Thursday, March 09, 2006

On Class Participation and Attendance in Law School

This sounds like an odd subject for a post, and yet I cannot resist. Why, I wonder, do students insist on missing class right before break, when my courses are graded in part on class participation and attendance?

Answer: I have a few theories, but at the end of the day I do not really know. Any fearless students out there are definitely encouraged to enlighten me.

But first, let's dispense with the standard representations:
  • I am a law professor, but I do not actively work at being a jerk. Any jerkiness on my part is not intentional and just comes naturally.
  • I went to law school myself and skipped a few classes.
  • I am still getting over the burnout I experienced as a law student in the 1990s. I vividly remember saying to myself many times that "I know I need to go to class, but I really do not want to."
  • As a law professor, I do not take it personally when people miss my class. Law students are adults, after all. I teach because I want to teach, and if people do not want to take or attend my classes, then that really is their business.

And yet despite all of this, I am somewhat mystified when my class attendance rate drops right before spring break from around 90% to around 45%.

Here's my take on the matter. Law students are future professionals in the field of law, right? And as associates, or judicial clerks, or government employees, most will be at-will employees who can be fired pretty easily, right? So in those jobs, wouldn't they want whatever edge they can have? Of course they would.

So my question is this: how exactly is the situation different in law school when class attendance and participation count, and skipping never can help your grade? I submit that it is a difference in degree but not in kind. I am most certainly not going to lower someone's grade just because they miss one class right before spring break. But believe me, at the end of the semester, I will remember who showed up for class today. I will remember this despite myself. The attendees just stood out today because so few people were in class. And I cannot say that the attendees' diligence in coming to class and not starting spring break early will not help them (compared to the unexcused absentees) if they are on the bubble between letter grades and otherwise were in class and prepared most of the time during the semester.

Does this sound harsh? I think the better characterization is that it sounds honest. I appreciate the people who came to class today. Some of the absentees had legitimate, non-spring break-related reasons for not being there and informed me in advance, but others did not. I most certainly will not punish the unexcused absentee students--that would be mean and unprofessional in the extreme--but they did themselves no favors in the "benefit of the doubt" department.

So here's the moral of the story. In practice, support your co-workers and bosses in situations where you do not really have to. For example, go to their seminars and speeches. It will be appreciated. It cannot hurt you, and it may help you. There may come a time when you hit a bump in the road in your career and could use some goodwill. So be smart and build it up in advance.

I strive to have my classes help students develop real-world skills, and also to reflect real-world pressures faced in practicing law (like being prepared, being on time, and speaking in front of other people). I guess what I am saying is that, just like in the real world, attendance and participation just might count a bit more when others don't follow through.


Anonymous said...

most of the time I skipped class because they were so darn boring!!

Like you said, you were a law student once. I'm sure you remember how boring most of your classes were.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

I do remember--and in fact I think about that every time I am teaching class! Not all classes or professors are boring, though, so the challenge for me is to make my classes more engaging for students. Not for the entertainment value, but rather to help students learn. Of course, my students will have to be the judges of whether I succeed or not.