The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

When Students Request Excused Absences for Work-Related Issues

Absence makes the GPA grow weaker
Sharon K. Anderson
This post is a response to Clients Ask the Darndest Questions by Sharon K. Anderson

A recent post by my colleague Sharon Anderson is called “Clients Ask the Darndest Questions.”  She talks about requests she’s had from psychotherapy clients to lend them money, give them hugs, and even do their laundry.  This got me thinking of one type of request that students make of professors:  to be “excused” from class.

Coming to class is correlated with better grades, so I think attendance is important.  If all I did was lecture, especially over material in the textbook, I wouldn’t require attendance. After all, why should students to come to class if they can absorb the same material by reading? These days, however, I don’t lecture.  Rather, I rely heavily on in-class experiences like group work, discussions, and debates.  Thus, students are active participants in the classroom, and showing up to class is similar to showing up for work in the outside world. Another way to put this:  Because students have obligations to their classmates, sometimes there’s just no way to “make up the work.”

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Some might argue that showing up for class, especially to do group work rather than just to absorb information, is not part of higher education. I would argue that engaging in active learning with other students may be the only—or most important—part of higher education that’s left! I also feel OK about requiring class attendance (and lots of activity) because students have more choice about what kind of higher education they want. They have the option of taking courses online, without as many specific time commitments and obligations to others. Thus, if they choose to sign up for my face-to-face course, and I am clear about their obligations, I’m OK with requiring both attendance and effort. (Of course, that means I have to show up for class as well.)

I always like a good gray area, so let’s consider students who come to me and say that they can’t make class because of their job obligations. Furthermore, they ask to miss class but not be penalized. They would like (a) the attendance requirement waived for that day, or (b) to receive full credit for attending even though they cannot (or choose not to) come to class, or (c) an opportunity to “make up the work.” Many students have to work to pay for their education, so I have some tough decisions to make.

The work-related requests that make the most sense to me involve unchangeable and important events like business trips.  I realize that some of my students are professionals—some earn more money than I!  Some requests, however, seem more like personal rather than professional choices:  “I want to meet with my boss, and this was the only time she could meet with me this week.”  Or, “I have some work at the bank I need to catch up on.”  Or, “I changed my schedule to get a few more hours, and I took a shift during class time.” 

For these latter types of requests, I’ve started to take this approach: I ask students, “Think about asking your boss at work (at the bank, the store, the research lab, whatever) for the day off because you have important school obligations—like coming to our class. Then imagine asking your boss to pay you for that day even though you won’t show up.  What is your boss likely to say?” 

Students usually laugh, because they realize that their boss would pretty much laugh at them and say something like, “If you don’t show up, you don’t get paid.” 

“That’s the idea!” I respond. Then I address making up the work:  “OK, now imagine asking your boss these types of questions:  ‘But would you pay me if I …  (a) watched a movie about being a bank teller, (b) wrote a paper about the movie, (c) wrote a paper about the history of bank telling, (d) came by that night, when the bank is closed, and hang around for a couple hours, (e) cleaned up the boss’s desk, and/or (f) worked at a different bank during the next fiscal year?’ The next step would be to ask your boss if you could meet with them, on their own time, so they could tell you what happened at work while you were gone.”

Just for good measure, I could add one more analogy: “Can you imagine asking your boss:  ‘Are we going to do anything important at the bank today? Because I have something more important to do.’  Would your boss be impressed enough with your attitude to write you a good reference for your next job?"

I’d like to hear from you, dear readers: What are appropriate excuses for missing class? In what types of courses? And what guidelines or principles should professors use to judge whether a request to miss class is appropriate?

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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