Attendance in Class

April 13th, 2013

I approach the classroom from the perspective that as a professor, I am the student’s agent. They are paying my salary to provide services–an education, guidance, mentorship, and other intangibles. I take that job very, very seriously. I consider it a privilege to teach the students. Not the other way around. In a recent post, Elie Mystal explains his take on this dynamic, which I largely agree with:

If class is just going to be a regurgitation of points made clear in the reading, then the professor has reduced class to a useless exercise. The students in that unfortunate situation, students who have already paid for the service of being taught, are well within their rights to skip out on the so-called “teaching.” Again, and I know this is hard for some professors to understand, but the students arepaying the professors to perform a task. The professors aren’t doing students a favor by standing in front of them for two hours.

With that understanding, I have a very lax policy towards attendance or punctuality. Students have busy schedules and lots of things going on. Sometimes, a student will have something before class that runs late, or have something after class that requires them to leave early. Who am I to say that my class is more important that whatever they choose to do. Even if they make every effort to be on time, sometimes its impossible. I teach a class at 9 a.m. Houston has some of the worst traffic in the country, and there is no viable public transportation. I completely understand it when some students trickle in late.

There are a few reasons that counsel in favor of enforcing attendance rules.

First, there are ABA requirements about attendance. I have addressed those here and here. One related thought about attendance. I would add, that to the extent we expect attorneys to keep honest billing records upon graduation, self-certifying attendance would seem to be a viable alternative to professor-maintained attendance rosters. To the extent that professors do not trust students to certify their own attendance, then what do we think of lawyers keeping honest billing?

Second, I’ve heard that it is distracting to the professor and the other students for someone to enter or leave class during the middle of a session. I never got this one. When I’m teaching, I’m in the zone. I frankly don’t even notice when students get up or leave. It doen’t even phase me. To the extent that I do notice, or perhaps other students notice, I think that presumes that the classroom setting should be some sort of monastic vacuum, where the only person in the foreground is the Professor, or those whom the Professor recognizes. I don’t run my class like that, at all. I try to democratize the experience, and even leave a livechat open during the class to allow anyone to contribute at any time. We live in a crowded, busy world. Attorneys at a court, in a law firm, or really anywhere else on earth, have to mind many things at once. I work with the students before me, and do the best I can. If a seat is empty, I move onto the next seat.

Third, perhaps the most compelling reason is that in a profession, lawyers must be punctual. Arriving to court late  is a big, big no-no. Leaving a court early is a bigger no-no. To the extent that imposing attendance requirements in class helps to inculcate punctuality, I think it is certainly a good thing. Though, I am doubtful. Notwithstanding strict attendance policies, students are still late. Perhaps at the margin it makes a difference, though I doubt it breeds good habits. And, it creates a bizarre perverse incentive where it is better to skip a class than arrive late and receive the wrath of the professor. This can’t possibly be right.

Two recent stories shed some light on attendance in class.

ATL profiled a law student at Fordham who stormed out of class because he thought the class was a waste of his time, and then sent an email to the professor explaining why the class was a waste of his time. The e-mail the student sent was totally inappropriate, but there were a few kernels of truth (Elie plucked those out). But the leaving-class-early stunt wouldn’t bother me. If my class is a waste of time, and the student can spend his time better elsewhere, that is a sign that I am not doing a good enough job. As Elie notes, “If [professors] can’t manage to be interesting for two hours a couple of times a week, that’s on them.”

A few days ago, another story bounced around the net about an NYU student who tried to enter a class an hour late, and the professor demanded that he leave. It seems the student was considering three different classes during the same time slot, and attended two other sections before entering the class at issue. This tells me that at least two other professors, also at the top-ranked MBA program, likely didn’t care that a student entered late and left early.

The Professor wrote back a very snarky email telling him to get his “*hit together.”

For the record, we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin. However, xxxx, there is a baseline level of decorum (i.e., manners) that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders.

xxxx, let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your shit together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades. It’s not too late xxxx…

I gather Professor Galloway takes himself really, really, really seriously, and thinks he’s (pardon the pun) the shit. It seems that he has previously told students to get their shit together.

Get your shit together,” Scott Gallowayreprimanded the second-year M.B.A. students in his brand-strategy class at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business on Wednesday. “If you just skim the case I assign you, it hurts my feelings.”

It was only the second class of the semester, but the professor was already living up to his reputation. “He’s a jackass,” one student had heard before signing up for the class anyway. “He’s not afraid to call you out if he thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about. But it works.”

In my mind, it would seem to be a good thing for a student, on the first day of class, to sample a few different sections to figure out which professor he should settle down with for a year. If a student told me that he’ll stop by my section for a few minutes, I would have gladly said yes. Indeed, I’ve invited many nonstudents into my class to see what law school is like. I have no expectation that they’ll stay seated the entire section.

I understand that professor can take the success of their students seriously, but I wonder if in the case of Galloway, if the interest takes the form of some sort of pompous aggrandizement rather than concern for the student’s well-being. This, and not the student’s punctuality or future success, may lie at the heart of Galloway’s policy towards attendance.