My Attendance Woes and How I Brought Them on Myself

I’m writing this to explain the details of some recent tweets about my attendance woes not to complain, but to explain what those of us in the North Carolina Community College System are required to do and the problems that result if you try to innovate. It’s not meant as a rant and I don’t intent to frame it as such. It’s a rather long story, but the background is important.

The story begins in August, 1992 when I was hired. At that time, all NCCCS campuses were on quarter systems (I seem to remember a few on trimesters). Every campus had its own course catalog. Every campus has its own course numbering system. Every campus was its own academic entity. This resulted in a great many campuses becoming hubs for certain curriculum areas. My own institution, for example, was known the world over for its furniture technology, furniture production, and furniture production management programs with visitors from as far away as Denmark. Not every campus had a “college transfer” curriculum, but mine did as it was one of the larger medium sized schools (enrollment of around 3000-4000). The problem with this system was that students could not guarantee that a given course at one campus would transfer to another campus or, more importantly, to four year schools in our state or anywhere else. In 1997, it was announced that the NCCCS would begin using a semester system as of, as I recall, 1999. NCCCS and UNC (when I refer to UNC, I mean the UNC System of universities, not any one particular campus) would hash out a Comprehensive Articulation Agreement specifying in great detail which courses would and would not transfer to UNC campuses. Private schools could decide for themselves which courses they would accept, but UNC campuses would be required by state law to accept all courses included in the CAA. A companion Common Course Library (CCL) was also developed for NCCCS campuses containing every course offered by every community college in the state. Campuses could select course offerings only from the CCL. This meant that campuses had to negotiate among themselves to solve problems of curriculum duplication (e.g. no two schools within X miles of each other could offer the same specialty programs like culinary certifications or law enforcement training, etc.). This also meant that community colleges had to negotiate with UNC campuses over which courses would be accepted by all (ALL) UNC campuses for either general degree graduation requirements or for elective credits. This new system also established a host of pre-majors (e.g. pre-engineering, pre-chemistry, pre-mathematics, pre-education, etc.) for students to take and easily transfer into those majors at the UNC campus of their choice (or to any other non-UNC college, public or private, that voluntarily chose to honor the CAA). UNC campuses had no choice and were mandated by state law to honor the CAA. That’s an important detail to remember. Of course along with all this came a transition to semester hours from quarter hours, but we weathered that change fairly well. One of the earliest problems was that the UNC campuses didn’t want to accept community college courses in the sciences and a few other disciplines because they perceived community college faculty as unqualified, which by their definition meant non-PhD. Some UNC people proclaimed that community college faculty were only required to hold Bachelor degrees and were thus not qualified to teach college or university courses. Well, that’s not the case for college transfer courses; the Southern Association of College and Schools, our regional accreditation agency, recommends (note that accreditation agencies cannot mandate this) the exact same criteria for all college level instructors in our region. The pre-education major wasn’t implemented for over a year after the transition because two prominent Schools of Education (Chapel Hill and East Carolina as I recall) couldn’t agree whose program was the best to use as a model for the poor little community colleges (…that sounded ranty didn’t it…).  The net result was that in the sciences, the university system basically dictated our course titles, ostensible content coverage, credit hours, lab hours, lecture hours, and pretty much everything else to us to compensate for having this legislatively shoved down their throats (…their sentiment, not mine…). So after the transition to semesters and the CCL, there were several tiers of college transfer physics (I won’t discuss the astronomy situation here…it was and still is a mess.). We were granted a conceptual physics course PHY110 and an accompanying lab PHY110A. We were granted a two semester introductory algebra-based sequence PHY151/152 and accompanying lab, but the lab wasn’t separated out as a separate course as it was for PHY110. To this day, I have never been told why. We were also granted a two semester introductory calculus-based sequence PHY251/252, again with accompanying, but not separate, lab. Their Highnesses (…there goes the ranty thing again…) also allowed us to offer a modern physics course PHY253 but most campuses refused to accept it for students majoring in physics despite that it was far more rigorous than any of their own similarly named courses; I taught it every time it was offered, usually during summers. To further get their point across, the UNC system also dictated that lecture sections would all carry three semester hours of credit and labs would carry. PHY110A got two contact hours per week for one semester hour of credit. Similarly, the lab component of PHY151 and PHY152 was dictated to be two contact hours per week for one semester hour of credit. Collectively, PHY110/110A, PHY151, and PHY152 each carried four semester hours of credit. However, PHY251 and PHY252 were dictated to have lab components of three contact hours per week, each for one semester hour of credit. So every course/lab combo was dictated to have a total of four semester hours of credit. Great. Fantastic. No problem, right? Wrong. Read on.

The problem came when we began scheduling our courses. NCCCS mandated that courses must be scheduled chunks according to how the contact hours were divided up between lecture and lab, even if the course had no separate lab listed in the CCL. So for PHY110 and PHY110A the former must be scheduled for a total of three lecture hours and two lab hours per week with no deviations permitted. This means the course could easily be scheduled traditionally as MWF lecture and either a Tu or Th lab. As I recall, we also did things like MWF lecture and M afternoon lab or W afternoon lab. Also permissible was MTuW lecture with lab on Th. The point is that the three lecture contact hours were considered one chunk of time as were the two lab contact hours. The physics courses that were eventually assigned primarily to me, PHY251 and PHY252, could be schedule as MWF lecture with either Tu or Th lab, which was how we did it. However, in fall 1999, I switched to Matter & Interactions and I quickly discovered that the traditional scheduling approach wasn’t working. Students’ contact time in class was too chopped up and I wanted a more evenly distributed numbers of hours per day. I needed to blur the lines between formal lecture and formal lab and begin the transition to a more studio-type environment. My then chair was fine with this, but warned me that the scheduling could get complicated because of the imposed restrictions. We explored things like two contact hours each on MWF, but were required to schedule three of those hours as lab hours and three as lecture hours even though that distinction no longer formally existed. This meant that for each day, I would have to mark each attendance roster twice each day, once for the lecture designated hours and once for the lab designated hours. The split with lecture on MWF and lab on either Tu or Th was easier because each day required only one marking of attendance. Because the labs for PHY251 and PHY252 were built in, my attendance rosters would have two, yes two, entries for each date, one for lecture and one for lab. Pause here to think about that for a minute. Do a think/pair/share if you wish.

Now, I must digress to explain something else. You see, the NCCCS funds its campuses almost entirely based on attendance. Attendance determines FTEs and FTEs determine hiring capability and is the first thing the NC General Assembly (NCGA) in Raleigh looks at every summer in pretending to formulate a budget for the coming fiscal year (…which always rolls over before the budget is ready…that sounded ranty too didn’t it…) . NCCCS mandated that attendance must be taken at every class meeting. Our attendance sheets were subject to onsite auditing by auditors sent at random from Raleigh. In my tewnty-one (just began number twenty-two) years, I have only seen one of these auditors ones. They’re rather like Bigfoot in that I’ve heard of sightings, and even though I think I saw one I can’t be sure. There are many apocryphal stories of community colleges registering fake students for fake courses, but honestly, I think these stories are propagated to instill fear. None of my colleagues at other community colleges knows anything about this every happening. It’s a lot like voter fraud (..that sounded ranty too…). Anyway, there must be three designated lecture hours per week and three designated lab hours per week, even if a given calendar day contains some of each. Make sense? Oh, and yes, all attendance tracking was done with pens on official computer printouts. Rosters were turned in on each semester’s census date (the date on which the State counted heads for funding purposes) and again at each semester’s end.

I continue this not-so-brief digression to state categorically that I don’t mind tracking student attendance. I think it’s a good thing. The vase majority of students we get do not yet understand the importance of class attendance. One of the reasons is that they’ve not had any very good reasons to appreciate the importance of going to class. Honestly, who wants to sit through boring lectures and obtuse and disconnected labs? In a way, I can’t blame them. Nevertheless, we’re funded based on attendance and we must document our numbers. I’m totally, completely, fantastically in favor of this. Honest. I make coming to class worth my students’ time. We now rejoin our previous non-rant, already in progress.

Now, innovative teaching almost certainly requires innovative scheduling Several years ago, I decided a good schedule for PHY251 or PHY252 was to meet for one contact hour on each of MW and two contact hours each on TuTh. This obviously requires TuTh to have both lecture and lab designated hours. Here’s how it breaks down into what the State calls meeting patterns (there’s a new term…): MW are considered two hours of lecture and are thus treated as one meeting pattern, Tu 8:00-8:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of one hour of lecture, Th 8:00-8:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of one hour of lab, and TuTh 9:00-9:50 is treated as one meeting pattern consisting of two hours of lab. This gives a total of three lecture hours and three lab hours, six contact hours, per week as prescribed. Okay? Well, yeah in the days of paper attendance rosters because each day I would only mark attendance once for all meeting patterns that particular day.

Then, beginning this past summer (2014), NCCCS came into the 20th century with online attendance tracking, finally! I thought this would be made very simple. Nope, I was wrong. It turns out that each meeting pattern (remember that term from above?) has its own workflow and must be marked online separately from all other attendance patterns. We use E to indicate a student’s entry into a course, ostensibly on the first class day. However, my innovative scheduling means that this week (our first week of classes), I had to mark students’ entries for the MW meeting pattern, entries for the Tu 8:00-8:50 meeting pattern, entries for the Th 8:00-8:50 meeting pattern, entries for the TuTh 9:00-9:50 meeting patterns. That’s a total of four separate attendance workflows for one course! The web-based software is smart enough to know that you can’t enter attendance for the 9:00-9:50 hour until after 9:00, so on TuTh I must enter attendance twice on each of those days. Are you beginning to get a sense for the utter nonsense community college faculty are subjected to if we want to make class schedules another other than the traditional (and largely ineffective) way? It’s very frustrating. Unfortunately, my former and current chairs react by telling me it’s my fault for insisting on non-traditional scheduling and throw it back in my lap (…not ranting…only relating…), except when we get together to do the schedules basically a year in advance. Then we’re urged to continue the innovating. Sheesh!

I have a similar situation with my astronomy courses, AST151/151A and AST152/152A. Note that the UNC system dictated that astronomy labs be separated out because THEY, the UNC campuses, don’t always require a lab for their astronomy courses but the little community colleges must have a required lab (…that sounded a bit ranty too…).

So, I want to look at a way of scheduling my PHY251 and PHY252 courses that hopefully minimized the number of attendance patterns I have to deal with. I’m strongly considering doing it as two hours each on MWF, with the first hour being designated as lecture and the second hour being designated as lab. This will give two meeting patterns, MWF at some hour and MWF at an adjacent hour, and it will also give larger chunks of time at each class meeting, which I think is a good fit for classes using Matter & Interactions.

Among my scheduling constraints are the calculus sequence (three courses) and, in the spring, differential equations. The same student take these courses and my physics courses and we are always mindful of other department’s schedules. We want our students to be as close as possible to cohorts. Another constraint is that I have a MW evening astronomy class in the fall that meets until 8:20 pm. 8:00 morning classes are tough after that, but that’s the way it’s worked out for years. I could just make MW thirteen hours days, which they usually are anyway so why stop now, right?

This semester, I have a total of twelve (12) separate attendance meeting patterns among three sections of AST151/151A and one section of PHY251. Ridiculous maybe? Yes, definitely.

Oh, and before I leave, I’ll also add that our faculty are also responsible for first line prevention of financial fraud. Yep. See, some students game the system by taking classes, waiting till after the census date, then stop attending and pocketing their financial aid money. The school audited at the federal level every year and is penalized financially (four and five figures) for each such incident that occurs. Ia has fallen on faculty to be the first to detect this by noting suspicious strings of absences and promptly withdrawing those students from courses. If we miss one, we are singled out by administration for costing the institution money and are calmly warned that if we lose our privilege of offering federal financial aid, we must close our doors and everyone will be unemployed. Exaggeration? Probably so, but that’s what we’re told. I’m also told that somewhere on campus, there’s a list of such incidents for each faculty member. I’m not convinced it exists, but gosh who knows? I don’t mind tracking attendance, but I’m not at all comfortable being responsible for financial aid infractions. It’s not what I’m trained to do and certainly not what I was hired to do. Then again, “…other duties as assigned…” is right there in our faces. Honestly, I don’t think about it much because I warn my students that I enforce our attendance policy mercilessly. BTW, the policy is that if students miss 10% of the course’s contact hours, they’re withdrawn…no exceptions…except when attendance is down, resulting in slashed budgets, causing us to “have compassion” for students’ situations. Well, I’ve always done that. As long as students stay in touch with me and let me know what’s going on, I don’t drop them. See, I really am a sweetie. I feel better now.

So, any other community college brethren out there have to deal with all this? Four year colleagues? I think I already know the answers, but I’d kinda like to be surprised.


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