Habits in College and the Real World

DePauw University, East College, photo by Larry Ligget, 1 Oct. 2012

Last Friday our student newspaper, The DePauw (which has been in operation since 1852) published an opinion piece by a first-year student essentially arguing that professors should not require attendance of their students. Part of the argument said that if students want to waste their tuition dollars, it is up to them; another part suggested that not requiring attendance would elicit positive self-motivation to be in class. In closing, the piece said that the university should have a universal policy that students, not professors, should get to decide about the value of their class attendance. The whole piece is below (note that I am going out of my way not to advertise names). [Note: a few editorial clarifications appear in brackets]. My purpose here is to consider the dialectic that has resulted.

“I’ve been sick for about three weeks now, and I still have not completely recovered. Part of the reason for my prolonged sickness is that I was never given the chance to rest and get well, which I accredit to the university’s lack of a clear and universal attendance policy.

College campuses breed disease between the lack of sleep, abundance of stress, cramped living areas, and the fact that we come into contact with several hundred people a day. The attendance policy outlined in the student handbook leaves the number of days missed up to the individual professor. That’s great, but some professors give you only a small amount of days that you are allowed to miss before disciplinary actions are taken, which can include being removed from a class. [ed.: only after missing two weeks of class or more]

Having an attendance policy, in general, does not foster the type of individual that the university has repeatedly stated they want us to be. This overly vague policy provided by the university is harmful to its students.

I think a no attendance policy is far better. Each of us pays $40,000 a year to go here. [ed.: average net tuition is more like $18,000.] If we want to waste our money by not going to class and not doing well in the course, why should the university stop us? Especially considering the fact that anybody who has a poor GPA have consequences such as academic probation, as per the student handbook.

Not to mention, not having an attendance policy provides students with an intrinsic desire to go to class, which in turn makes it more enjoyable. One of my professors does not allow for us to miss, unless we are sick and have been to the Wellness Center, which still does not provide time for recovery. As a result, I dread going to that class because I am forced to go.

On the other hand, another one of my professors has an open attendance policy. She could honestly care less if we are there. She wants us there, but because she does not force us to be there (with the exception of tests, quizzes, presentations, and graded discussions), the vast majority of the class is present. As a result, I love going to her class. Ironically, her class is at 8:10.

Hypothetically, I could sleep in, but because the choice is left up to me, I go to class because I want to. I’d argue that the majority of students at DePauw would make the same decision as me, simply because that is the type of student attracted to DePauw.

With being forced to go to class regardless, students come to class sick as a dog, which is detrimental to not only their health, but the health of others.

This vague policy leaves the decision on whether or not a student has to come to class, without any regard to certain circumstances, up to the professors, when the ultimate decision should be up to the individual student.

Thus, the university needs to revise its attendance policy and either have a set number of days that students can miss throughout a semester, or better yet, not have an attendance policy at all.”

Part of the student’s expression seems to be a result of having been unwell; part may relate to a certain sense of freedom that first-year students discover in college. This is when they are trying to figure out how far their liberty can take them, what they have to be responsible for, and what they want to be responsible for, when a parent is no longer looking over their shoulder.

Self-motivation to attend class is always preferred, of course; we all remember courses that changed us, and courses that failed to inspire us. But is there not  important value in following through with required tasks and thereby learning difficult habits of discipline? In college or not, we are bound to encounter work situations that we’d rather avoid, but which we have to do anyway. Dealing with that is part of growing up.

So it was interesting to see this Tuesday that someone had responded to the opinion piece in a letter to the editor of The DePauw. It wasn’t a faculty member or an administrator (in these situations, it is hard to come off not looking like one is ‘wagging one’s finger’ at the student, and therefore acting counter-productively). It wasn’t even a current student. It was a graduate of the class of 2012.

It was gratifying to see such a recent alumna show continuing interest in the values and education of current students, and it was a relief to see how much writing quality can improve in four years. Here’s her letter:

“I can’t even describe my outrage while reading the opinion article, “Lack of attendance policy harmful to students.” At first I found it hilarious, but the longer I read, the more I felt embarrassed and disappointed in my school. The tonality is that of a whining child: “It’s not fair!”

To which I say, “deal with it.” While I admit that I wasn’t always the model student and did my fair share of complaining, never once did I suggest that it should be DePauw’s responsibility to make my life easier. It was mine.

I write this to every DePauw student. What you think is hard is nothing compared to what waits for you. Sometimes I pull out my essays and laugh, because I can’t believe that was ever hard. Staying up until 4 a.m. to write essays was fun. So I’m going to “give it the old college try” and plead for you to listen.

What you do now decides your future. You learn in class. You earn references in class. Good luck asking professors for recommendation letters if they don’t know you. Do you think HR will take a second pass at your resume if your references say you skipped class? It doesn’t matter if you wrote good essays. If you don’t show up, you aren’t reliable, don’t manage time and think you’re the exception to the rule. This is not the case.

As someone who knows fellow grads who struggle for jobs and struggled for a job herself, I can tell you now that you better buck up and give it everything you’ve got. Outside of that university bubble is the real world, and boy is it REAL. You will laugh that you ever complained about going to class and beg to get those days back. It’s time to turn your little faces forward and prepare yourselves. This is five percent of your life that decides the rest of it. Learn to prioritize and manage your time now, because you won’t get another chance. So, no matter how busy you are or how crappy you feel, go to class. You are in your future right now.”

The force of the rhetoric is impressive, and the core points are right on–basic points that we make to students all the time:

  • College can be busy, but real life is far busier;
  • How you acquit yourself in your courses does not just earn grades–it earns (more importantly, perhaps) recommendations and references;
  • Developing good habits for managing your energy (not just time and tasks) is as important as acquiring skills or learning content;
  • You may have to play even when you aren’t 100%; learn how to adjust to that.

What was most fascinating, perhaps, was the tone of the letter: strict and authoritative in the way of an older cousin who has just learned to drive a car and is now intent on scaring you into sense (and perhaps is just a little interested in impressing you). We also know a few other things. First, the alumna feels connected enough to the university that she continues to read the college newspaper; this shows that she cares (even more so that she responds not just to the author of the opinion piece, but “to every DePauw student”). Second, things have not been easy after graduating; this gives her credibility. Third, she has seriously reflected on her education; this reveals a developing wisdom.

Now I want to share a chart that began life as a whiteboard sketch. It doesn’t have a good name; the best we have is ‘Learning Matrix’:


Of course, this matrix could apply to any university. The strength of purpose in any particular area will vary, revealing through its balance of attributes the institution’s learning personality.

The top area, ‘Robust Intellectual Training,’ represents the most traditional college learning activity: taking courses and labs from professors. Students learn content, method, theory, critical skills (e.g., reading, reasoning, speaking, writing) in an environment that ought to model civil discourse, arguments supported by evidence, and respect for difference. These courses tend to comprise most, if not all, of the credits that earn a diploma.

The bottom area, ‘Transformative Hands-on Experiences,’ includes ways in which that course-based learning can be applied outside the classroom, such as externships, internships, field trips, off-campus study (either short- or long-term), individual or collaborative research, community service and engagement, and service learning. In these contexts, teachers ask students to connect their skills and knowledge to the world by trying things, and by learning from the gap between concept and actuality.

The right-hand area, ‘Powerful Social Participation,’ represents ways in which students learn through conversation and conviviality–from professors, staff, community members, and other students–outside formal learning frameworks: at lunch with a teacher, traveling together on a bus, in residence halls, at social events, etc. Students practice how to act and how to connect with others. This is community-building on a small- and medium-scale.

The left-hand area, ‘Individual Reflection and Contemplation,’ is the one least likely to appear in the pages of a glossy admissions brochure. It represents not only having places where students can get ‘quiet time,’ but also the inclusion of reflection in conversations about how learning happens at the institution. This is personality-building on an individual scale. It is about valuing mindfulness.

Significant campus-wide, shared traditions and events, such as major speakers, artistic performances, or signature athletic or social events, bring all constituents together to build community on a grand scale. These events help shape the core identity of an institution and cement affiliation with it.

All four areas overlap and interrelate. If intellectual training in courses provides students with critical skills and knowledge, and hands-on experiences give students opportunities to test what they’ve learned in real-world situations, then social participation teaches them how to share what they know effectively, and reflection asks them to consider what it all means, and why it matters.

In The DePauw pieces, the current student is trying to figure out her commitment to the demands of intellectual training, and has not yet considered the effects of her habits on practicing for the real world. The alumna, in reflecting upon her own college experience, underlines the importance of developing habits, skills, and relationships in class that carry over to the real world, and she does so by participating socially in a dialogue with the current student (and all students) through the medium of the shared campus tradition of Indiana’s Oldest College Newspaper.

So this is really a tale of two ends of the college process–the novice who will improve through struggle, errors, instruction, and insight, and the graduate who has learned her lessons and wishes to share them. We need to continue nurturing and challenging the former, and continue offering ways for the latter to speak up and help out.

That is what families do.

One thought on “Habits in College and the Real World

  1. Very thought provoking. My first reaction to the original letter was -she’s got a lot to learn about the real world. Employers have enough dealing with the idiosyncrasies of personalities, and have little tolerance for those who habitually are late or absent. I’ve managed 24 employees for over twenty years now. When they act like that they are fired. I look for those who are willing to learn, are clean in their habits, don’t whine, and begin to perform their tasks so well, they become perfectionists at what they do. They become proud of their work, and proud of where they work. I have little turnover, even though these are not high paying jobs.

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