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Absence policy works for workshops

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • April 12, 2012

It’s a common complaint heard in the halls of the Walker Building, the dining hall deli line, the smoke cloud outside of the Little Building. The gripe is that Emerson’s class attendance policy that limits unexcused absences doesn’t treat students like adults, and truant students should be left to deal with missing class on their own instead of facing failure for exceeding the absence limit.

As part of its academic reform effort, Emerson’s Student Government Association is lobbying the administration to modify the attendance policy. Our representatives created a list of supporting points, which claim that mandatory attendance fails to make students responsible for their own actions “because it penalizes students simply for being absent when instead they should realize the consequences of their absences by missing out on worthwhile course content.” Additionally, they assert that the policy does not allow students to give substandard professors feedback in the form of absence, citing several higher education professionals who argue against compulsory class appearance on the basis that it does not motivate students. 

However, this list misses the point of the attendance policy. What matters is not the student’s responsibility to themselves or their professors, but their responsibility to other students.

At a small, specialized school like Emerson, we rely on our peers as much as our professors to create a satisfying classroom experience and develop our education. Nowhere is this more evident than the workshop classes in the writing and film programs. Getting a professor’s remarks and red ink on your screenplay or short story is just one element of that experience. For a true workshop environment, the writer needs a chorus of critique from fellow prospective novelists, poets, and screenwriters gathered around the conference table.

Without the attendance policy, students could make appearances at the three or four classes where their work receives attention, and sit out the rest of the class. They may be penalized by the professor by losing participation points, but could move onto the next workshop level without reading another word of student writing. 

This isn’t to say that a writing workshop is the only setting where students are accountable to their fellow learners. Smaller schools like Emerson keep class sizes in check to promote a more active classroom environment, in contrast to the large lecture halls at other institutions. According to U.S. News and World Report’s 2012 College Rankings, only 1.4 percent of classes at Emerson had more than 50 students, and 64.7 percent of classes consisted of 20 students or fewer. In comparison, the larger, public University of Massachusetts Amherst had 17 percent of its classes with 50 or more students and just 44.8 percent of its classes featured 20 students or fewer. 

By swallowing the price tag a small, liberal arts college like Emerson carries, most students want and expect an active classroom experience. Smaller class sizes allow more interaction between students and professors and foster discussion.

Yes, if number 27 is missing on a Monday morning Food and Nutrition class, the other 34 students may never notice. But classes of this size are a rarity at Emerson, and they exist mostly as general education requirements or entry-level major classes. We soon reach our major classes capped at 25, 15, and below, where no-shows are noticed and become missing pieces in the discussion.  At a school where a class of 25 seems large, frequently absent classmates can diminish the experience of their peers. 

SGA purports that if students consistently miss class, “it allows professors to receive feedback on how they are doing,” and states that, “We hope professors will work to make their lessons worthwhile if they expect students to attend class.” But viewing “attendance from the perspective of the consumer” veers into a model of education that seems to give little trust to professors and the learning process. Can we expect students to be infallible in deciding whether a course is “worthwhile” or not? Regardless of how students may receive a professor’s teaching style, these people have decades of experience in their field and bundles of degrees; that should be respected.

One voice invoked by the SGA in its proposition is Indiana University professor Murray Sperber: “Similarly, Sperber (2005) says he would prefer to teach a smaller number of volunteers than a large army of conscripts — this is a sentiment with which we, as a student body, agree.” 

However, this comment seems to be pointed at larger universities, and to use it in the context of Emerson is too broad of a sweep. At a school where the average class size is 10-19, according to the Princeton Review, it’s hard to imagine a classroom packed with “a large army of conscripts” whose apathy would hinder the class.