Truth in absentia: 25 years of excuse-making in media ethics

January 6, 2020

One day in late 1992, as I took attendance in the large lecture hall of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, I realized the practice was a waste of time.

At first I had a seating chart but no one sat at the same place each day without my reminding them. When I deducted points for missed classes, inevitably a student would appeal, sometimes bringing excuse letters from parents, doctors, residence hall assistants, sorority and fraternity officers and, on occasion, obituary clippings.

This was madness.

I calculated how much time attendance took each semester — about 5 minutes each session or 3.3 hours per academic quarter. That’s four 50-minute classes per year. No wonder I struggled to cover all of the media issues and case studies in my lesson plans.

During the holiday break that year I devised an attendance policy that has been in the news repeatedly over the years. Here’s a 1997 write-up titled “Ohio U. Professor Will Take Any Excuse for Students’ Absences” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

That’s right; I do take any reason for missing class as long as an exam or project is not due that day.

This is the official policy as appears in the syllabus:

Simply write a brief email to my graduate teaching assistant (copy me) explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment — don’t explain symptoms). Send the email to me before you miss the scheduled lecture.

In pre-email days, Ohio students would write short letters deposited in my mailbox or under my office door. With the advent of internet, I had to deal with distractions in the wireless classroom, the title of my 2007 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Internet was not affecting class attendance. Students still showed up for class. But their minds were elsewhere.

By 2010, researchers began to document social media addiction in college students. Those who attended class with laptops not only performed at lower levels than students without technology; one study showed that classmates who sat within view of students with laptops also scored poorly, too.

To decrease distraction, I revised the attendance policy, which includes sections on tardiness, early class departures and, yes, internet addiction.

The last rows near the exit are dubbed “liberty seats.” As long as students sit there, they may come and go as they please, browse the web, text friends and even play video games or watch movies with earbuds.

After all, it’s their tuition dollar.

In the past year I have been tallying the number of absences times the cost of attendance. It’s about $44 per class — the average between resident and non-resident tuition for students at Iowa State University, where I now work.

Because several Democratic presidential candidates advocated for “free college tuition,” I wrote about “the other kind” in The Des Moines Register — money that students lose by missing class. In two sections of my ethics class in the fall 2019 semester, there were 523 absences, accounting for $23,012 in free tuition to Iowa State.

Points are deducted when students fail to follow attendance rules. If they miss a class without emailing an excuse letter, the final grade will drop by 50 points out of 1,000 for each occurrence. If they come late or leave early without taking a reserved seat in the back row, their grade also will drop by 50 points for each occurrence.

Points are deducted if I happen to catch students telling a lie when reporting an excuse. “If you lie in ethics class,” I say on the first day, “you go to hell — literally.”

Once, an Ohio University student said he was missing a Friday class because he was going to Chicago for the weekend. “That’s great,” I responded, informing him that I, too, would be in the Windy City at an alumni gathering at Dempsey’s Bar and Grill. I invited him, and he showed.

The policy emphasizes truth-telling. It has other advantages. I have an easily retrievable digital record to share with students who complain about grades. “Of course you failed,” I tell them. “You missed 10 classes.”

Absenteeism has consequences. I make that point on the last day of class when I share cumulative data.

Students typically miss class because of conflicts associated with career, academics, family, romance, health, oversleeping, funerals and “other” (everything else).

Courtesy of Michael Bugeja

Here is a sampling of excuses:

Got Married.

Got Pulled Over.

Car Towed.

Went Frolicking.

Love Your Class But I Love My Boyfriend More.

Too Much Wine.

Too Hungover.

Loud Neighbors.

Cuddled Boyfriend.

Cuddled Puppy.

Skateboard Accident.

Facetiming Friends in Different Time Zones.

Posted Bond.

Smacked Alarm!

World is Conspiring Against Me.

It Rained.

It Snowed.

It Rained Again.

It’s Cold.

It’s Halloween.

It’s Game Time.

Over the years my attendance policy has been criticized as being lenient. But I think it teaches important ethical lessons.

When students send the same excuse on multiple occasions, such as oversleeping, they confront their bad habits. If they party every Thursday night, they come to realize their priorities.

All this is part of ethics: responsibility. When they graduate and enter the workforce, attendance is mandatory. They will have to report truthfully and professionally when they call in, text or email an excuse.

True, there will be no last row for tardiness, early departures and internet addiction. However, students who indulged too often in those habits usually earn subpar grades, and that may spark awareness about unfulfilled expectations.

Gone are the days when students earn gold stars for perfect attendance. Their lives are complex, and many work part- or even full-time to pay off student debt, at an all-time high nationally at $1.4 trillion. So I try to be compassionate. I make no judgments about their choices because absences and consequences speak for themselves.

Finally, my attendance policy works in large theory-based classes like media ethics or communication law. It is not advisable in skills classes such as reporting and editing that require deadlines and many assignments.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University, is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He can be reached at bugeja@iastate.edu.