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.

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College Textbooks

A recent article includes college textbooks among the biggest consumer rip offs in America.


Releasing superfluous new editions is a favorite trick of publishers.

Why do we need brand new algebra books?  Has there been some major breakthrough in the field of algebra lately?  Some paradigm-shifting, cutting-edge research totally redefined that field and now the algebra books from 2010 are hopelessly obsolete?

Ditto for Shakespeare.  What could possibly cause a legitimate demand for new editions of Shakespeare?  It’s not like he’s written anything new lately.  We could literally use the same Shakespeare textbooks we had 300 years ago.

Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of Race Relations

As a high school teacher, I often use articles about provocative current events to stimulate student discussion and writing.  Last year, in one such journaling assignment, we read this piece about how Asian students are discriminated against in college admissions.

The article described how students are asked to check a box for their race on application forms, which may then be used to give them extra “points” or–especially if you’re Asian–be held against you.

I couldn’t have predicted the most common response: students wanted to know what box they should check, because of their multi-racial background.  Several students in each class said that they didn’t identify themselves as any major race at all.

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“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.


At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  Continue reading

Name Brand Colleges

Deep into application season, here’s some advice I’ve been giving high school seniors for years: it doesn’t matter what college you go to.

There is no good reason to spend many times more on a fancy, “name brand,” out-of-state school.  It may look a little more impressive on paper, but that’ s about all the difference you’re likely to ever get out of that extra huge investment.

In the real world, most companies and colleagues won’t care where you went to school; it’ll just matter that you went at all.  Just as it’s better to take a harder class and get a lower grade, it’s better to go to a less distinguished school and finish what you start.

Ultimately, the point of college, for career purposes, isn’t skill training or networking: it’s to prove that you can make a difficult long-term commitment and see it through.  That’s what people want to see.  That’s what makes your college degree important.

Besides, paying ten times more for a name brand school is absolutely not going to earn you ten times more salary in life.  It’s a poor investment.

Yes, there are exceptions: colleges that specialize in a certain field, for instance.  But generally, in education just as in medicine, the generic stuff is just as good as the designer brand.  (The same, really: what do you think Harvard knows about teaching college algebra or Shakespeare that your local school doesn’t?)

Don’t waste your money.  Go to Hometown U.  And graduate.

Remedial Higher Education in California

The California State University system has succumbed to the overwhelming needs of underprepared students:

Wracked with frustration over the state’s legions of unprepared high school graduates, the California State University system next summer will force freshmen with remedial needs to brush up on math or English before arriving on campus.

But many professors at the 23-campus university, which has spent the past 13 years dismissing students who fail remedial classes, doubt the Early Start program will do much to help students unable to handle college math or English.

“I’m not at all optimistic that it’s going to help,” said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year’s freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

During a session in one of my own remedial college classes this semester, I discussed my notes and advice after reading one set of their essays, and I noted that the past tense of use was used, as in, We used to go to high school.  Invariably, these students had written, We use to go to high school.  Just another example of miswriting based on an exclusively oral culture.

But that’s not the bad part; such instruction is par for the course–no pun intended.  What really shocked me was that after I explained that rule, they argued with me about it.  For a few minutes.  Pretty viciously.  They had to insist that they were right, that the slangy version they assumed to be accurate really was, and that their professor was somehow wrong.  Perhaps their strength in numbers somehow proved to their satisfaction that they could shout me down?  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

The Biggest Difference Between High School and College

For years, I’ve taught mostly high school honors classes and remedial college classes.  By a wide margin, the high school students are more literate, more creative, and more productive in every way.  What do they do that’s different? 

They have already learned the key to success: self-motivation.  Most high school students are used to being spoon fed and led carefully by the hand; what makes someone an honors student, by and large, is taking over the reins of their own life.  Not coincidentally, the reason why so many otherwise bright and talented young adults only slide by in high school and fail in college altogether is that they haven’t internalized that idea.

In high school, for instance, the focus is on classwork, while homework and independent study exist to supplement and reinforce the classwork.  In college, however, the focus is on the homework and independent study, and the classwork exists largely to supplement and reinforce what’s done outside of the classroom, by the student, on his or her own.  That’s a transition that many young people have a hard time adjusting to. 

Like any habit, the earlier it’s inculcated, and the more diligently it’s practiced, the more likely it is that someone’s going to be successful at it.

Defending UNLV’s New Freshman Orientation

Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that UNLV will begin a new class next year, a required freshman orientation course.  The class looks like a seminar designed to acclimate students to college life and work, focusing on the purposes of higher education and the skills required to succeed there. 

A local talk radio host ripped into it this morning, and the comments under the RJ story are universally negative.  But here’s why they’re all wrong. 

If this seems like a dumbing down to anyone, consider the caliber of students we now work with.  The decade-plus long experiment in Nevada with the Millennium Scholarship has filled our campuses with students who barely squirmed out of high school, who did it with lowered standards, and who now come to college with little financial investment of their own in it.  Many simply do not have the background to succeed here.  If UNLV wants to reduce its abysmal drop out rate, such remedial training is necessary.  Who can fault us for giving our students  the foundation they need? 

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New Class of 2015 Mindset List

Beloit College has just released their new guide for faculty to understand this year’s incoming freshmen: the Mindset List, 75 facts about today’s students.  The top ten are:

  1. There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway.
  2. Ferris Bueller and Sloane Peterson could be their parents.
  3. States and Velcro parents have always been requiring that they wear their bike helmets.
  4. The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports.
  5. There have always been at least two women on the Supreme Court, and women have always commanded U.S. Navy ships.
  6. They “swipe” cards, not merchandise.
  7. As they’ve grown up on websites and cell phones, adult experts have constantly fretted about their alleged deficits of empathy and concentration.
  8. Their school’s “blackboards” have always been getting smarter.
  9. “Don’t touch that dial!”….what dial?
  10. American tax forms have always been available in Spanish.

What This Professor Professes

A few weeks ago, a former student groused about college tuition on Facebook, to which I cheekily replied with a favorite quote from Good Will Hunting: “You paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the exact same education you could have got for a buck fifty in late charges at the library.” 

Another commenter admitted that, but asked, “Who recognizes a library education?” 

That’s a revealing question.  It’s meant to say, obviously, that no potential employer will credit what you know based on your own reading alone.  What the world wants to see is degrees and credentials. *

But here’s where the commenter’s challenging query falls short: I’ve never said that the purpose of education is to get a good job. 

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The Real Purpose of College

Recently, a discussion in one of my college classes (the same kind I mentioned last year about “The Single Purpose of All Education“) brought up the topic of why these students were there.  They mentioned all of the trite, pat, “Sunday school” answers: to get training for a job, to earn credentials for a career, to add to their education, etc. 

Those answers are all adequate enough, I guess, (though it’s sad that none of them thought to mention an induction into a life as a literate citizen), but I threw them for a loop when I explained the truth.

It’s no secret that most college graduates do not work in the field of their degree, thus negating the “career training” angle.  So what is college really for?

Think about it.  What does having a college degree tell potential emloyers about you?  What can they surmise about you based on the fact that you have that piece of paper, wherever it’s from and whatever field of study it mentions? 

They can tell that you made a difficult long-term commitment and followed through on it.  And in the real world, my friends, a person who can prove that is worth their weight in gold.