Syllabus 102: Absence Policies and Discrimination

6a01156e5d7bde970c0133ed0be78a970b-800wi“If you’re not here, you won’t learn.”

What is your attendance policy? Every university has their own policy, but they all boil down to “don’t miss more than a handful of classes, or you won’t be able to keep up.” Usually, it’s around 10% of the overall class time, so in a 16-week semester there might be three allowed absences for a twice-a-week class.

Except for athletes. At many universities (it’s different at community colleges and smaller universities), athletes attending university-sanctioned events are given extra absences. If a soccer player has four games that fall on my class days, he or she can miss those four in addition to the three allowed by the university.

I have issues with this policy. I’m not the first one to write about this, I’m sure, but I’m writing about it now, and my problem isn’t that athletes get to miss more classes than everyone else (although that’s a problem, too).

The problem with this policy is that it’s discriminatory. It gives able-bodied students allowances that other students are not given. That is, by definition, discrimination. Obviously, it discriminates against non-athletes, as well. Why shouldn’t we make the same allowances for the debate team or an a cappella competition? If it’s acceptable for athletes to miss out on class discussions, lectures, and in-class activities, with the assumption that they will catch up, why don’t we make the same assumptions for students representing the college in non-varsity capacities? Of course, those students are also being treated unfairly, but it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act that colleges should be worried about.

By giving special consideration to athletes, in terms of their attendance, in cases where attendance is a university policy (and not an individual determination of each instructor), the college is telling students with disabilities that they are subject to different rules than athletes. That is, or should be, unacceptable.

There is a religious component to this, as well. Almost every university, no matter how secular, closes for Christmas. Some make allowances for other religious observances, including Easter, Good Friday, and so on. Almost all of these allowances are Christian. In America, universities don’t close for Eid. They don’t shut down for Rosh Hashana. And students who are required by their faith to take those days off are rarely given the same exceptions that Christian students are. This, too, is discrimination. A Muslim student must be allowed to fast and pray on Eid, and if that absence impacts that student’s performance in the class, then we have penalized that student based on their religion. Even if we say, “you have three absences, and you are welcome to use one of them for Eid,” that student is at a disadvantage, compared to a Christian student whose religious observances are built into the school calendar: one of them can afford to get the flu, and one of them can’t.

Neither of these is an acceptable of students in a diverse educational setting.

Is the assumption that they will catch up?

I’m not sure, however, that the assumption is that athletes will “catch up.” That might be what we say, but I think it’s more likely that colleges don’t think it matters. Athletes are given special consideration all the time, in terms of their financial support, their housing, their legal status, and so on. In return, they provide the school a service by performing in athletic competitions, which in turn bring in revenue (considerable revenue, to the point where college athletics can be compared to slavery, but that’s a different discussion). All of that is true, and none of that matters. In fact, it makes the situation worse. If those are our arguments, then we are arguing that athletes are providing a quid pro quo, giving the college their skills in return for being treated differently than other students. They are, in other words, buying discrimination.

In effect, the university is not interested in whether or not the athletes succeed in the class (and I have worked at colleges where it was strongly encouraged that we give athletes high enough grades to keep them in the program, regardless of their actual work). The college may not be interested in their academic success, as long as they keep the gravy train rolling in.

Academic Success

I am, however, interested in my students’ academic success. All of them. That means two things, to me: getting athletes to class as often as possible, and keeping the environment around attendance fair and equitable. I refuse to be forced into discrimination by college policies.

Whenever possible, I have quietly done away with zero-tolerance attendance policies. I no longer take off fractions of a grade, or penalize in marginal ways students who have extra-curricular obligations, or who simply would rather not be in class. There are two ways I’ve taken this, and I’m not sure which is better. At times, I’ve done away with “excused absences” altogether. A student can miss so many classes (four or five, usually a couple more than the university allows) for any reason. Any more than that and the student can not get a grade higher than a C in the class. (I’ll write about “contract grading” later.) This applies equally to athletes, non-athletes, and students of every faith and interest.

At other times, I’ve replaced the attendance policy with graded in-class writing. In this case, attendance isn’t technically part of the grade, but students who show up more will get a higher in-class writing grade, and I anticipate for everyone to miss a handful of these in-class writings or quizzes, about as many as I would allow absences. There is research that this is the most effective way to incentivize student attendance and participation, but it feels like a cheat, to me, and I prefer the grading contract model, in part because it puts the choice in the hands of students.

Removing Discrimination

The most important part of any attendance policy, for me, is that it encourages students to be in class where they can learn from one another, and from me. At the same time, why penalize auto-didacts? Yes, we want to rope in the students who are less inclined to come to class than to sleep in, or to work on classes that they think are more important, but is an attendance policy the best way to do that? Is punishment the best answer, or is there a way to positively reinforce attendance, instead?

I don’t have the answers to this. I know that my students deserve to be treated like adults, and treated fairly. There is an argument that attendance policies mirror the workplace attendance policies that students will encounter. If they don’t show up for work, then they will get fired. That argument falls apart when it meets the athlete exception, however. There is no workplace that will allow employees to take the day off to play football, after all. Either we’re teaching them a life skill or we’re not. I don’t believe that’s the point of attendance policies.

The point of attendance policies is to get students into the classroom, where we can teach them, but those policies backfire when they discriminate against one population and privilege another. Those policies fail auto-didacts, and students whose family or employment situations demand more of them than “traditional” students’ do. In that way, too, attendance policies discriminate against students who are economically disadvantaged, and must work to put themselves through school, and against students with health issues (or relatives who have health issues). We often tell those students, “maybe this isn’t the semester to take this class,” but when we say that we are really saying, “the university setting isn’t the place for you, until you are more like a traditional student.”

I don’t know if getting rid of attendance altogether is the answer. I find it interesting that Golding, in the link above, found that his classes’ grades were better in semesters during which he had no attendance policy. Maybe he found what we should have understood all along: if we treat our students like adults, give them a reason to come to class beyond “you will be punished if you don’t,” expect them to be there, and then allow them to live up to that expectation, they will rise to the challenge. If we infantilize them with obviously discriminatory attendance policies (with exceptions that undercut the entire stated reason for the policies and undermine their – and our – credibility), then they will meet that expectation, too.

What do you think? Is it okay for attendance policies to discriminate against non-athletes? Would we benefit from doing away with them altogether? If we simple “forget” to put an attendance policy on our syllabus, then the course contract legally trumps the university policy, for our class, after all. What’s the best approach for our students, and for our classes?

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