Friday, April 08, 2011


I think I've gone on record before saying I dislike zero tolerance policies. I think those of us in positions of authority need to step up, grow a spine, and recognize that sometimes you have to use your human discernment. Sometimes you need to show a bit of compassion, other times you need to give tough love.

I teach a class with a 'zero tolerance' absence policy. I did not write the policy, I did not vote for the policy, I do not like the policy. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that if a student with a chronic illness were to challenge the policy, we would be told we would not be permitted to have it.

I don't like required attendance in college classes for a number of reasons. First, if the person doesn't want to be there, they're going to be a problem. They will be a drag on the discussion by sitting there and sighing or texting or doing whatever not-really-disruptive-but-still-disturbing behavior. Second, these folks are adults. They need to start deciding to act like adults. Third, if a class REALLY can be passed without ever setting foot in class other than for exams - the prof probably needs to re-evaluate how he or she is teaching. Fourth, it makes more busywork for the prof to take attendance every day. And finally: I find that the whole attend-or-not thing works itself out: Students who chronically skip my classes also tend to be the students who earn Ds and Fs. And when they come and bitch at me about "That thing on the test wasn't in the textbook" I can ask the class: when did we discuss that thing? And at least a few people will pipe up with the day I discussed it, and will mention how it related to the other stuff we were working on at the time.

We do get students with "university sponsored" activities - one student in a play being performed at a local school during school hours. Sports stuff. Honors college programs. And my understanding is that those trump the "zero tolerance on absences" thing. So I let those be excused.

Well, this semester, I've decided: I'm going to subvert the policy. If they don't like it, they can take it to the dean and see what SHE says.

This happened because I had a student come to me. She didn't give me many details but she was upset because she was having to miss class because she is having to file, and then testify for, a restraining order.

And I'm sorry, but in my book, that becomes an excused absence, policies be damned.

I think the reason so many zero tolerance policies were enacted was to take the "burden" of decision making off of people in authority: if you can equally suspend schoolkids for bringing pot to school and bringing aspirin to school, you don't have to make decisions. And I'm sure they were instituted to keep from fielding calls from aggrieved parents, by saying, "Sorry, that's just the policy. Your child should have known." (The problem is - though maybe this is a feature and not a bug - there's a lot MORE outcry when an otherwise rules-following student is suspended for something like having a Ricola cough drop in their backpacks)

And I suppose they may have been instituted in a spirit of good intentions (though we know which road is paved with those): we don't want teachers/profs/whatever to treat people unfairly. And it would remove the possibility of charges being made, like, "This professor always gives excused absences to the guys and never to the girls." Where someone who was a member of some group could claim discrimination, even if there was none intended.

But I think we need to start being more intelligent - and certainly, do so on college campuses. Because the problems I've seen with my having some flexibility on stuff comes from other people, people with a sense of entitlement: "Hey, why does he get to bring a laptop to class when you forbid laptops?" Um, because he's BLIND and it's how he takes notes? I mean, seriously. If a student is so self-centered that they cannot understand a difference between an absence from a student going to court and getting a restraining order to protect herself (and possibly her children) and an absence because a person drank too much beer the night before - they need to grow up and start learning that the world doesn't revolve around them. Granted, they may not KNOW the circumstances of the person with problems - and I'm not going to violate privacy by telling them - but my looking at the student in question and saying sternly, "There's a GOOD REASON that the person is getting an excused absence" (or an extension on their paper, or being allowed to use a laptop in class) should be enough.

I was thinking about that this morning - I wonder if the sort of blanket policies where everyone is treated the same, and no one has a greater or more urgent reason, is allowing some people to persist in their "everyone gets a trophy" mentality.

No comments: