The arithmetic of attendance: Students juggle priorities

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • December 2, 2015

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Madeline O'Hara is chair of Emerson Dance Company's general board.
Madeline O'Hara is chair of Emerson Dance Company's general board.

On Monday mornings, junior Madeline O’Hara catches a green line train to campus for her noon class. It’s an intense dance course with five total students, and the professor often holds them beyond the class’ end. O’Hara then sprints from the Paramount Center to the sixth floor of the Ansin Building for a 2 p.m. course where, she said, her professor takes attendance three minutes before class begins and does not tolerate tardiness.

“It’s interesting to see if I make it every time,” O’Hara said. “It’s kind of like a game.”

She’s only been late once, but consistently collapses into her seat, out of breath from running up the stairs after a two-hour workout.

After class, the visual and media arts major takes up her role as chair of Emerson Dance Company’s general board at their regular meetings. She gets an hour-long break in the evenings to go home to Back Bay and rest, but then she’s back on campus for EDC rehearsals—where she both dances and choreographs—until late in the night.

This is a regular day for O’Hara, who said she feels a lot of pressure to juggle her extracurricular responsibilities along with classwork.

“I just kind of stuff it all in,” O’Hara said. “I don’t really stop.”

This situation is likely familiar to many at Emerson. Students are known as “quirky and driven,” and one of the main draws of the school is its opportunity to get real world experience in student organizations and internships, according to research done for the college’s rebranding project.

Students are ambitious and often overbooked, and relationships with professors tend to be the deciding factor when it comes to their class attendance.

The college’s attendance policy states students are expected to attend classes regularly, and make up work missed during absences. The only official grounds for excused absences are religious observance and jury duty, as per Massachusetts state law.

While the policy specifies that professors are at liberty to create their own attendance rules, many use one recommended by the Faculty Assembly. Passed by the Assembly in 1996, it specifies for courses meeting twice a week, three unexcused absences equates a failing grade. Classes that meet three times a week are given five unexcused absences.

 

Pacing and priorities

Ashley Cunningham, a senior marketing communication major, said the opportunity to do real-world work makes Emerson’s education appealing, particularly student organizations and internships.

Cunningham is the president and founder of Emerson’s chapter of ActiveMinds. She spends three days a week at her internship for local healthcare advertising agency LehmanMillet, and is a tour guide for the college. She also sings in Achoired Taste, a campus a capella group.

She said her work for student organizations has filled her resume and given her experience to feel prepared as she ventures into the job market.

“My degree looks like everyone else’s degree,” Cunningham said. “What differentiates me is the experience I bring to the table.”

Cunningham said her schedule can take a toll on her mental health. Last year, she took to smoking as a coping mechanism. This semester, she said she lost 15 pounds because she hasn’t had time to eat.

Elise Harrison, director of Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services, said she sees a lot of Emerson students who have trouble balancing their multiple responsibilities and often sacrifice sleep and classwork. She said she advises students to go to class regularly, but is a proponent of taking days off.

“I think that’s kind of a red flag if you’re needing lots of ‘mental health days,’” Harrison said.

Students should evaluate their priorities if they feel constantly overwhelmed and eliminate stressors, Harrison said.

 

Educators’ expectations

In the world of performing arts, showing up is essential, according to Artist-In-Residence and acting professor Melissa Healey. She said many of her department’s faculty have adopted a policy in which a half letter grade is dropped for each unexcused absence.

“The work really happens when we’re inside the room,” Healey said.

Healey teaches a 9 a.m. acting course for first-year students. Healey has only marked three absences all semester in her class of 14.

“The work has been deeper,” Healey said. “We’ve gotten so much further because of it.”

Eric Shaefer, an associate visual and media arts professor, said he expects everyone to attend his classes barring major health or familial issues. He teaches large lecture classes, so he only takes attendance about a third of the time—just enough to give him an idea of who is falling behind.

Schaefer said students need to focus on the one or two commitments they’re passionate about to maintain balance with classwork, which is their main responsibility.

“When you stretch yourself so thin, you’re not doing your best work,” he said.

 

Presence and partnership

Senior Victoria Loubert said she thinks most Emerson students are conscious of the difference between indulgently skipping class and taking care of themselves. She was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition that causes inflammation in the digestive system, and sometimes needs to miss class due to resulting health complications.

The visual and media arts major is the Student Government Association’s class of 2016 senator, editor-in-chief of the college’s yearbook, works for the Campus Center and Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and is currently taking five classes.

She said she works with each professor individually to address her needs when issues arise, but it can be uncomfortable bringing up the topic.

“I don’t feel like I want to explain [my disease] to every single professor,” Loubert said.

If students are regularly struggling to make it to class, Schaefer said, he can often help find solutions if students are open to having a conversation.

“If you have an issue, if you have a problem, let’s talk,” Schaefer said.

Healthy, comfortable relationships between students and educators is important, according to Harrison. She said that if students don’t feel that they can work with a professor to find mutual solutions, there is a lack of trust that is detrimental to both parties.

This summer, Loubert took a class with a professor who was understanding when she needed to miss class time. She said there were a few times when her doctors appointments were backed up, and she appreciated that she could let her professor know and not be afraid of consequences.

“If I skip class and just go to a movie, I feel some sort of semblance of guilt,” Loubert said. “If I’m doing it for the sake of my mental health, then I sort of weigh the odds. Because class is important to me, but also, I’m important to myself.”