Saturday, May 30, 2015


Whenever the issue of class attendance is raised, we hear groans. The students hate it that the university forces them to go for classes. We, the academics, hate it that we have to keep track of each students' presence in our classes. We don't like babysitting. Yes - we've all heard, and agreed with, the reasons: they're old enough to know what's best for them; good attendance does not correlate with achievement (and if it does, there's that correlation does not equal causation); we'd rather not have any who are there begrudgingly, therefore likely disrupting the lecture by idle chatter and other mischief. I'm not a fan of attendance-taking. However, I admit that I am relatively less reluctant than many I know.

Story time.

Where I began my teaching career, missing classes was an "offence" taken very seriously. If a student skipped 3 classes (not necessarily consecutively), a warning letter will be issued and mailed directly to his / her parents. A second warning will be issued if the student missed 3 more. Being absent for 9 classes in a semester without valid reasons will get the student barred from taking the final exam. This effectively means failing the subject. I never cared much about barring the kids - most of them didn't go that far (because of the warning letters sent to their parents, obviously) - but I diligently and gleefully kept track of their attendance (once again, because of the warning letters to their parents, which I get to send!)

It is due to this careful tracking that, once, very early in my teaching career, I noticed that three of the naughtiest boys in class stopped coming for lectures. At first, I was simply counting the days till I could submit their names to the faculty for the preparation of warning letters, but after three whole weeks of absence, I started having a nagging feeling that something more might be up. At the next lecture, I asked if anyone knew them or knew the reason they were not attending classes. One boy, fellow member of the naughty gang, then dropped the bomb - the 3 of them were in a road accident and were severely injured. They were probably not coming back at all for the rest of the semester. Being a young, inexperienced first-timer, I didn't know how to react, nor what to do.

For a good few years, I obsessed over students' consecutive absences. It wouldn't have made a difference whether or not I know the reason for their being missing, but somehow, I could no longer be apathetic. The case of the three boys reminded me of the tragic, heart-breaking, case of my friend and classmate who died in a hit-and-run accident in the middle of a semester, when we were students ourselves. The police contacted the university (they found his student ID on him) and the university contacted his parents. However, oddly enough, the faculty and lecturers were not informed. In the week before the final exams, our lecturer published the coursework marks as was the usual practice. In the columns of the row that was my friend's name, there were, but of course, many zeros... and a note that said "COME AND SEE ME". Nobody wants that.

So, when a fellow colleague told me that a kid from his class hadn't been seen in weeks, I was concerned. He did not respond to our emails and could not be reached via the contact number we had in our records. He was missing for the rest of the trimester and did not show up for his final exams. I spent weeks trying to reach him. Finally, one day, after the new semester had begun, I got him on the phone. He got a good reprimand from me (absolutely a must, don't you think?) I made him promise to meet me to talk about his future, as he is just one subject short of completing his course. He came and in spite of my questioning, had no justification for his disappearing stunt. He could not explain why he didn't read the emails we sent, or why his mobile number couldn't be reached for weeks. He acted as if it didn't matter that he had been stuck more than two years in a one-year course, as if he didn't care that he'd only one subject left to clear. Nevertheless, I advised him on what to do to get out of the pickle he was in, and how to move on. This was about two months ago, and... I never saw nor heard from him again since. I am not surprised.

And I am reminded of why I completely understand academics that are determined to not waste their time tracking their class's attendance.

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