honest and civil responses to whatever prompt is provided. I want them to do philosophy after all, not sophistry or fluff. Attending class means being in an environment designed to help them learn. If they participate as I hope they do, they can also help improve that environment. That makes for better outcomes for all in the class. Even if they don’t participate—and, again, I realize doing so is honestly hard for some students—they are likely to do better simply because they hear the sort of discourse I seek to promote. If they hear others practicing good discourse, they are likely to pick up on what it is. Attendance helps.

The whole point of classes is that for most students, they promote learning—for those attending. Why, then, would someone want to register for a class if they don’t plan to attend? One answer is that the current system mainly doesn’t allow them to get the credentials of college without doing so. Mainly. We do have fully asynchronous online classes for which one does the work on one’s own time so long as one completes it by the required deadlines, including finishing it all by the end of a semester. (But why insist on a time limit?)

While we don’t have a system conducive to students not registering for classes and yet getting credentialed, that isn’t reason to require attendance in the classes we offer. Perhaps we ought to make it possible for students to take a syllabus, learn the material on their own, and sit for an exam when they feel themselves ready, without imposing a schedule on them. If they pass, great. If not, perhaps they try actually taking the class (i.e., including attending). That may be what we should do. Until then, some of us will require attendance and some will not.

Open for comments and discussion. What do others think?

One thought on “Discourse and Attendance in College Classes”

  1. I largely agree here, but a couple things.
    1, it’s no more unfair to expect discussion because some people have problems speaking than it is to expect essays because some people have problems writing or to expect exams because some people have test anxiety. No matter what modality you use, someone will be not as good at that as someone else. The point is that you, the professor, have a considered judgment about which modalities you think are important. You say your goal is that they learn to do philosophy; discussion seems no less important than essay-writing. So while you may want to be understanding and to some extent accommodating to students with particular struggles, that doesn’t invalidate your choices as the professor.
    2, or maybe this is 1a, requiring attendance because discussion is important is a legitimate choice even if you don’t require each student to contribute to the discussion, because students benefit from listening to others’ discussions.
    3, it’s a complete red herring that it’s conceptually possible that this or that student can learn all of what you want them to learn without coming to class, as you acknowledge, because that will be at best a tiny minority of people worldwide, and probably still fewer at any particular institution. So people who deploy this objection are missing two points: one, that being present during discussion is part of the learning that’s supposed to be taking place (as you’ve described it, and as would I), and two, that professors are there to profess; i.e., to guide and interpret. A good professor will be able to give their spin while also allowing students to see that there are other possible spins. So the objection “I don’t care if they come as long as they learn the material” is moot if part of “learning the material” is grappling with the different perspectives on the readings of the professor and of their classmates. I actually do have this attitude when I teach logic, but in no other class; and even in logic, it’s rare that someone has very bad attendance but gets an A, so I strongly encourage them to attend regularly. In other classes, though, “learning the material” is partly _constituted by_ their presence. So a student who said “I would like to take this class, but I can’t ever actually attend” would, I think, have failed to understand the very nature of the class.

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