I overheard two conversations this past week between college professors and individual students that should have prepared me for a conversation I had with a student. The conversations were troubling, but I wasn't sharp enough to let them prepare me for a similar conversation.
The first conversation occurred at BYU. I was waiting for a colleague outside his door while he spoke with a student. I simultaneously tried to hear and not listen, but what I heard was so familiar that I ultimately listened because I wanted to know how a colleague on another campus solved a familiar problem."I'm sorry I haven't been to class the past few weeks. I got a new job and need the money."
"I noticed that you were gone and am worried about how you will do on the final exam since most of it comes from class discussions."
"Can you tell me what I missed?"
Of course, there is no way a professor, no matter how sympathetic, can tell a student what was missed in the last two or three class sessions. The professor can't be expected to even try to recreate the dynamic class meetings even though it may be that without a job this student may not be able to attend any classes.
It was, after all, the student who decided, for whatever reason, that something was more important than the class.
I overheard a similar conversation at Snow College. I didn't feel quite so guilty listening to this exchange because the conversation took place in the hall.
"I hope you saved me a place in your Western Lit class."
"I haven't dropped you yet, but I noticed you missed the first two classes."
"I couldn't get here until this week because my plane didn't get in until Monday."
"But the class started last Wednesday."
"I know, but my plane didn't get in until today."
"What I'm trying to tell you is that the class started last week."
"Did I miss anything important?"
It was probably the fact that this conversation took place in a public area that prevented a homicide.
The conversation I had was with a student who came by my office to tell me that he had a hard time getting up early in the morning and was sorry he missed my 7:30 class. He asked if he could come to my afternoon class on the days he couldn't get up for the early class. When I asked him why he hadn't registered for the afternoon class in the first place, he told me that it conflicted with another class that he needed for graduation. I don't understand the reasons, but what I gathered is that the student planned to sleep through my morning class and then cut his afternoon class in order to make up for the class he slept through.
I was not kind. "You may not attend the afternoon class, and I will drop you from the morning class after your third absence."
It occurred to me after the student slammed my office door that it would be interesting to listen to a fourth conversation. I'd like to hear the conversation between this student and the teacher whose class he planned to cut to attend my afternoon class which would make up for sleeping through my morning class.
It also occurred to me that I wasn't sure what these three students expected of their teachers. What exactly can a college professor do for a student that misses class for any reason?
It seems to me that an analogy may explain the situation. Suppose education were like groceries. Suppose I went to the grocery store and bought a cartful of necessities and they were bagged in three bags. Would I be inclined to reason that I only have two arms and so I will not take the one bag with me. "I know I paid good money for this highly subsidized bag of necessary groceries, but three bags is just too much to carry so I'll leave one in the store even though no one else will claim it and it will probably rot."
It seems that the most important first commitment a student should make is to attend the tax-subsidized class for which he registered and paid. Further, a student can do himself a favor if he recognizes the difference between presence and attendance.
Attending means listening, taking notes, participating, preparing and passing. Above all it means never asking "Did I miss anything important?"
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.