Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Are we just meat in the room?

Here at Hegemon Towers, we're discussing whether to make lecture/seminar attendance compulsory. You might be surprised that it isn't already an obligation, and indeed it is at some universities. It's even been known to track students' electronically with the equivalent of a clocking-in system.

The presumption of non-compulsory attendance is this: students want to be here (especially when they're paying £9000 per year). That should be enough. Furthermore, some students might decide to study independently, at least on some modules. We all know that our intake isn't like Oxbridge: many of them have children, or heavy workloads to enable them to pay their way through university, so we don't assume that they'll be in 100% of the classes.

When I was an undergraduate, the welcoming speech told us that we were all adults and wouldn't be tracked. If we decided to work independently - or not at all - good luck to us. Some non-attenders would do very well, while others would crash and burn. As long as we turned up to the tutorials, lecture attendance was up to us.

I don't think it works so well here: we largely cater for people who have many calls on their time, who lack resources and sometimes the willpower to study independently. We need them in class as much as possible. Also, many of our students aren't here entirely voluntarily: they feel like they've automatically advanced a class like school, carried on the tide. It would be nice to assume that everybody's motivated by the love of the subject, but it's not realistic. Some of the most enthusiastic students tell me they feel marginalised by the main body of students.

However, compulsory attendance carries other risks too. I've recently been to a few lectures on a cross-disciplinary module. The purpose - to provide a wider humanist education by exposing students to ideas outside their chosen field - is excellent. The result was rather depressing. The class was packed with students resentful that they'd had to take this utterly wonderful module. It seemed irrelevant to them. They didn't do the work. They chatted and texted all through the class. They didn't take notes. They wandered in and out as the mood took them.

It's something we've all faced in institutions like mine. Rows of uninterested people who've not even read the text to be discussed, with the occasional enthusiast to whom you don't want to turn every single time. A sullen silence descends and we all go home feeling resentful.

They're room-meat, in a sense: physically present without purpose. I've been room meat too: in the lectures when the teacher would read verbatim from the handout. In research seminars nobody else will go to (I've been the researcher in this case too). In endless 'consultations' designed to simulate democracy.

I would like to say to my students: come along if you care. Turn up and talk to me. If not, stay away and do something more exciting with my time and yours.

But it's not that simple. Even with something as wonderful as literary studies, new ideas have to be introduced and explained. They may appear boring or impenetrable at first, and so we have to convince students it's actually fulfilling. The benefits of some activities aren't always apparent straight away. It's hard work for me, and hard work for students - which is sometimes a surprise (I once had a very annoyed email from an elective student complaining that he'd failed a test he assumed he'd 'ace').

I know that engaged students resent the deadweight lounging at the back texting and updating Facebook. I hate the moments when I ask question and receive a resentful stare and nothing more in reply. I also hate classes attended by 20% of those meant to be there. But what to do? (Other than improve my material and delivery, obviously). I've suggested to colleagues that we refuse to mark work submitted by anyone attending less than 80% of the classes. What do you think?

Update: I've had some interesting responses mostly on Twitter about this, and one very thoughtful blog post in response. Which means I should probably up my game if people are going to start reading Plashing Vole.

So I was wondering how I would justify lecture and seminar attendance to a student who might quite reasonably claim to be able to educate themselves independently in the library and online - something which happens more often as education becomes the purchase of a certificate.

It's actually an easy question to answer. Whether it's maths or modernism, lectures and seminars are where information becomes knowledge. I don't mean that I or any lecturer will often add information which can't be found elsewhere. I mean that the process of being encouraged to think about a poem, a formula or an idea from a particular perspective or perspectives is far more important than the grade. And that's just the start: speaking and listening to your teachers and your peers is where the magic really happens. If you just download the lecture notes or read a book, you're on the receiving end of an event that's over, finished and reduced. If you turn up to my seminar, you have to think aloud, and respond to other people doing the same thing. The joy of education is that it's a process, not a product: this is brilliantly clear to me as I sit in the middle of a debate about the intercourse between science and literature. A downloaded PP slide is a dead, broken thing. A bloody good argument or a chorus of agreement in a lecture is alive and thrilling. If you skip that, you've really missed the point.


oldgirlatuni said...

Compulsory attendance is always an interesting point. Here in UniTown, attendance at seminars is, compulsory and we take registers. Theoretically, attendance is monitored by the department, and action taken against those who fail to attend.

In practice this doesn't happen. As an undergrad I stopped attending the seminars of a very eminent professor who was a rubbish teacher, and who told me to "shut up" when I ventured an opinion that did not agree with him. Nobody questioned my non-attendance, which was a great disappointment, as I was fully prepared to tell the faculty exactly why I was no longer attending.

Our lectures, however, in the law school at least, are not compulsory, but most of them are recorded and published on our intranet as mp3 files. This is really useful. For working undergrads you can pick them up when you need them, with the powerpoint slides, and I understand that they are used as a revision tool.

This seems to me to be a good way of working. My experience of the Law School is that they are really supportive of non-trad students, and will try and arrange seminars that are easy for students to attend - for example for those that travel some distance, seminars will be arranged on one day to minimise the need for travel. But then, experience also shows that the non-trad students are usually the ones that make the effort to come to seminars, and those students who have to roll out of bed and into the seminar rooms are usually those who don't attend!

And, when marking essays, you can usually identify those students who haven't bothered to attend seminars. They rarely achieve the good marks.

Artog said...

Fear. My own attendance was pretty good (I went to Lampeter, lectures were, by and large, the best bet on any given day). Two lecturers though were guaranteed attendance, one because he made such cutting remarks if you did dare skip a lecture and the other because he was a fucking nutter who'd shout at people whose behaviour he found wanting (failure to show up, inability to parse ancient Greek sentences, etc.).

Pat Parslow said...

I still maintain that most of my lectures were study breaks, time when the brain could be switched off. The learning occurred in dialogue with fellow students about the ideas that we had access to through notes, or via the internet, and through working through problems.

The couple of lecture series which were of value were the ones where I could snooze through them, thus disabling the internal censor which otherwise pointed out all the inconsistencies in the material being presented. These were lectures for modules where there was an element of regurgitation of facts required...

The Plashing Vole said...

Artog: that's an appalling way to educate people. I'm naturally very sarcastic, but dial it down for students. Guaranteed that if you tease someone for being late, they've been at the hospital with their kids etc.

Pat: I totally agree that education is as much about the informal experience and interaction as the formal stuff. If your lectures were that useless, something's gone wrong, but the informal stuff is essential. I learned a lot more from chatting with colleagues and swapping ideas than I did from my PGCE, that's for sure.