Saturday, July 12, 2008

Thoughts on work and attendance

I just finished reading a book called Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It; I heard the authors interviewed on the radio a couple weeks ago. The interview was exciting to me to hear, because the type of work environment they describe - one where results matter more than putting in your obligatory 8 hours at a desk - rang so true, and is so close to what I tried to manufacture within my own department. My own experiment failed, of course, because the larger corporate structure had little faith in my ideas or department and was not ready for massive culture change.

Now, as a professor, I can indeed work in a way that is closer to the ideas in this book. I have a lot of autonomy. Not so much money. A lot of people are talking these days about "the three currencies" - money, time, autonomy; or some similar variation. I have a lot of the last two.

One thing that struck me in reading the book was, in the list of Guidelines the authors give, guidelines that are the backbone of this culture change, one is "all meetings are optional." And they see this as a totally non-negotiable point. If the meeting feels superfluous to you, you don't have to go. If your input is needed only for the first five minutes, go for those minutes, or call it in, or whatever. It's beautiful!

My husband is also a professor, and one thing he struggles with is the question of an attendance policy. He feels strongly that college students should be treated as adults, that attendance should be up to them, that if they choose not to attend class, they should be prepared for the consequences.

I have a attendance policy that is an echo of my institution's: if you miss more than a week of class, you may not pass the class. I tend to think of my students as still being in training for adulthood (I mostly teach first-year students). Many of them believe that old story about how in college no one cares whether you go to class or not. Maybe not at a big university. But, we are a small liberal arts college with small classes and we notice if students are missing. We are asked to notice.

Still, every semester some students do make the decision, at some level, to see class as optional.

Something else the book mentions is that under the kind of culture they advocate for work, it immediately becomes apparent who the slackers are, because they can't produce results. And, they end up fired. The authors say that in the beginning stages, involuntary turnover (firings) go up, but voluntary turnover (people choosing to go to other companies) goes way down.

This is true on the academic level as well, except that instead of being fired, they don't pass, or they barely pass. College students occupy an unusual position, I think. They are being encouraged to think for themselves and to take responsibility, often in ways they never have before. In a way, I think of my attendance policy as a kind of safety net. I can't really enforce it except by pointing out the consequences - I can't go down to the dorms and pull them out of bed; I won't spend my time reminding them of everything via email.

My hope, though, is that they don't see my class as a meeting that has no purpose or relation for them. My hope is that my meetings are ones they don't want to miss - that there is something about the hour and a half we spend together talking about literature that compells them to come. Something other than an administrative policy. It's a shared responsibility, but it's a responsibility that I must model first.

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