April 14, 2006

It has been said that the most important part of life is simply showing up, even if late. Showing up, even if it buys you nothing right there, supposedly pays off in the long run. I have mixed feelings about this.

I generally do not like being somewhere just because I have to. I would much rather be there because I want to. I usually want to when it is important, even if there is no gain to me. Being there, for someone else, is just as important as being there for myself. If you want to be there, then you are there for yourself anyway. So this is somewhat tautological.

Being a teacher means at some point one determines whether or not to impose attendance rules on students. My casual observation tells me that there are some faculty that believe in taking attendance, and there are those who do not. These groups are sharply polarized, having taken their respective stances early in their teaching careers, and with heels dug in, resolve to never budge. I have never believed in attendance, yet am understanding of professors that feel they must – to each his own. One has to figure out what works for oneself, or at least what one thinks works. Of course, the poor students have to deal with both types, with some flexibility to choose between them. Some, but not much.

I abhor attendance for some good reasons:

    >LI>I believe that one must teach well enough that students come to class eagerly. If you add nothing to the knowledge of your students by being miserably incompetent as a teacher, it seems hardly fair to expect students to come to class. The rational ones would clearly realize that they need not waste their time listening to you waste yours.
  • Conditional on your being a good teacher, if a student misses class, then he/she is already paying the cost for absence. By marking them down on attendance, you end up double counting the cost. To me, this is patently unfair.
  • Even if you believe that students need to be encouraged to come to class for their own good, assuming for the moment that they are unable to measure the cost of their absence, bringing them there does not ensure learning. I for one spent a good proportion of my time sleeping in class, for no other reason that the fact that I used to stay awake most of the night, making up my sleep deficit in class. I must admit though that I still gained from being in class than being elsewhere. But warm bodies in class is no guarantee that learning goals are being attained.

We are entering an age of multimedia in the classroom, where each lecture is being recorded, re-packaged, and then audio-visualized and compressed onto a single file that may be reviewed on a laptop or on an iPod. I am in fact using such technology this term in my class. Will this lead to greater absences from the classroom given that students can access the entire multimedia experience later. Are we going to become TiVo-University?

Apparently not. On campuses where audio-visual recordings are becoming commonplace, attendance seems to have been encouraged because students find that they want to ask questions and ensure that more content is digitally preserved, as I learnt at a recent talk by Apple reps on campus. They are no doubt thinking ahead and realizing that they can take the entire experience in college with them and revisit the classroom years ahead. This entire generation of digital people is more far-sighted than we give them credit for. And they clearly believe, more than previous generations, that education is a long-term endeavor.

Its also important to understand what we mean by “attending” – is it mere physical presence in class, or is it access to the classroom experience? With digital technology, Apple points out that replaying the class through an iPod while in the gym or on a walk means that many more slices of time are being expended on attending class; extending it well beyond mere classroom hours.

Finally, coming to class may be important for critical energy in the room. But I doubt this – I would be just as happy teaching a small group of two or three and recording it for the remaining fifty who would receive it virtually.

Therefore, attendance does not ensure attending, so why bother. The sooner we remove the tyranny of “habeas corpus” from our classrooms, the better.