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Mandatory attendance? What am I, twelve?

I understand why professors think a participation grade is a vital addition to any syllabus; the idea of talking at a mostly silent or distracted group of people for hours at a time is intimidating to say the least. It sounds like a bad joke: how do you get 30 unwilling young adults to pay attention and contribute to discussion? Well, you bribe them with 10 per cent of their grade. At least, that appears to be the universal solution. A portion of my grade in almost every class I’ve ever taken has been dedicated to participation. But what does that even mean?

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By Dessa Bayrock (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: September 26, 2012

It’s the first day of class. The professor stands at the front of the room, in front of a whiteboard or behind a podium, carefully explaining the rules of the class. No plagiarism (seems fairly obvious). No cellphones (trust me when I say you are the only one that wants to hear your Lady Gaga ringtone). Here are the due-dates. All assignments must be handed in. Let’s chat about how much your papers will be worth. Let’s chat about your participation grade.

Participation?

Instantly I have visions of the ribbon I earned at some track meet at age 12, the colour verging on salmon, a gold stamp of some successful cartoon kid outlined in a circle.

I understand why professors think a participation grade is a vital addition to any syllabus; the idea of talking at a mostly silent or distracted group of people for hours at a time is intimidating to say the least. It sounds like a bad joke: how do you get 30 unwilling young adults to pay attention and contribute to discussion?

Well, you bribe them with 10 per cent of their grade. At least, that appears to be the universal solution. A portion of my grade in almost every class I’ve ever taken has been dedicated to participation.

But what does that even mean?

As vocabulary words go, “participation” is not exactly descriptive. In order to earn your participation marks, should you to speak once per class? Twice per class? Pretend to know the answer to one out of every five queries directed your way?

Well, just like those vaguely-coloured ribbons I received at science fairs in my youth, the idea of assigning a mark to participation is juvenile.

And as my time at university drags itself further and further along, I’m beginning to suspect that participation stands for something else: attendance. Some professors admit this outright in the first class of the year, and tell their students exactly how many classes they can miss before a chunk gets taken out of their final grade.

But hang on a second – marks for attendance? That can’t be true. All those glossy university viewbooks promised me that when I made the journey from high school to university that mandatory attendance would be left by the wayside.

I’ve been hearing for years that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So why do we keep leading horses to water that clearly aren’t thirsty?

Look, it’s a simple answer. I’m tired of sitting in class with other people who don’t want to be there, or with people who speak up but clearly haven’t done their reading. Can we please get rid of participation grades? Get rid of attendance grades? Students who are interested and want to show up will take the time and effort to do so, without needing to be bribed with 10 per cent of their final grade. They’ll be earning that 10 per cent in other ways, and it’ll show on their final papers and exams.

I don’t want to take a chance on the fact that I might have one of those easily forgettable faces, and I’m sure you don’t want to lose out on a tenth of your grade when your professor mixes up Taylor with Tyler.

I’m an adult now. I don’t need a babysitter. I’m big enough to work hard and fight for my grades, rather than depend on some vague idea of participation. I’m grown-up enough to know when I should go to class.

I have a whole box of coloured ribbons that made me proud as a kid, but they have no place in a university setting, let alone on a syllabus.

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