June 10th, 2011
The much beleaguered California State university system is encouraging professors to take attendance. This activity is meant to encourage retention and student progress—you know, the buzzwords–student success. The logic goes that if no one is paying attention to whether or not you are attending classes then you are more likely to avoid those classes. Given the choice between listening to your prof lecture at you or lolling around campus in the California sunshine, odds are you’re not going to pick door #1. Things are even more aggressive at Northern Arizona University, where electronic sensors and clickers are being used to track attendance, recording who does and does not show up for class. The ostensible goal is to improve retention among freshmen. Yeah, I bet everyone is rushing to apply to Northern Arizona right now, just dying to be counted as present and accounted for every single day of the semester.
It all brings up the spectre of science fiction—or dystopia–doesn’t it? Students walking around with ID chip cards who are literally clicked as “here” upon entering designated, wired spaces… like tagged fish, or moose with radar discs on their foreheads. One of the great liberating facts of university experience is not being under surveillance. Being able to leave the paranoid feelings of high school is a rite of passage, a measure of one’s emergence into responsible adulthood. Even if one abuses the responsibility and sleeps in for over half one’s classes, that’s the choice one makes. Better than sleeping in class (see above) when compelled to attend.
I have always told my first-year classes that research shows there is a strong correlation between attendance and higher grades. It’s good they know that, in case they were seeking some survival tips. But I have never taken attendance, except in my head, and would never dream of imposing such a condition in my classroom. It’s so infantilizing. I never tell upper level classes any such thing. By then, I figure they should know better. As a professor who, like most, needs an audience, I have always been somewhat troubled or even annoyed by those students who just couldn’t or didn’t bother to show up, and who then suddenly appeared at the final examination, all dressed up with nothing to know. It bugged me, largely because it meant they missed out on my lectures, rich class discussions, and my best jokes. But I never insisted they had to attend any of those. Up to them. It’s their funeral, as we used to say in grade school.
I suspect the attendance-taking requirement at some US schools is emerging out of a sense of panic, as more and more university administrators are being asked to justify their budgets to their funders by showing positive outcomes—that is high numbers of graduates. One of the ways to keep students on their pathways to graduation is to make attendance mandatory, or so the theory goes. You can see why in such a surveillance climate online courses would be so much more attractive. On the internet, to paraphrase an old joke, no one really knows if you’re there or not.
I haven’t heard of any such drastic measures here in Canada, although some of my colleagues have boasted about the climate of fear they have generated in first-year classes by taking attendance. I’ve bit my tongue, wondered about their teaching ratings. Graduate seminars are a whole different order of responsibility, of course; attendance simply isn’t an issue. Not showing up is a death wish. You don’t need to be clicked in to know that.
Most telling about this development is just how desperate some universities are getting to show graduation results. What next? HD head-cams for every college student? Tattooed bar codes? You heard it here.