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College Education: The Wrath of Attendance

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The suicide of Delhi’s talented and young law undergraduate Sushant Rohilla has brought to the fore a very germane question pertaining to college education that we ought to address right in earnest, not simply to avoid such casualties but also to ensure that thriving academic lives don’t culminate into depressing drudgery. One cannot but blame the Amity Law University for his death because it was well within its legal ambit to act the way it did. However, bearing in the mind impractical and inconsiderate nature of this requirement, it would be safe to jerk our fingers at the devil that attendance on the whole has morphed into for undergraduates and other students as well.

In India, the norm is that a student goes to school at least five days a week during primary school, which often becomes six days as he or she enters secondary school. This norm extends beyond social convention, and manifests into stringent regulation: Poor attendance is often dealt with an iron hand by many school authorities, in which case the degree of reprimand is often consequential enough for students to give a toss about it. It is imbued, and indoctrinated even, in the student’s psyche that attendance is of paramount importance to the results that his or her academic endeavors bear. In fact, such cultivation, which psychologists call conditioning, becomes so pervasive that even teachers begin to behave as if all hell has befallen them if a student calls in sick for a week.

This stupid requirement splays its fangs wide enough to engulf the entire system. Right from the school principal to the floor-in charge for sweeping, everyone begins to resolutely believe and affirm through their actions that those pupils who attend school more regularly than others are more sincere about and committed to securing a full-fledged education. Inherent of course here is the fallible assumption that spending more time listening to the teacher talk can somehow result in better and more knowledge acquisition. Surrounded by judgmental authorities who are quick to jump to conclusions about one’s intellectual potential, and eager to paint a positive picture of themselves, a lot of ambitious students feel threatened by the prospect of missing out on opportunities in school because of poor reputation stemming from poor attendance.

Thankfully, after years of mugging up where rice is grown without being taught where that place exactly is on the political map, and after months of memorizing names of rivers without chalking out their exact course on a physical outline of India, students begin to digest that a lot of what they studied some years back has not even remotely been retained by – what they thought was – their superior memory. Another realization that dawns upon them is that remembering things in the long run is possible only if one particularly enjoys that subject, or if those facts are associated with the real world as one perceives it.

While this itself is a major problem that I shall speak about in another article, I bring it up here to allude to
students’ awareness about this issue by the time they commence undergraduate studies. This encourages them to want to step out of the ubiquitous and seldom inspiring classroom milieu. Added to this is their zeal to ‘have fun’ when in (read ‘actually outside of’) college, which only makes them resent attendance requirements more. Besides, some may find that they haven’t been exposed to enough opportunities in school, and to make up for the loss, or to propel personal growth, they begin to dabble in sports, art, extracurricular activities and reading. This can be a particularly cumbersome lot to juggle considering that entire mornings are spent in classes at college alone. Others believe that they don’t need to be spoon-fed anymore like they were in school, and opine thus that teaching hours must be reduced to a bare (read ‘bearable’) minimum. Very logical arguments, aren’t these?

But isn’t it fair on part of educational institutions to expect that students attend classes that are meant exclusively for their benefit? How else will they familiarize themselves with examination curricula? In this case, what does the mandatory attendance requirement exactly do that stifles personal growth so drastically, and that incurs it the flak of many an enthusiastic student?

Both sides are justified in saying what they have to, but their symbiotic relationship needs some fine-tuning. I am of the conviction that ideally, if the student likes what he’s doing, of the total number of classes held, one should have attended a certain majority percentage to be allowed to write exams, to ensure that one exploits his/her complete potential through them. But how many classes should be held? What percentage of hours should one invest in classes every week?

In India a disproportionately high number of hours are earmarked for lectures, which is not the case abroad, where good schools have stringent attendance requirements which also reflect directly in grades but where – from my own experience I can corroborate – even intensive summer schools design weekly calendars that comprise no more than four two-hour long lectures. So in essence, in India, students bunk lectures not because they always want to; but because, just so many classes are scheduled for the week that, students would fail to do justice to their other interests, engagements or leisurely indulgences, were they to actually remain present in all!

Second only to this excess of supposed pedagogy is its inflexible composition. How much choice do students have in course selection? Let us consider an example to be able to better understand the problem. Most humanities and social sciences courses in India at Bachelors level (the conventional BA, if you will) enjoin that students pick subjects, and not courses. If one picks History, for example, he or she is forced then to study everything from the Neolithic age to the Mauryas, and from the French Revolution to Chinese kingdoms, and not something more specific like the history of coinage in 16th century India. The curriculum rushes through all these topics superficially, making the pupil feel that he or she has signed up yet again only for a more elaborate secondary school experience. Specialization, research, focused reading in one topic that one likes is not allowed.

In the name of all-round exposure, in-depth scrutiny is dispensed with. Vertical study and personal interest are sacrificed for the sake of horizontal learning and avoidance of inconvenience caused due to diversity in students’ preferences. The story is no more promising in engineering and law schools either, where barring the fancy ‘elective’, all courses are prescribed for everyone. So the student, tired of being told what to do and what not to in the academic sense, begins to find ways of ignoring these irremediable problems, and learns to evade them altogether by resorting to the easiest way out: bunking classes.

So if you call me to your house too often, and at the cost of my personal time when I do come, we don’t end up doing what I would like to. Why on earth would I continue to turn up at your door?

If only the buck stopped here. Even if the aforementioned flaws are overlooked for what college education is worth, life does not become easier for those who like to contemplate its purpose. The raison d’être of college is motivating students to think critically, to explore what they want to in-depth, and to experiment with advanced levels of different subjects. If one has enrolled for education at this stage, no matter what his/her goals are, he or she should firstly be extremely interested in his chosen courses – interested enough at least to religiously want to attend classes. Making attendance compulsory detaches one from the discipline by depriving him of that chance to experience the intuitive urge to attend the classes one is drawn towards. This intellectual numbness does not develop overnight but evolves gradually from attitudes of skepticism and scorn sooner or later.

Besides it destroys the entire foundation of performance that institutions, especially popular and prestigious ones, foot their credibility upon. How will a school gauge the merit of its teaching staff if its most democratic parameter ( number of students showing up) is rendered irrelevant? This also allows professors to shield their proficiency or its lack thereof from any investigation by thrusting blame upon – whom they categorize as – ‘aimless’ and ‘disrespectful’ students.

In such unaccommodating paradigms devoid of enough choice and punctuated by hectic schedules, should one not be allowed to use his discretion as to whether or not any profit will accrue to one’s aptitude by taking a particular class? If one enrolls but decides not to attend a couple of classes, and if one is still able to consistently do well in his/her exams, why should the administration have any problem at all? Isn’t the whole point of classroom learning amelioration of achievement ? With or without classroom presence, if a certain benchmark of academic excellence is established and maintained, why must anyone interfere by any means? Even if one is to buy the argument that exams are not the end to the means that is classroom exposure, aren’t 20 year olds fit to take the call themselves if they’ve undergone personality development?

There is a very well planned system at the roots of this mandatory requirement. Complicit in this web of selfish interests are individuals occupying different echelons of the power hierarchy. Colleges want to avoid bad press that they may earn if many students start taking them for granted and become rare visitors. Also, if students go to these colleges only to write exams, whom will they parade before donors, research scholars, exchange professors, politicians, media, government officials, and accreditation panels? It is a common practice for all schools and colleges to make attendance compulsory on days when teams from NAAC or events’ judges are expected to pay visits. If surprise visits were to happen, the real picture would have emerged which doesn’t happen during these orchestrated inspections.

Professors of course want to make sure their employer, that is the college, has some reason to continue to employ them. To avoid embarrassing situations wherein the principal is ambling in the corridor only to learn that three out of hundred students have shown up, professors find it convenient to defend attendance norms. Some others fuel their ego by feasting their eyes upon the large numbers that are begrudgingly and helplessly present. Apart from these two, corrupt clerks of all sorts keep an eye out for scapegoats among students who are willing to shell out whopping bribes to convert As into Ps miraculously.

So what exactly will happen if we allow students to become the free and curious birds they are meant to be? At the risk of generalising, I intend here to expound upon this very pragmatic solution applicable to the spaces where these problems do persist. Students will be more incentivized to go to classes simply because they want to, and not because they’re being forced to, in fact precisely because they’re not being forced to. Disoriented students who don’t appreciate academic discourses and self-righteous professors who don’t face any challenges make a lethal combination from the perspective of enhancing classroom productivity. What elimination of attendance norms will do is encourage students to go to classes they’re interested in and participate in them, and convince teachers of the need to make their teaching styles more engaging lest they be laid off. From the unnecessarily large class sizes that we suffer, we shall perhaps be delivered, because the handful that do choose to come will contribute actively towards the accomplishment of one common goal sans the commotion and hullabaloo. Professors won’t have to stare into indifferent, deadpan and callous faces, and students won’t have to listen to enervated monologues. Begging with sorry faces to principals with sorry faces for attendance waivers and concessions will end at once for good.

Yes, conservatives and parents may contest that a sizeable number of students will misuse this precious liberty if granted and become regulars at bars and frequent movie theatres. But, come to think of it, some do so anyway even now, all these regulations notwithstanding. Now imagine the mental ease and intellectual choices the dedicated bunch will enjoy, without having to pay the dear price of time they do at present. I will soon circulate a petition addressed to the HRD ministry to this effect, which I hope you will sign!

Having been there, I can proclaim that there’s nothing better to look forward to than a very limited number of classes a week, which require one to do a lot of homework and introspection, and which allow him or her enough time to harvest his or her cognitive caliber.

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