Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Be Here Now, or Else: Lamentable Effects of Student 'Presenteeism'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Be Here Now, or Else: Lamentable Effects of Student 'Presenteeism'

Article excerpt

Forcing undergraduates to attend class retards their capacity to develop as mature, independent learners, warns Bruce Macfarlane.

Academics frequently complain that their freedom is being infringed by the scrutiny imposed on them by developments such as teaching observations, research assessments and annual appraisals. But we rarely reflect on the increasing surveillance to which students are also subject and the effect this has on their academic freedom.

There was a time when being a university student meant "reading" for a degree. Attending lectures and seminars was a matter of choice, and skipping classes barely raised an eyebrow. Now, attendance policies and class registers are the order of the day. Some lecturers even use draconian measures such as excluding students who are not punctual.

But the surveillance culture goes much deeper than that. There are an array of assessment-related proxies aimed at getting students to attend, including oral presentations, short tests and quizzes, cunningly scheduled for the beginning of classes including lectures, smaller group tutorials and seminars.

So-called "class contribution" grades long established in North America have begun to creep into the UK system. Often worth between 5 and 10 per cent of overall grades, these practices purport to evaluate the extent to which students contribute to class discussion. Sometimes they are really just a glorified reward for turning up. Contributions to online discussion forums play much the same role. Where this consists of simply counting the number of postings, there is little connection to the quality of student learning.

Further layers of e-surveillance exist that testify to our lack of trust in students. These include the routine use of anti-plagiarism software and the requirement for students to sign quasi-legal authorship statements every time they hand in an assignment.

Universities assert that student absenteeism is a problem because it is disrespectful to lecturers and other students, and a waste of public funding. Attendance and punctuality are considered to be important workplace competencies, and registers are said to be necessary to comply with the visa regulations affecting some international students. Yet in abiding by the law, universities should not treat students as potential criminals.

It might seem perverse to suggest that students should not attend and participate in class. But surveillance is an insidious trend intended largely to make them conform to behavioural expectations rather than develop them academically. This approach has been described by Leonard Holmes, reader in management at the University of Roehampton, as "learnerism". …

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