Teaching, Narcissism and Attendance Policies



Via the Philosophy Job Market Blog, I got a hold of The Ethicist column in the NY Times which wrestled with this question:

My medical school makes video recordings of most lectures and puts them online at each professor’s discretion. Many students sleep through the earliest lectures and watch the recordings later. Recently one professor withheld this useful study aid because attendance at his 8 a.m. lecture was low. Was it fair to deny us this tool meant to enhance our education? — NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK

Not surprisingly, the ethicist wants to know motives, if it’s for self-serving narcissistic reasons then that’s no good. On the other hand, if its for pedagogic reasons, great! Here’s the full response:

If the lecturer withheld the video version out of self-regard — a wish to draw a big crowd and maximize the applause — then he was wrong to do so. The purpose of this enterprise is to educate the students, not to gratify a professor’s vanity. If online lectures are an effective way to do the former, they should be available. But do you know what his motive was? He might believe that attending a lecture is how students learn best. If any discussion is to accompany it, a sufficient number of students must be in the room. Students must be present if they are to ask questions. Even those students who never raise their hands can benefit from engaging with the queries of their livelier classmates. Some teachers can best assess how they’re doing by looking for the glint of understanding in the eyes of the students — tough to do when those eyes are closed in sleep in a dorm room miles away. All of which is to say: check with the lecturer. If he withheld the online lectures for pedagogic reasons, fair enough. If he acted out of narcissism, he is to be censured. The same act can have different ethical meanings depending on the motives that inspired it.

The writer over at the PJMB worries about falling into the self-regard category. This got me thinking about my own rationale for my attendance policy. Basically, I take attendance each class, noting that we only meet twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes so the students need to make it their business to be there. As a rule, I don’t tolerate more than five absences upon which I think long and hard about failing the student. Finally, to preempt any annoying emails/phone calls I don’t differentiate between excused and unexcused absences. In some classes I even have simple daily open note quizzes to encourage attendance.

Generally, teaching is not simply a “deposit the money in the bank” type of lecture (although it often feels that way when I look out at all the mouth-breathers gazing back at me), but involves some sort of dialogue and/or continual interruption/questions to foster a genuine encounter with the material at hand. So it’s probably a good idea to attend class each week. While my motives are not so narcissistic that I need the applause and laughs, I do indeed feel better when my attendance is on the high end or I find out a student enrolled in the course even though it’s not required (a rarity where I teach)! Moreover, like the writer at PJMB, I tend to correlate this rising attendance so I am able to pretend that my students actually care about, you know, learning the material and not simply the final grade. Naturally, this means my self-esteem also rises (it’s like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry looks into the mirror and thinks “Seinfeld, you are a good person”–I pathetically think “Shahar, you are a good teacher”) because I falsely attribute this interest to my charisma, when really, it’s my attendance policy!

Too cynical?

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