It’s January, and my social media feeds are filled with suggestions for keeping resolutions, especially those related to wellness, healthy eating, and exercise. But I am also finding some pleas for encouragement from colleagues and friends who have set (or are setting) writing goals. One colleague facing a self-imposed dissertation progress deadline sought inspiration to combat writer’s block; the comment thread following her post illustrated the power of a writing community—a blend of support, encouragement, commiseration, and offers to read or brainstorm—as well as reminders of past challenges overcome and promises of future success. That online writing community, like other writing groups (structured or informal) provides a Janus outlook, a backwards glance for perspective and an impetus forward.
In the ideal classroom I envision for first-year writing students, the same sort of community forms and offers new college writers a platform to find their footing (all ofmy 2019 resolutionswere designed to foster this kind of community). One of the challenges I face in corequisite first-year writing courses, however, is absenteeism. It’s hard to build the writing community in a face-to-face course (even with a solid online component) if the students don’t attend. Attending is so much more than presence, of course, although being present in the room is a logical starting point. But in that learning space I envision, students, tutors, and faculty alike attend; they stretch (Latin tendere) minds and words and sentences, or, as the OED puts it, they “direct the mind or observant faculties, to listen, apply” themselves.
And that brings me to the challenge of the moment: devising an attendance policy that promotes community, not punishment. We have considerable flexibility when it comes to attendance policies; the central requirement is to have such a policy and state it clearly on the syllabus. Many faculty I know stipulate a certain number of allowable unexcused absences; additional absences will lead to grade penalties or potential administrative withdrawal. Having a stated maximum (or mid-term maximum) allows instructors to initiate withdrawals—a process that can help a student with an already sagging GPA avoid an F. Others choose to reward presence with a participation grade of some sort. My emphasis on process—up to 40% of the students’ grades—supports attendance indirectly by awarding points for good faith investment in the process: participating in discussions, collaborative exercises, peer reviews, conferences, etc.
Still, I’ve seen students who struggle to connect in class or who must miss multiple classes for unavoidable reasons. Some students who abide by the absence policy still fail to attend, insofar as attendance entails engaging and finding a sense of community. They do not seek collaboration on writing challenges. Other students cannot keep within the allowable absences as stated by the policy, but they manage to find small group communities by leveraging resources like online discussions, out-of-class meetings with writing tutors or fellows, or instructor office hours.
The perfect attendance policy probably does not exist – certainly not one that covers all situations and contexts. But I know I want a policy that reflects community (not punishment), recognizes student realities, invites participation via alternate pathways when needed, ensures accountability, and fosters strategic self-advocacy.
Here’s what I’ve got at this point for my spring syllabus. I am open to any and all feedback! What attendance policy are you implementing in your first-year and corequisite writing courses this spring?
Attending class is crucial to your success in this course. The University expects students to attend all regularly-scheduled classes for instruction and examination, but more importantly, the writing portfolio you construct this term will be strengthened by in-class collaboration with your colleagues. When you are in class, you benefit from the insights and contributions of others, just as they benefit from your suggestions and ideas.
But I recognize that you cannot always be in class; sometimes, you may not want or be able to tell me why. When you need to miss a class, make sure you let me know. Check the syllabus on D2L to see what we are doing in class that day, and you can choose from the “attendance options” below to earn attendance credit and make up any points you miss. Generally, the points/attendance should be made up within a week of the day you miss class; if you need more time (or if you need to miss more than one class), email me so that we can discuss a timetable for participation.
Finally, if you do have documentation for an excused absence (see the following section), email that to me as soon as possible. I will keep these on record in case there is an administrative issue about withdrawals or grades later in the term.
Come to class and participate (the default, and always the best option!)
Attend a small group conference with our SI or one of the writing fellows (especially if you miss a class and we are working on an early version of a draft)
Visit the writing center (especially if you miss a peer review or other late-stage draft review)
Check in with your group to get notes/information and provide comments/contributions to collaborative assignments via Google Docs or the Discussion Board
I may initiate an administrative withdrawal for students who stop attending class altogether (via one of the options above) and do not stay in contact with me.
A grade of W may be assigned to students who miss 25% of class meetings (5 classes) prior to the midpoint of the term.
A grade of WF will be assigned when students stop attending after the midpoint, or when the total number of absences reaches more than 25% of the class meetings (10).