Jake Hennessy | Florida State University
As an instructor, even before COVID-19, I tried to remember my positionality as an undergraduate student from a school with a large commuter population. I wanted to embrace flexibility in my teaching and syllabus policies that extends empathy towards students who have difficulty juggling the many responsibilities they have in their lives. And, as someone who struggles with two different diagnosed forms of depression, I wanted to extend my flexibility beyond the logistical hurdles students face to also include the marginalized students who might have trouble with attendance due to depression or other mental health issues. I found that generally students weren’t unwilling to come to class and engage but rather faced various difficulties that made it hard for them to attend. While some faced hour-long commutes, a lot of students with attendance issues mentioned family tragedies or other mental health related struggles as the main obstacle to their attendance. In response, I created a labor-based attendance form where students filled out the work they did outside of class to remove up to two recorded absences. This way, I can remain empathetic to these issues that cause students to miss class sessions.
Adding flexibility within attendance policies matters because of the increased mental health struggles college students endure. In 2014, Doris Iarovici reported on student survey data from 80,121 students at 106 institutions in Mental Health Issues and the University Student. When asked about the top 10 impediments to academic success or performance, students ranked these as the top five in this order (6):
- Sleep Difficulties
- Internet use/computer games
- Depression/anxiety disorder
Even more concerning is that nearly half of students felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” and almost 1 in 10 students “seriously contemplated suicide” (Iarovici 6). Recently, Changwon Son et al. conducted interview surveys with 195 students at a large public university in the United States to explore the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. Out of the 195 students, 71% noted increased stress and anxiety, 89% noted difficulty concentrating, and 82% noted increased concerns about academic performance. Changwon Son et al. concluded that these findings highlighted an urgency to develop interventions and preventative strategies for students’ mental health.
Findings like these warrant a change in how writing program administrators and composition instructors alike account for and/or think about attendance. Disability studies is a great place to start when thinking about how pedagogical changes could account for student mental health. As Adam Hubrig rightly notes in their post “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and ‘Accessibility,’” “Composition instructors might be tempted to think of our courses as “accessible” because we’ve put an institutionally mandated Accessibility statement in our syllabus—often waaaaay at the back.” It takes more than just that, and I hope I’m doing my part in increasing access to my composition classrooms with the labor log example you’ll find later down this blog.
I also lean towards Mad at School from Margaret Price as a key conversation starter when talking about mental health issues. Price’s idea of kairotic spaces is helpful to understand the rigid social expectations of a typical classroom discussion. Price stated that these spaces are “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60). Examples of these spaces for students include group work and classroom discussion where they may feel uncomfortable participating. For writing program administrators and composition instructors who have power to change or adapt attendance policies, acknowledging these kairotic spaces and bringing them into pedagogical focus by mindfully reconsidering these strategies as “normal” allows for an effective critique of the ableism involved in such practices. As Price noted, “Ableism contributes to the construction of a rigid, elitist, hierarchical, and inhumane academic system” (8). Composition instructors ought to stay reflexive in their syllabus policy statements, as well as collectively engaging in changing potential strict departmental policy. This collective effort is essential to affect policy making decisions for the benefit of those with mental health struggles.
To further explore expanding flexibility for composition classroom policy, I thought about the questions Price asked when she pondered “what does ‘participation’ in a class mean for a student who is undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed? Or a student who experiences such severe anxiety, or obsession, that he can barely leave his dorm room or home?” (5-6). I felt that I had enough agency to adapt my policy to be mindful of this idea of presence that Price attended to through her critique of conflating classroom presence with the act of “experiencing” a class. Price rightfully noted that not all who physically attend class are attentive and experiencing the class in that moment, whether it be due to anxiety or prior sleep problems due to issues with depression (66). The idea of out of classroom productivity is crucial for me to remember; Price noted that instructors should not be so quick to correlate attendance with presence or participation, as it is possible for students to be engaged in the process of the classroom and learning outside the physical classroom (68). We, as instructors, must remember that there are times when students may miss class to spend more time composing their major project and that instance may provide more learning or experience for a socially anxious student than forcing them to endure additional small group work (68).
My labor log helps students remove two of their absences by telling me what they accomplished outside of class that week for our class. This idea stems from an adaptation of Asao B. Inoue’s idea of a labor-based writing course in First Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Inoue also mentions this flexibility as “compassionate recognition” in his blog on attendance.
I believe that my labor-based log challenges students to reflect on their experiences as writers while respecting their process with mental health as well. This form is my attempt to respect the labor of the student, which Inoue defined as being often signaled as “the quantity of time and effort put into a project or an activity” (73). As I moved to teaching on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to somehow account for the tremendous, new mental burden placed upon students. I thought it was fair to reconsider my conceptions of attendance and presence in this new Zoom environment. Most of the content I sought from students filling this sheet out relates to reflective work that accounts for the amount of labor they are putting in for the class. Reflection is a major part of my composition course and this sheet provides an opportunity for students to reflect on their labor practices outside the classroom.With this form, I wanted to be mindful of placing too enormous a burden upon the student to provide proof; this unfortunately would resemble the current university accommodation model of providing documentation. Rather, I attempted to keep the spirit of the labor-based course in mind and asked the student to write about their process and experience related to the work of the project. As Inoue notes about his composition course:
I also wanted to avoid making students provide proof in the form of screenshots of the outside of the classroom labor. A lot of students who struggle with mental health need someone to understand. Sometimes, that understanding comes in the form of not asking for definitive proof of a reasonable, documented excuse for their absence. The last thing I want to do is resemble the same cold and unforgiving legality the university imposes on them when dealing with seeking accommodations. This also served a pedagogical benefit, as these questions are an attempt for the students to exercise a degree of self-reflexivity in their writing process.
First, students account for the actual labor they performed outside of class. They get to see and confront an estimation of the work they write down, which I think helps put into perspective their relationship with labor and the writing process. Along with writing down their labor, I believe that asking them to reflect on what went well and what they would change challenges them to attend to their writing and research practices outside of the classroom. This helps students figure out if they should change or improve their labor practices. Finally, I wanted to include a question that allowed students to express the emotional dimension of this process if they wanted. I created this labor-log to primarily help students who face mental health issues, and I feel it would be a disservice to them if I did not allow them to express how it felt to perform the labor I ask of them. This question helps create a link between myself and my students, which also goes a long way in building trust and classroom community that I value.
This labor-based-attendance form is one suggestion in a long conversation of expanding flexibility and accommodation related to classroom policies. This is by no means an attempt to totally replace the attendance model. One benefit I found with this labor log is that students seemed to miss fewer classes once I implemented this policy. I believe that it relates back to building trust by giving my students a fallback mechanism to use if other classes are getting difficult or they experience some issues in their lives during the semester. This labor-log also aids in issues of classism, as mental health issues are not the only reasons students have to miss a few classes. There are issues of taking care of family, and/or having multiple jobs, as well as many other reasons that this sheet hopefully might expand awareness for.
As far as assessing the success of this sheet, I have received reassuring feedback from students that they appreciated the flexibility offered by me. More importantly, multiple students admitted to the difficulties that came with being a new college student. They stressed that this accepting class space was a very needed factor as a student, and that I was considerate of the environment we were all in. I believe that this labor-log was one of many strategies that built trust and community in my classroom.
As I mentioned above, when I teach, I always try to be mindful of the many different burdens students face in order to attend college. This means that many students work one or even two jobs just for the same affordance to attend college as others, and these burdens add to the stress and mental health issues many students face. Instructors considering the student labor that goes into the course becomes as important as considering attendance itself. Just as a blanket attendance policy cannot accommodate or fit all students, neither can an expectation that students will put similar amounts of labor into each assignment. This disproportionate amount of labor that initially is invisible may influence the also invisible mental health struggles students face. As COVID-19 provided an overt exigence that commanded institutions, writing program administrators, and instructors to re-think policy and practices on the fly, we must recognize and acknowledge that exigences to prompt such reconsideration existed long before the pandemic. At the same time, we should not immediately sweep new practices that emerged from teaching in different synchronous and asynchronous formats under the rug as we eventually reconvene from the pandemic.
Changwon, Son et al. “Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study.” JMIR Publications, vol. 22, no. 9, 2020, https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279. Accessed 15 July 2021.
Hubrig, Adam. “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility.” Composition Studies Journal. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/04/19/access-from-as-the-start-on-writing-studies-and-accessibility/. Accessed 23 November 2021.
Iarovici, Doris. Mental Health Issues & the University Student. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
Inoue, Asao B. “Attendance in Labor-Based Grading.” Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. https://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/attendance-in-labor-based-grading-part.html. Accessed 23 November 2021.
—. “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Parlor Press, 2014.
— [AsaoBInoue]. “One way to understand this focus on labor and effort is to consider what this course really is about. This is a writing course, not a paper course. Writing is a verb, a practice. It is labor.” Twitter, 15 June 2021, https://twitter.com/AsaoBInoue/status/1404830967815049217?s=20.
Price, Margaret. Mad at School. The University of Michigan Press, 2011.