When Students Disappear, Who’s To Blame?

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hansonBy Erik Hanson

My typical weekday begins before 5 a.m., which I’m sure is unthinkable to some, and all too familiar to others. The main reason is because of the class load I took on this semester, combined with how far I have to travel in order to teach said classes. Thus, a large portion of my motivation to get moving so early is to make sure I’m prepared for the day, because there’s only so much that can be done in transit—actually, very little. For anyone who has paid even the slightest amount of attention to the weather this winter, part of that early-morning preparation unfortunately involved either digging out my car after a snow storm, or making sure I started it early enough to thaw out the layer of impenetrable frost on the windshield and let that poor engine block have a chance to idle comfortably before demanding highway RPMs from what is, essentially, a block of ice on four wheels. On those worst winter-weather days, I assumed—usually quite correctly—that some students would be absent or tardy. It’s to be expected.

The weather broke this weekend, though, and as sad as it may sound to praise temps barely above freezing, it’s hard to describe how glorious the feeling is when one need only turn the key, swipe the windshield wipers once to clear the layer of condensation, and then go. Aside from the time saved leaving the parking lot, the other major difference I noticed on the way to my first class was the traffic; where did all those people come from? For the past couple snowy months, even the busiest days were nothing like this. I suppose this weather has thawed everyone motivation as well, and the masses are heading off to start their days, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—or so I thought until I took attendance.

Going through the headcount, I could easily compare the results with the morning before the monster blizzard that swept through the Midwest. But now the weather is breaking, the midterm is just around the corner…with Spring Break not far behind. Compared to what we’ve so recently been through, this weather is borderline tropical.

I remember my first semester—a half-semester composition course—the last eight weeks of the academic school year. One of the requirements I can recall was a mandatory retention report, because, I was told, there is an attendance problem at this school. On the first day, syllabus day, I made it clear to my students that missing one day of this half semester was equivalent to missing an entire week in a regular semester, and one student even admitted that s/he would have a difficulties showing up once the warm spring weather really took hold. While I could appreciate the honesty, I had to remind my students that too many absences would add up quickly. Regardless of my warnings, I ultimately lost almost half the class—a rookie crisis for me. I thought it was my inexperience that drove them off.

Now that I’m teaching at more than one institution, I’ve learned that there seems to be a universal attendance problem, because one of the protocols in each employee packet is how to either report or remove students who have gone AWOL, and as the drifts melt noticeably from day to day, so too do the attendance numbers. I’m somewhat relieved to see that my first semester wasn’t an isolated experience, but I still don’t want to absolve myself of all responsibility for keeping their interest, which I’ll admit is difficult.

Many students have no problem with being in class regularly, but the challenge appears to be finding ways to keep the others who don’t come to class regularly from straying. I can’t play big brother (I’m thinking more as a mentor than in the reality television/Orwellian sense of the term), and this is college; we’re all big boys and girls who should be able to look out for ourselves now.

How, then, do I get rid of the bad taste in my mouth that comes with writing off students who just disappear from the course? I can’t seem to stop caring.

About the Adjunct: Erik Hanson completed his MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Northern Iowa, where he also earned his BA in German, during which time he spent one year studying abroad in Austria. Thus far, his teaching portfolio consists of developmental writing and composition courses. In those rare moments when he is not in class or tutoring English students, he can usually be found hunched over his keyboard with a cup of coffee, working on short fiction or developing his novel.

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