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I'm offering a new grad course this semester; this is my first teaching role. One student reached out to me four months ago, asking about the attendance policy. I did not have one because I had not considered it, being new to teaching.

I told him I'd have the syllabus ready a week before the start of the semester. He reached out recently asking about the syllabus and I sent him the syllabus, which does not discuss attendance. Then he followed up with a question about attendance policy again.

As this is a grad-level topics course and is highly specialized, I don't see an attendance policy as a good fit for a grad course in general, and I don't want to enforce one. At the same time, I don't want to have it in writing that I don't care about the attendance. When it is not in the syllabus, it is not in the syllabus. I'm not too fond of the student's attitude, who keeps asking about the attendance policy four months in advance. I want to let him know that being absent is fine, but if that is his plan, this may not be the right course for him. But I don't want to book a negative teacher assessment for myself either.

Question: Should I be straight with him and reply that this course may not suit him? Should I ask the department to remove him from class? Should I just answer that what is in the syllabus is what I care about?

Update: Following Dan's answer, I sent a short reply stating that I don't have an attendance policy. I received a reply thanking me and stating that he asked only because he will be missing 2 sessions for a conference (I hadn't even asked why). I also added a short section to my syllabus (per David's answer) stating that I don't have an attendance policy but that students should talk to me if they will miss many classes. Thanks to all for the advice.

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    Will it be in person only? Hybrid? Zoom only? That should be in the syllabus (or other official communication) - is it?
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 16 at 16:38
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    You're considering having a student removed from your class for asking a question about course policies?
    – Maeher
    Aug 16 at 19:41
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    Why do you find the student's attitude problematic?
    – Neinstein
    Aug 17 at 9:13
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    Lots of strong reactions to this question; I've kept a few and moved the rest to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one, and remember our code of conduct.
    – cag51
    Aug 17 at 17:21

11 Answers 11

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Since he asked about an attendance policy and you don’t have one, the appropriate way to reply would be to tell him “I don’t have an attendance policy.”

If he asks for clarification, you can say “that means that there is no requirement for you to attend the lectures.”

I don’t see what basis you have for wanting to tell him that your course “may not suit him”. That’s potentially an offensive and unfair thing to say to a student when your only reason for saying it is that he asked an administrative question about the course’s attendance policy.

If you think that the course might not suit people who don’t attend your lectures, well, it sounds like you might need an attendance policy after all, or at the very least a note in the syllabus expressing your strong belief in the importance of attending lectures. But jumping to the conclusion that the course might not suit someone merely for them wanting to know what the attendance policy is is uncharitable and, in my opinion, illogical.

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    @Trunk there is zero evidence in the question that the student has a bad attitude. Wanting to know about course policies (and asking again when the original answer is unclear) is 100% legitimate and not a sign of a bad attitude or of anything else. (And even a student with a not great attitude deserves to be treated fairly and not be the subject of hasty assumptions.)
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 17 at 22:46
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    I'm not saying OP's student had a bad attitude. But he really showed zero appreciation of OP's efforts by (thrice) baldly asking on attendance without any suggestion of why. I'm not saying either that OP's response was adequate - even if his feelings were hurt. It's just a case of OP getting used to the different interaction from research supervision when lecturing and the student getting used to being more of a colleague and less of a subordinate: soft skills aren't acquired on appointment for most of us. But OP wisely sought advice and didn't pull rank, took it on board and it's sorted.
    – Trunk
    Aug 17 at 23:03
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    @Trunk you write that the student was, "baldly asking on attendance without any suggestion of why" without considering that it's truly none of the teacher's business. We are talking, quite literally, about what happens outside of the classroom. Just as teachers are not required to divulge personal details unrelated to the course, the student has no obligation and in fact should have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
    – jonlink
    Aug 18 at 3:34
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    @Trunk in the places I’m familiar with, students are not expected to show appreciation to university instructors when they ask administrative questions about course policies. There is also no expectation that they provide an explanation to the instructor about why they’re asking the question. So I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 18 at 4:00
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    @Trunk There should be no need for the student to disclose any private issues to get an answer regarding a basic administrative question. Full stop. Making the requirements clear, especially when directly prompted, is a fundamental responsibility of any instructor.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 18 at 13:36
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I'm not too fond of the student's attitude, who keeps asking about the attendance policy four months in advance

I'd much rather a student ask about a policy in advance than after they've missed classes.

I would consider also that students in your course may have a lot of reasons to miss class that are not merely because they don't care about the course. They may be considering travel for conferences, and if they are undergraduates/masters students they may have graduate school/PhD interviews to schedule, which often interfere with ordinary coursework. They may have once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities or important family obligations like a sibling's wedding. They may have a medical condition or ill child or parent and know they sometimes need to change their plans at the last minute to take care of those things. Your world might revolve around your course, but theirs does not and while they should make their courses a priority they need not make every course their top priority.

I would ask the student to clarify why they are asking about attendance in advance. I would guess that they have some known reasons that they may need to miss one or more classes, and are trying to plan ahead. I think it's fine to warn them that they may struggle if a class is missed, though I also think you should make at least a moderate effort to help them keep up, such as pointing them to reading material (you don't need to design a separate curriculum for them, just inform what will be covered). In some classes based on lab work or discussion, presence is absolutely necessary and you can certainly tell them this and let them make a decision based on that information.

Particularly for a graduate-level class, I would operate under the assumption that your students want to be there. These are the courses closest to their area of interest, not merely a necessary box to check to get a degree. I understand not wanting to be explicit about this sort of thing in the syllabus, but consider that this student is close to being a colleague of yours as a person educated in your field. It seems rude to me to refuse to answer their question or to answer by responding with a syllabus that lacks information about attendance expectations and leaving them to read your mind.

I think you should trust them with something similar to what you've written here: you don't think attendance policies are appropriate for a graduate course, your expectation is that students do everything possible to attend every class, and that they will miss out if they can't be present. If it were me, I would also ask if they are planning to miss certain classes and how many, and be honest about any way that will impact their grade. I think it's certainly reasonable to ask they do not take the course if they plan to miss an unacceptable number of sessions (and very reasonable for them to ask to find what this boundary is!).

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    In the current Covid climate, I've found that "need to miss one or more classes" translates into "I'm planning to live 250 miles from campus and never come to class." Students who try this invariably end up in trouble even though there's no attendance grade. Aug 16 at 18:55
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    @BrianBorchers That's quite possible, I think in that case it'll be clear what the student is after if they are asked to clarify.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 16 at 19:00
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    "I would ask the student to clarify why they are asking about attendance in advance." If I were the student, I would prefer not to have someone with power over me (the professor) asking personal questions about problems I did not disclose beforehand.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 17 at 8:30
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    @BryanKrause How would knowing the reason change anything?
    – JS Lavertu
    Aug 17 at 13:16
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    "They may be considering travel for conferences" after the edit, we know that this is exactly what happened Aug 17 at 17:10
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Why all the negative judgment? Either you have an attendance policy or you don't. A grad student is an adult who can make his own decisions. If you expect people to attend and will penalize them if they don't, then you have an attendance policy and you should put it in the syllabus.

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Don't remove them. The student sounds great. They want to know what is expected.

The student explicitly asked about the attendance policy and instead of answering the question directly, you hinted it would be in the syllabus.

The syllabus was distributed with no mention of the attendance policy. Instead of apologizing for misleading them when asked again, you get annoyed. They have every right to know about the policy / lack of.

Leaving things vague seems like a lazy way of trying to cover yourself in case of problems.

Another reason to keep the student: The student hasn't complained. The student has every right to be frustrated with you for not including the information they requested in the syllabus you suggested it would be in. They waited almost four months for an answer for no reason.

I believe a short email from the start would have been the best way to go.

"There is no strict attendance policy; however, if you expect to miss a lot of [activity], please speak to me by [date]."

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    That's actually a good policy to include in the syllabus. Thanks!
    – Blade
    Aug 17 at 18:48
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Academia varies more than you think it does. Policies -- and implicit norms -- regarding attendance (and much else) differ widely from university to university, country to country, department to department, and professor to professor. What may seem clear to you may seen quite unusual to another.

As such, my advice is to cheerfully and politely explain your expectations to any prospective student who asks.

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If you don't have an attendance policy, you don't have an attendance policy. This is the answer to the student's question.

Your reply email could consist of a mere six words. You are wasting your and the student's time by not answering a simple administrative question directly.

You can't have the cake and eat it. If you want to encourage attendance, then implement a soft or hard attendance policy in the syllabus. If you don't, don't try to make it look as if there is one.

Besides, the student's question is very reasonable. The requirements for your course right now are unclear. Even considering kicking him out of the class seems like an overreaction.

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I would not consider a syllabus to be complete without an attendance policy. I think you should fix your syllabus.

I am not saying the policy needs to require you, or the students, to do anything. The policy does need to set expectations. For example:

Students are expected to attend the scheduled course sessions.

Is a good policy because students know what you expect (attendance) and they know how attendance relates to their grade (not at all).

No policy at all is bad because some students have a history of success in classes they did not attend. No policy sets expectations that your class is not worth attending.

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    "they know how attendance relates to their grade (not at all)" - it's not at all clear to me from the policy you've presented that non-attendance would have no affect on students' grades. On the contrary, expectations often come with consequences for not meeting them.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 18 at 20:34
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After a certain age, it is in a students responsibility to know how they can learn and how they can't. If he asks, it might well be that he has big other plans that conflict with the lectures, like an internship or living with his girlfriend who lives in another country.

You should just answer the question as early as possible, in order for him to be able to make plans - "No, you don't need to be present in the lectures."

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Others mentioned that this might, or might not be, a student with a bad attitude and/or one that intends to skip your course.

Another possibility is that the student is being extra diligent or has a specific reason to ask. Many people with Autism function best when they are given highly detailed rules checklists and flowcharts rather than expected to rely on social nuances. If this is the case, providing explicit guidance on attendance is just a reasonable accommodation. Another possibility is that the student has had previous experience at an institution or with an instructor with a highly draconian attendance policy and is actually in fear of facing major negative consequences for minor attendance issues. The high school I attended as a child had a policy that any student with nine unexcused late arrivals during a quarter automatically received a failing grade. If you had passing, or even high, grades throughout the quarter but had already racked up eight late arrivals, you were right to be frightened as being even 30 seconds behind the bell would result in losing every one of those of those hard-earned points! If your student was previously at an institution like that, they may just need some reassurance that you will accept a reasonable good-faith effort and that you won't automatically flunk them for being 30 seconds behind the clock.

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I almost fell off my chair reading that you were going to remove a student for asking about attendance policy, that is really unfair to even think about. Lecturers don't usually come up with the policy, the university policy makers do that, so all you had to do was forward him to the correct department and it sounds like for 4 months you didn't do that. Unless you make something optional it falls under university policy usually.

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My wife taught at an institution where there was a mandatory attendance policy in place. The history, so she was told, was that there was a trucking college that got in trouble with various government funding agencies because students were not really attending classes. I've put that history here before and various people think it may not have really happened.

In any event, if your institution has a mandatory attendance policy, then implement one, because it is mandatory. If it does NOT have such a policy, it is up to you.

When I was an undergrad, two of my co-students skipped 1/2 a certain class to attend another one that met at the same time. The instructor didn't like this, but they did just fine as students.

Some lab courses, or courses with integral pars such as labs, have mandatory attendance, so the grading would flow from that. [NOTE: I re-worked this sentence based on a suggested edit, but with my own wording].

If you have a virtual option, it makes it easier to attend classes, especially as there may be a recording, but that was not available in my time as a student, nor really for the courses my wife was teaching in the late 1990's.

I tend to concur with the opinions registered that it would be too harsh to not allow the particular student in your class.

Best wishes on your journey.

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