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Responsible People Don’t Get Sick

When someone shares a syllabus with me, it’s usually to show me the course content, not the attendance policy, but these days I also think about the message the syllabus sends to students with chronic illnesses or medical crises.

That message is often, “Responsible people don’t get sick.”

When the syllabus says 100% attendance is expected or that after X absences students should drop the class, I ask instructors what happens when students have chronic illness or medical crises, and most make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.   They deal with such students compassionately and reasonably, but not according to what the syllabus says.

Policies that take perfect health as the norm and aim to stamp out slacking and general irresponsibility tell students with health issues that they are outside the norm.    If students know enough to ask, the policies might not actually apply to them, but if they don’t know — perhaps because they are shy, sick for the first time ever, the first in their family to go to college, or just pride themselves on following the rules — then they won’t ask.    Sometimes they will push through, hurting their health; other times they will fail unnecessarily.

Here is a draft of a handout (pdf file, word file) that describes to students what I actually do in practice regarding missing all or part of class or turning in work late, and explains how these situations affect grades.

I hope the handout can help teach students how responsible adults handle circumstances when they must be absent or late.   Many of my students are eighteen-year-olds who just months ago needed permission to go to the bathroom and a parent’s note if they were absent, and who have been taught that “responsibility” means following other people’s rules, rather than making informed decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions.

It’s very easy for a middle-aged person like myself to see students’ youth and imagine how healthy and resilient they are and that their decision making process is very simple (go to class or stay up late partying and miss class), but in fact, many students have health issues, family responsibilities, financial worries, and all-around complicated lives.   They make difficult decisions on how to balance different aspects of their lives, just as my colleagues and I do, although often with much less experience (and frontal cortexes that are not yet fully formed).   Being a responsible agent in their own lives goes far beyond following my rules.

If you find parts of this handout helpful, feel free to adapt them for your own use.

2 Responses

  1. Kate MacInnis
    | Reply

    I love this so much, especially the fact that you make the point about the value of their integrity. I’m definitely going to take and adapt. If I could pick your brain a moment: I’ve never penalized a student’s grade for absences, but in the past I have offered bonus points (up to five points on the final exam) for perfect attendance. Do you feel like missing out on a bonus is the same as a penalty? I’ve had people make that argument to me, and I’m reconsidering policies for the fall now.

  2. dborkovitz
    | Reply

    Kate, thanks for your comment, and I’m glad the post was helpful; definitely take what works for you.

    For myself, I wouldn’t offer a bonus for perfect attendance because it violates grading work based on anything but the quality of the work. I don’t think a penalty and a bonus are the same thing, but can see why grade-focused students will see it that way and then want to start arguing about the fairness of missing out on that bonus for a “good” reason vs. a “bad” reason…. Is that what happens?

    However, in other contexts, e.g. professional classes, attendance and such are genuine content areas of the class….

    Clearly what you’re trying to encourage is good attendance, but is perfect that important to you (versus, say, missing one class)? Can you make a case for perfect attendance to students? Would you rather they miss one class or come to that one class sicker than they should be, because that is what the policy encourages them to do? Also, if students have already missed a class, are they more likely to miss more, because only perfect gets a bonus?

    Things to think about….

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