Why I Take Attendance In College

Every semester.  As I go over the syllabus with a new class, there is inevitably the response from a few freshmen, “Why do you take attendance?  That’s for kids— stop treating us like kids.”

The only reason people would have a problem with taking attendance is because they want to ditch class with no penalty.  It’s time to learn that there is no such thing as an action with no consequence.

“But if I can pass the class without being there every day, why should I always come?”

To which I’d explain that that’s not the point.  A critical part of college—perhaps the biggest part, in fact—is inculcating professionalism in students.  Across the board, regardless of major, molding students into professionals may be the number one goal.

And that means attendance.

I’ve told countless young people that the purpose of college isn’t even ultimately about the training they receive in their field.  Most college graduates don’t work in the field of their degree, anyway.  So what difference does that degree make?  Why does the world care that you have it?

Because that degree is hard evidence that you made a difficult long-term commitment and followed through on it.  Anyone who can prove that about themselves is worth their weight in gold.

And there is no single factor in professionalism more basic, more fundamental than being where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there.  Students absolutely have to learn this.

More students fail my college classes, by far, from absences than for any other reason.  Usually they just play around too much and end up flunking out.  Often they goof off for several days and then a real emergency puts them over the top for absences allowed for the course.

In those cases, students complain that it’s not fair—that they have good reasons for missing class.  I tell them that I completely agree, but that it’s not supposed to be fair.  They’re used to a world that caters to them, that bends over backwards to make everything not only available, but easy.  The real world isn’t like that—can’t be like that—and they need to learn it now.  The burden is on them—has to be on them—to perform to expectations regardless of whatever other understandable, even necessary obstacles get in the way.

Professionals—scratch that—all adults, must practice ordering their lives around their priorities.  They must learn to handle life’s sour setbacks and discouragements without that interfering in their work.

Nobody ever became competent, much less great, any other way.

If you can’t be counted on to show up at places and times you’ve committed to do so, you are not a professional.

I have a class this semester that has met twice a week since January.  As of today, how many of us have perfect attendance?  Two.

Oh wait, do I not count?  In that case, it’s only one.

One of the 17 has seven absences, one over the limit.  I’ll need to pull aside this young woman and let her know that she’s exceeded the limit and needs to drop the class.  This always happens.  They don’t even keep track of how many days they’ve missed.  Near the end of the semester, several will approach me to ask how many absences they’ve had.  Imagine asking that of a boss in the real world!

I haven’t missed a day of work this school year.  I haven’t absolutely needed to.  The last time I used any kind of sick day was last Spring when my wife was seriously ill.  I don’t even know how many sick days I have saved up to use—knowing our school district, it could very well be over a hundred.

And what if I started splurging and cashing those in?  Even if I could technically justify it somehow, would my boss reprimand me and dish out some kind of consequence for it?  Of course, and of course he’d be right to do so.

And I could not play it off by saying, “But I left plans for the sub!  And I’ll do my make-up work when I get back!”  There is just no substitute for being there.  In the real world, there are no “excused absences.”  Failure with an airtight alibi is still failure.

Several years ago, a local leader at my church read Tim Russert’s Big Russ and Me.  He then extolled the virtues of Big Russ to our congregation.  What virtues?  He told us that Russert had found, after his father retired, that he hadn’t taken a sick day in decades.  We were advised to show the same loyalty and dedication in our own spheres of work.

Compare this with a student I had twice.  In English 101, she had a lackadaisical attitude towards deadlines and attendance.  After the midterm, I told her she had a C- in the class, on the verge of failing.  Then she missed two weeks of class, without even bothering to email me.  I figured she’d dropped the class, but she came back the following week.  When I asked her where she’d been,. She just laughed, rolled her eyes, and said, “Oh, family drama.”

Every year I meet several young people who say this, and it’s always lightly, unless they want an exception made for them, and then they act serious about their “drama.”  This is exactly what I mean about needing to learn to order our lives around priorities despite life’s usual trials.  Professional success demands it.

That was the second time I had that student, by the way.  The first was in high school, where she was a class president in student council.

Much has been said lately about how this generation feels especially entitled, and I can’t think of any area where that manifests itself so obnoxiously as in the idea that attendance in areas of commitment is optional.  It isn’t.  You don’t want to be treated like kids?  Don’t act like kids.