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Today's word on journalism

May 8, 2009

The Last WORD

The Fat Lady Sings, Off-Key, Drools

At about this time every year, like the swallows to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, the WORD migrates to its summer musing grounds at the sanitarium —St. Mumbles Home for the Terminally Verbose.

The reason is clear, and never moreso than as this season —the WORD's 13th —peters out.

It's been a fraught year of high palaver and eye-popping transition, both good and not-so-much. An interminable presidential campaign saga finally did end, and in extraordinary and historic fashion. Meanwhile, the bottom and everything that's below the bottom fell out of the economy, with families, homes, entire industries and —of particular interest to WORDsters and the civic-minded —dozens of daily newspapers ("I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying--it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." --Molly Ivins). . . all evaporating. What replaces them, from the individual to the institutional to the societal? Are we looking at a future of in-depth Tweeting?

As any newsperson or firehorse knows, it's hard to turn your back on day-to-day catastrophe --we just have to look at the car wreck. But even the most deranged and driven need a rest. As philosopher Lilly Tomlin once observed, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

So this morning, as a near-frost hovered over northern Utah, the unmarked van pulled into the driveway and the gentle, soft-spoken men in the white coats rolled the WORD out of bed and into a straitjacket for the usual summer trip to St. Mumbles, where the blathering one will be assigned a hammock and fed soothing, healthy foods --like tapioca, dog biscuits and salmon --while recharging the essential muscles of cynicism, outrage, sarcasm, social engagement and high-mindedness, in preparation for the next edition.
Summer well, friends.

Speak up! Comment on the WORD at


Feedback and suggestions--printable and otherwise--always welcome. "There are no false opinions."

Beyond the tests and quizzes

By Greg Aullman

April 24, 2009 | While driving home from Rock Springs and tiny Western Wyoming Community College early one November, a sparkling new Pontiac Grand Am hit a tiny patch of ice. Roads had been mostly bare, no snow was falling, and speed hadn't been reduced. The driver recalled his speed being roughly 65 miles per hour, which hadn't slowed much when the vehicle collided head on with a semi pulling two trailers of coal behind it. The backseat passenger would be thrown out of the smashed up vehicle only to awake hours later strapped down in an ambulance. After a week in the hospital, and a diagnosis of brain damage, the back seat passenger returned home. The fall semester was nearly over, grades were coming up due. The student asked a few of his teachers if he could still drop since the amount of work missed would be impossible to make up. One of the teachers was willing to work with the student, agreeing that if he could take the final and prove at least he had thought about the material that he could still pass the class. Two other teachers had complete opposite reactions, one even told the student that it was too late to drop the class based on the college's policy, and that since the wreck had caused the student to miss three weeks, he meet the attendance requirement and had flunked the class.

How much a college student learns computes out to a single letter grade, a grade controlled by more than just what the student has actually learned. Students can ace the coursework only to receive a grade below the A they feel they earned. In those moments of panic and confusion too often the mind reverts back to the syllabus, attendance policy, and funeral bells of sorrow. Teachers counter that their lives are also busy. They spend hours planning lessons, creating power point slides, handouts, and designing presentations to enrich their teaching. Without policies an innumerable line of students may email and come-in to cram before a test or assignment, wasting not only the teacher's time, but the also rest of the class.

In both of these situations classroom attendance is absolutely pivotal in the educational experience. The students would argue that they pay for the right to attend college. Doesn't paying entitle them whether they choose if they attend without having to suffer extraneous penalties? Student tuition can start at $2,000 a semester and quickly escalate from there. Out-of-state tuition sometimes increase costs to three-to-four times as much. The teachers point out that if they don't have some type of attendance policy in place, last-minute cramming and outside questions from potentially hundreds of students would quickly fill free time. Are attendance policies, especially those that carry a substantial grade percentage, really necessary at the college level?

A teacher of online classes said his favorite students are inmates. The inmates are always ready for class, and attendance is a privilege, consequently attendance is much stronger than those outside the concrete walls. Utah State University professor, and journalism department head, Michael Sweeney said he missed an art history class once because he had to go to a job interview only to later find a professor back on campus unwilling to work with him on making up assignments.

What constitutes a good excuse, or umů, valid reason to miss a class? That may depend in large part on the people involved, teachers as well as students. USU freshman Kaitlyn Sprouse recalled missing a class in order to watch another episode of the famous sitcom "Friends". Fellow USU student Candice Sandness said her roommate once received all-day snowboarding passes that couldn't be returned. She decided to give in and go, only to return back to class and find she had missed a quiz.

Michael Sweeney said a student he had actually went into labor during class. He said students have busy lives, family and personal situations may arise, hopefully just not of the increasing family-size-through birth variety.

Sweeney compares the class to life. In life some jobs allow you to call in and negotiate with your superiors, in the case of a journalist their editors, and circumvent life's little bumps. Sweeney said that he would be willing to work with students. If a student told him, "I was being held hostage and they wouldn't let me use a phone," such a situation would warrant missing class.

Attendance policies can range from a major portion of the final grade, to a minor add-on, to an extra-credit opportunity offered by the teacher to help motivate slacking students. Attendance policies can come in the form of daily attendance, taken perhaps with names called out, or some type of electronic clicker that verifies that the student is there. Attendance can be measured by simply being in a room, or with a more in-depth intellectual assessment such as a quiz perhaps administered via the $30 I-clickers plaguing campus. Some policies take the form of a write-up regarding the events and activities of the class that help to not only verify the student was there, but that they took something from the proceedings. Some attendance points are awarded for performance on random quizzes. The quizzes may even be hinted at in previous classes to make sure more students will attend. Many of these attendance policies will allow for the dropping of one or a few of the lowest scores to compensate for student emergencies.

The recession seems to add another element to the quandary. As tuition and fees rise, students are forced to work or face enormous amounts of debt on graduation. Teachers, perhaps fearing for the loss of their jobs, feel pressured to make sure that student reviews and class performance stay at high levels.

A criticism of American public schools points at the range of students, from the most intelligent in the class, to the least, who learn at the same level as those in the middle. Do college courses do the same? When students are able to pass the standard exams, quizzes and assignments, is it fair to reduce their grade because they don't require the same in-class learning as others? For some students attendance points guarantee points that help boost their grades from mediocre to honor-roll status, while others attend sporadically and attendance doesn't change much.

If academics is looked at as a series of hoops that students need to jump through in order to obtain their degrees, then attendance policies are just another hoop in the process. Teachers like Sweeney may equate learning with more of a job training. Teachers may correlate classroom attendance with building a work ethic that will instill the discipline necessary to excel in the workplace. Classroom attendance in that view supersedes quizzes and lectures. Instead the focus is aimed at creating a generation of responsible employees and employers. A dependable generation to enter the workforce that will help pay the teacher's Social-Security benefits years down the road.

Other teachers may view their material as of the utmost importance. Discussions are aimed at broadening student viewpoints, helping to create a generation that is not burdened by bigoted viewpoints. The classroom is supposed to be an open forum in which students are free to not only express their views, but also to more fully understand the viewpoints of others. Attendance in this case is supposed to be critical. Without opposing viewpoints then studies would only reinforce existing, potentially flawed or narrow-minded viewpoints.

Students may counter these arguments with their own perspectives. A recurring statement floated around campus, "C's get degrees." Students may feel that perfect workplace attendance supersedes perfect college attendance. Students may be sick of high school attendance policies and requirements and expect college classes to be different. Also students may be required through in-major or general courses to take a variety of "broadening" classes that make them sick of sitting in a room where everyone argues their own perspectives, but no one seems to change their minds. Kaitlyn Sprouse said that when she first came to college she leaned towards earning strong grades, but now leans more on the "C's get degrees," ideology. Candice Sandness said she is paying for her education and needs to get the most out of the experience to help her in her future career. Both felt that attendance should not be a required part of college though.

Are there regulations where classroom attendance and participation account for a certain percentage of any given grade? If so who defines those? Sweeney said that teachers are generally free to make their own decisions. A universal policy would require a faculty meeting and vote on a departmental level.

For those who favor policies should there be compromises in the policies? Should there be alternative assignments that could offset the loss of attendance points if students are willing to do extra work outside of the classroom? Should freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors and even graduates be required to meet the same policies?

Current teachers may have seen their personal viewpoints change as they moved from the ranks of undergraduate to teacher. Students may see their stances waver as they go from unemployed to employed during the school year, and time becomes a more valuable commodity. Kaitlyn Sprouse said, "The hardest thing about college is managing my time."

Attendance can be looked at from a variety of perspectives. Students may feel as Candice does, "Always do your readings and be prepared for class with questions, which makes lectures and discussions more engaging, and you'll be getting more for your tuition money." Other students may argue that they take interest in what they want, but the interest has to be mutual. Teachers who are primarily researchers required to teach a class or two or teachers who are there because of the paycheck certainly can't expect students to be more interested in class than they are.

As the economy slumps and the rising cost of tuition gives more worth to earning a degree, attendance may become an issue that helps teachers maintain a responsible generation, but allows students the freedom to enjoy their last few years before joining the grind of the fabled "real world" that adults have been telling them about for years.



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