Attendance Policy Considered Harmful
A recent e-mail exchange between an NYU professor and a student has been making rounds around the Internet. During the first class meeting of the semester, a student walked into a classroom an hour late; the professor would not let the student into the classroom; the student got upset and expressed her frustration via an e-mail to the professor; the professor’s anonymized reply, made public, became an internet sensation. How so? Using very harsh language, the professor explained why the student was wrong and also gave some advice about how the student should behave in the future. What I found most surprising about the reaction to this story is how almost everyone is siding with the professor, complimenting him for having the guts to tell it like it is.
By contrast, I disagree and find the entire incident quite bizarre, as it goes against both of my core teaching principles: (1) treat students as adults, and (2) don’t take yourself too seriously. In line with these principles, I have no attendance policy in my classes. During the first lecture, I usually say something as follows: “I certainly hope that you will find my lectures interesting and worth your time. However, if you have something more important to do with your time than to attend my lectures, please feel free to do so–I won’t get upset and it will not affect your grade in any way.” I have no attendance policy because I respect my students’ right to decide how they want to learn (or not to learn) in my classes. They are free to attend my lectures in full or in part, or only read the textbook, or only talk to me in person during my office hours, or engage in any combination of these activities. Besides, there could be things going on in their lives that are more important than attending lectures. For example, they can be preparing for a job interview with the company of their dreams or creating a proof-of-concept for their brilliant startup idea.
However, the issue at hand with the NYU incident seems to be not missing the lecture but rather walking in late. It does not bother me a bit when students walk into my classroom late. Let’s take an extreme case of a student coming in 10 minutes before the end of the lecture. My thinking will go as follows: “Wow, this student was obviously doing something very important that did not allow him to come to my lecture on time. However, he finds my lecture so interesting and important that he found it worth his while to attend the very last 10 minutes of it. I must be doing something right!” Besides, who knows–perhaps some of the insights I share in the last 10 minutes may prove to be valuable for the latecomer. So in my view, coming in just for the last 10 minutes is better than not coming at all.
But what about distracting other students by walking in late? Gimme a break! We live in a distracted world, in which we need to switch our attention to various matters continuously. In fact, the ability not to let distractions derail your work progress is one of the most valuable skills for a modern professional. I have worked in industry, and I do not remember having a sterile working environment, in which I could focus on the tasks at hand without any distractions. Working in a cubicle, I had to learn to maintain my focus in the presence of extraneous conversations in the neighboring cubicles, colleagues passing by, phone calls, etc. Why should the modern classroom be so drastically different from the modern workplace? Of course, common sense still applies: I do take exception to students talking loudly to each other during the lectures.
Notice how in the absence of an attendance policy, the NYU incident would never have transpired. I understand that it was an MBA class, and the professor may have good reasons to run his classroom the way he does. However, as a computer science professor, I choose not to have an attendance policy that explicitly disallows absences and lateness. I believe that my students are better off as a result.