In my first year at the University of Manitoba, I encountered something I had never imagined before. On arriving at my first English class and receiving a syllabus, I discovered that there was an attendance component to the course’s evaluation, to be enforced by calling the roll on three random days throughout the term. In other words, if you did not religiously attend class, your grade could take a hit.
The official policy of the University of Manitoba is that all students are expected to attend all classes. Enforcement of this policy is at the discretion of course instructors. An instructor may choose to take attendance at every class and incorporate it into the grade; they may choose not to take attendance at all; or they may do any of a number of things between these two extremes.
The attendance taking seemed strange to me then, and nearly four years later it still does. Along with most of the people in that class, I was old enough to vote, join the army, drink, and own firearms. And yet we apparently had to be managed like a gaggle of five-year-olds.
Calling the roll is legally required of public school teachers in Manitoba, and students of school age are required to attend classes. This makes sense. The purpose of a public school system in a modern industrialized nation is to set a lower bound on education.
We as a society have collectively decided that there are certain things everyone should know and be able to do, and part of the function of public schools is to provide this instruction. This is why, unlike in the vast majority of past civilizations, you can reasonably expect that anyone you meet in Canada is literate. This system only works if students are on average and for the most part required to attend every class.
Another consideration that gets less important as children progress through the school system is that, as minors, they need someone to look after them. Recording and enforcing attendance ensures that students are being cared for by the teachers who are responsible for them. It is noteworthy that in high school, where students begin to assume some of the responsibilities of adulthood (and some are in fact adults), the practice of taking attendance tends to fall off.
The university is a different kind of place. While public school teachers are responsible for their students, the academy has no equivalent duties toward its students, most of whom are adults. Professors are not teachers and deans are not principals. A course instructor stands in a peculiar relationship to his or her students that is almost totally devoid of authority. This is why a university education can be so intellectually freeing: you get mentorship without tutelage.
And while public schools are meant to enforce a minimum of education—and are therefore compulsory for all school-aged children—a university is meant to provide something additional beyond the bare minimum. There is no legal impetus for everyone in Canada to get a university education, and this is the way it should be.
People learn in different ways. Some people think of learning as a social activity that requires someone explaining things in a way that appeals to them. For them, rigorous attendance at lectures might be necessary to their education.
For me, learning is a solitary activity that characteristically takes place alone in a library when I’m supposed to be doing something else. I’ve always thought that if you frequently hear things in lectures that are new to you, you’re not reading enough books. Missing a lecture is not a big deal for me, and it is a major inconvenience when I am compelled to attend classes that are not useful.
As adults, university students should be expected to take responsibility for their learning. This means that if you need to attend class, you should do so without coercion. If you can do all the coursework without showing up, more power to you. You’re responsible for the course material either way, but how you deal with it is your own lookout.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Labs obviously require attendance, though there is no reason to incorporate that into the grade since attendance is a prerequisite for the rest of the evaluation. For rehearsals in music or drama, it’s necessary for everyone to attend every rehearsal, and the entire group suffers if anyone is missing.
But for a lecture-style class, there is no reason to ever evaluate people based on attendance or lack thereof. Whether I show up to classes is none of the university’s business, as long as I do high-quality coursework in an honest manner. Taking attendance in a university classroom is insulting to students and counterproductive to the goals of higher education.