Monday, April 11, 2011

Student Absences: Why What Happened in Vegas Should Have Stayed There

There comes a time in every professor's career where you believe you have simply heard it all--every possible reason why a student is going to be absent or was absent.

This was another first:

“Ms. Bremen, I have to miss your class next Thursday because I’m in a pole dancing competition in Vegas. I could win $10,000.”

I'm rarely speechless. I was speechless.

The student who stood before me was all business. She took responsibility for her upcoming absence, disclosed her reason (didn't offer up a note, but, really, who would write one for her? I didn't want to ask), and had a solid plan for making up the work. I think I eeked out a feeble, "Okay, then. Good luck."

What else was I going to say? "Sounds like a good topic for your informative speech?"


Instead of focusing on the random time that the chatty professor couldn't, well, chat, let's jump to the communication lesson here. There are actually two:

First, what the student did correctlyShe told me she was going to miss the class ahead of time! We all know that unexpected situations arise, illnesses, etc. that are not always planned. Professors do understand reasonable unplanned issues. However, students often do know they will miss class and they never say a word. They simply don’t show up. They miss whatever occurred that day. Of course, they expect the professor to bring them up to speed upon their return--as if we can re-hold class for all who didn't attend.

Instead, if you know you'll miss class, contact your professor either in-person or via e-mail. Say that you've done the following:

a) Reviewed the absence policy in the syllabus and you know the ramifications of your missed day;
b) Reviewed the course schedule and that you will take responsibility for the work you missed. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever--am I clear yet?--ask the professor what you missed or if you missed anything important that day.

If your absence will be more than a few days, see below for how to handle that.

If you have an assignment due on the day you intend to miss, discuss your plan to turn in that assignment early (or be prepared to tell the prof that you also reviewed the late policy on the syllabus).

Second, what the student could have done differently:  She disclosed too much... and not just because of what she was doing instead of coming to class.

The reason for the absence just doesn't matter. It's not that a professor doesn't care if a student:

-is sick
-has a sick family member
-has a change of work schedule
-has a suddenly deceased great-aunt
-has a wicked test in A & P that needs an extra study period, otherwise known as the same time as your class (This is almost the worst disclosure of all. Professors love hearing that another class was far, far more important than theirs).

Most professors do care a great deal about their students. However, rather than ponder the "why," professors need students to focus on their plan to recover from the absence and own responsibility for what happens next i.e., readings, assignments due, and subsequent penalties. 

Therefore, it's fine to say, "Professor, I'm going to be absent on Thursday. It is unavoidable and I will keep my overall absences to a minimum. I've reviewed the absence policy in the syllabus. I've reviewed the schedule. I see that Chapter 5 is going to be covered while I'm gone. I'll be sure to read Chapter 5 and have the assignment in on time."

And leave it at that.

The only change in this "non-disclosure" plan is if the absence is due to a more long-term problem, such as a prolonged illness, family emergency, unplanned vacation. In this case, make an appointment with the professor as soon as the situation arises, discuss the issue, be realistic about your time away, and see if you can still salvage the class. Most professors are apt to work with you if they can be proactive, rather than reactive.

If your situation is one-shot, such as brief illness, sudden work change, quickly solved life situation, that only causes you to miss a day or two, then keep the pole dancing--or whatever else is keeping you from class--to yourself.

Quick end-note here:  I am actually from Las Vegas. Lived there for 20 years.  Even when I was teaching in Vegas, I never had a student say they would miss my class because of pole dancing in Vegas. How crazily ironic that it took me teaching in Seattle to find a student heading to my hometown for Poledancing Idol... or whatever the competition was called (Pole Dancing with the Stars? So You Think You Can Pole Dance?).

While I remember this situation like it happened yesterday (It didn't. More like a few years ago.), what I don't remember is if the student actually won.


  1. I have a line on my syllabus that says: "I don't need excuses -- all I need are solutions." I love seeing that echoed here!

  2. I think I need to add this to my syllabus!

  3. So the "Yeah, Sorry I missed class, I was in jail. Did we do anything important?" wasn't a good response huh...

  4. Oh, goodness... don't even get me started on how professors would LOVE to respond to "Did we do anything important?" It's not pretty :-). Jail? Yup--I've heard that one!

  5. Last fall I had an email from a student who informed me he would miss the first two weeks of classes because he was going rafting in Colorado. Then he said he needed me to tell him what he would miss and email him my syllabus and anything else he would need when he came back. I did not respond and when he returned he told me I was not the only one who did not but that he had fun. I simply said I hope it was worth it. I will not share his final grade but you can imagine. End of discussion. I am rarely at a loss for words but this time . . . .

  6. Oh goodness... So you were the only instructor who didn't hold two weeks of special classes just for him? Wow, what were you thinking ;-)? Whenever students use the "other people" argument, whether it's another instructor or other students, it's an immediate credibility buster. I'm so glad you shared this! Ellen

  7. Wow, this was actually very helpful since my professor ALWAYS wants an excused absence and does not want the normal wining of a student. Thanks! Definitely adding this to my syllabus.