Why I Take Attendance

An interesting conversation has been taking place on one of the listservs to which I subscribe. What began as an innocent query about available apps for tracking attendance, has quickly transformed into a discussion about why attendance should be taken in the first place. There have been questions about the extent to which ‘seat time’ is really an effective way of measuring participation, and discussions of other more administrative reasons for why tracking attendance might be important (i.e. institutional policies about seat monitoring, student loan conditions, etc). What is lacking in these discussion, however, and the reason why I take attendance in my classes, is a more humanistic perspective.

attendance-logoAttendance2 and Attendance by David M. Reed

It may seem paradoxical, since more often than not attendance functions as a quantitative measure of participation (not a good measure of participation, mind you, but at least it can be determined with a reasonable amount of precision), but the reason that I take attendance has to do with establishing relationship with my students. Especially during the first few classes (okay, lets be honest…several…or more), it is helpful to perform role call as a way of learning student names, particularly in large classes when there are a lot of names to remember. Sure, this memory game can be won more quickly through other means (i.e. flash cards with photos, wither taken by the instructor or on file with the registrar), but there are several other benefits to role call, benefits that cannot be achieved strictly through study.

For the last couple of years, I have been using an iPhone/iPad app called simply Attendance, by David M. Reed. What I like about Attendance is its ease of use, intuitive interface, ability to import from *.csv, Dropbox sync, and photo integration (yes, flashcards still have their place). As of the writing of this post, however, I have become aware of a new version of Attendance, Attendance2, which was favorably reviewed by Brian Croxall in a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/attendance2-an-update-for-the-attendance-app-for-ios-devices/41850. In spite of the fact that I am relying on what is now an old version of Reed’s software, the benefit of using an app for attendance has been proven time and time again. If we accept what I have said about the more relational aspects of attendance-taking, it should be fairly obvious that the actual recording technology has little to no impact on the achievement those inter-personal outcomes. Where it does have a demonstrable impact, however, is in the reduction of the number of paper scraps floating around (not so much an environmental issue, and an issue of tidiness), and ease of record keeping. Furthermore, apps like this also enable the instructor to go beyond merely checking ‘present’ or ‘absent,’ but also make it easy to record the condition of an absence, in addition to making quick notes about a student’s participation.

In calling out each student’s name (the most beautiful word in the world, let’s recall, is one’s own name), the instructor is able to accomplish even just a little bit of rapport. In calling out each student’s name, the instructor may extend a kind of personal welcome: “John Doe?…oh, hi John. I’m glad you are here.” In this sense, attendance is not simply a requirement of success in the course, but also an extension of the spirit of hospitality. What of those students that are not present? Well, I do my best to extend my hospitality to them as well. “Jane Smith?…No?…I’m sorry she is not here. She made an insightful comment on the discussion board that I want to talk about today.” For a student to know that they are present in the teacher’s eyes, even if absent, is likely to increase, not just the chances of their physical presence, but the quality of their participation as well.

The practice of talking attendance can also function as an effective way of gauging the ‘temperature’ of the room. Asking whether a student is present is a call to which every student can respond, and respond with certainty. If the teacher pays close attention to the response of each student, and has attended to the quality each response in the past, it becomes possible to establish a baseline (albeit an anecdotal one) according to which the instructor can assess the student’s preparedness and excitement about the course material for that day, but also their mood. This is the kind of thing that more sophisticated analytics attempt to achieve by mapping performance onto dispositional and performance indicators, but that, at the end of the day, is actually exceedingly difficult to quantify. If the instructor is attuned to the moods of individual students, and to the mood of the class as a whole, then they will be better equipped to deliver their course material in a way that is optimal to that particular time and place.

All this has been to say that attendance does not need to be strictly a quantitative component of a course grade, but it may also be a way of reaching out to each student individually at the start of class, indicating that they are individually valuable to that particular classroom environment, and increasing student engagement as a result.

The Costs of Privacy

In November 2012, in response to threats of expulsion from John Jay Science & Engineering Academy on account of her refusal to wear a mandatory RFID badge, Andrea Hernandez filed a law suit against San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District. If she continues to refuse even to wear an RFID-disabled badge–an accommodation sanctioned by a federal district judge who ruled against her–Hernandez will be placed in Taft High School beginning in September 2013, the public school to which she would normally be assigned.

In refusing to wear even an RFID-disabled badge, Hernandez’s case seems to have lost its ‘bite’ (it’s difficult to justify her appeal to religious freedom once tracking mechanisms are disabled). In spite of the fact that her concerns were ultimately voiced in terms of an interest in preserving religious freedom, however, the case nonetheless draws attention to the potential costs of privacy.

As elite institutions increasingly adopt comprehensive analytics programs that require students to give up their privacy in exchange for student success, are they also strongly contributing to a culture in which privacy is no longer valued? A robust analytics program requires every student to opt-in (i.e. students are not given the option of opting out). If analytics programs are seen as effective mechanisms to increase the chances of student success, and such programs are effective only to the extent that they gather data that is representative of their entire student body, and, as such, consenting to being tracked is made a condition of enrollment at the most elite universities (universities with the resources necessary to build and sustain such programs), then students must ask what it is that they value more: an education at a world-class institution (and all of the job prospects and other opportunity that such an education affords), or the ability to proverbially click ‘do not track.’ My suspicion is that, if explicitly given the choice, the vast majority of students are willing to give up the latter for the former, a symptom of our growing acceptance of, and complacence toward, issues of electronic privacy, but perhaps also an indication that a willingness to sacrifice privacy for success increasingly forms a key part of the ‘hidden curriculum.’

Erasing Privacy

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user Alan Cleaver]

(Interestingly, in addition to gathering data from Learning Management and operational systems, universities also regularly collect data from student id card swipes. This data can easily be mobilized as part of a kind of ‘card-swipe surveillance’ program, as in fact has been done by Matthew S. Pittinksy (co-founder of Blackboard) at Arizona State University. According to Pittinsky, tracking card-swipe behavior can allow an institution to effectively map a student’s friend group, determine their level of social integration, and predict their chances of attrition.)

Learning to be Human from the Center of the Internet

Attending strictly to the more phenomenological aspects of the internet, it is easy to fall into a kind of idealism.  Zygmunt Bauman (2005), for example, has argued that the era of space has come to an end, that the extraterrestrial realm of cyberspace has broken away from the realm of places and, consequently, social life has become reconfigured in such a way as to privilege decentralization, mobility, and fluidity over the centralized institutions, rigid borders, and stable relationships.  Increasingly, it is argued, the material world is becoming irrelevant as we live more and more in a utopia, a ‘no place’ where identities are as liquid as the virtual planes they navigate.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum argues that our everyday experience of the internet (as a ‘cloud,’ for example) obscures the fact that the world wide web actually depends upon a physical infrastructure that is located in space, adapted to geography, and surprisingly vulnerable to human error, environmental conditions, and general decay.  In fact, among the more shocking discoveries made by Blum is that, in contrast to the distributed network envisioned in the 1960’s, the contemporary internet is actually made up of a relatively small number of major centers connected, at times, by what seems like only the thinnest of threads. Suffice it to say, attention to the physical infrastructure of the world wide web paints a very different picture from the infinite and eternal cloud that we experience as users each time we open a browser.

In uncovering the hidden materiality of the internet, Tubes helps to raise some interesting pedagogical questions. On the one hand, there is a strong contemporary tendency to praise advances in web-based technology for allowing us to offload knowledge functions and focus, instead, on cultivating the imagination. The goals of education are less and less about delivering content, and more and more about empowering students to seek out relevant information necessary to finding innovative solutions to emergent problems. The world wide web is powerful because, like never before, it allows us to create new worlds and, explore a seemingly infinite range of potentialities. On the other hand, however, I wonder if obscuring (or simply forgetting) the physical and technological infrastructure that makes the world wide web possible doesn’t actually end up promoting a particular set of philosophical perspectives, namely, idealism.

Idealism is a philosophical perspective according to which the greatest amount of reality is given to the immaterial. For Plato, sensible things are real only to the extent that they participate in the forms. For Berkeley, all of our sense experiences are caused by God. For Kant, our knowledge about empirical reality is mediated and made possible by the basic structures of consciousness. To the extent that we ignore the material infrastructure supporting the world wide web, and as we increasingly incorporate web 2.0 technologies into the classroom that aim to be as transparent as possible (facilitating productivity and creativity without also making it obvious that we are using tools–transforming tools into prosthetics), are we tacitly encouraging an idealistic view of the world? Does a failure to educate students about the solidity and vulnerability of the internet as an infrastructure contribute to an ethics that values minds over bodies? Technology is not value neutral. The world wide web is not merely a tool for learning and communicating, but rather also actively reinforces certain world views at the expense of others. By shining a light on the material side of the internet, Tubes effectively brings the body back, reminds us that even our spiritualized identities in cyberspace are dependent on space and place. Ironically, in considering the more technical components of the internet, its vulnerabilities and dependencies, its greasy and dirty underside, we are perhaps reminded of the same qualities in ourselves, and so reminded of what it means to be human, tubes and all.

Bauman, Z. (2002). Society Under Siege. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Active Learning and Engagement Initiative (ALEI)

Beginning in Spring 2013, I will join a group of 9 other faculty members at Emory University selected to participate in the Active Learning and Engagement Initiative (A.L.E.I.). A program that provides dedicated assistance to instructors developing technology-enhanced curricula, assessing the impact of technology upon teaching and learning with a focus on active learning principles in the classroom, A.L.E.I. is designed to explore teaching and learning strategies and technologies that can enhance the classroom experience in addition to best practices in creating and delivering course content.

“The spring 2013 program, which consists of nine faculty from various departments including Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Pathology, Pediatrics (medicine and nursing), Physician Assistant, English, Chemistry, Japanese, and Comparative Literature, is scheduled to begin on January 30 and will be held over nine Wednesdays for 120 minutes each session. Faculty who are selected to participate in A.L.E.I. spring 2013 will receive dedicated support from the Faculty Services subject matter experts to complete curriculum goals from start to finish and a letter of completion endorsed by CFDE and ECIT.” (Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching)

A joint initiative sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching, this is the third time that this program has been offered. Past participants include some of the most innovative teachers at Emory University. I am grateful and excited to have been selected to join in this conversation.

Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman

Journal of Historical Sociology CoverI am pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Exposing Humanism: Prudence, Ingenium, and the Politics of the Posthuman” in the Journal of Historical Sociology. The research for this paper was funded by the Laney Graduate School at Emory University and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship. I would like to thank Professors Donald Phillip Verene, Ann Hartle, Cynthia Willett, and Debolina Roy, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and encouragement on earlier drafts of this article. Lastly, thank you to Samuel Timme, Sarita Alami, and Stephen Harfield for their helpful comments in the final stages of this manuscript’s preparation.


This article examines posthumanism and its relationship to humanism. First, it is argued that the term “posthumanism” relies upon an incomplete conception of humanism, and in a way that forecloses the possibility of looking to the humanist tradition for support. Addressing Foucault’s often quoted comments about the recent invention and imminent demise of man, it is argued that Foucault is not anti-humanist, but is rather critical of the use of humanism as an axis of reflection. Second, the posthumanist perspective is summarized as attending to a set of interrelated ethical and epistemological concerns. Calling into question the boundary between human and nonhuman animals, posthumanism also challenges the primacy of empirico-deductive reasoning and advocates a re-legitimization of rhetoric as a mode of thought. Lastly, using Ernesto Grassi’s interpretation of the early Italian humanists, this article demonstrates not only the compatibility of Renaissance humanism with posthumanist concerns, but also the fruitfulness of this tradition as a conceptual resource. Although the Renaissance notion of ingenium, the ability to adapt and make concrete situations meaningful without also affirming strong ontological commitments, is absent from posthumanist discourse, it is a concept that has the power to enrich the posthumanist project. Consequently, posthumanism is not actually at odds with the humanist tradition in general, but rather only with a very limited and relatively recent conception.

2013 Equestrian Social Media Awards

2013 Equestrian Social Media AwardsI am delighted to have been selected from a pool of 117 international applicants to serve an expert panelist and judge for the 2013 Equestrian Social Media Awards. The Equestrian Social Media Awards is an organization committed to promoting the future of equestrian sports by rewarding exemplary organizations and encouraging a high standard of excellence in the use of online technologies. I am honored to have been selected as an expert panelist for this year’s judging, and am delighted to have the opportunity to serve the equestrian community in this way.

In participating on ESMA expert panel, my name will be added to a prestigious list of current and former judges, including top names from the international equestrian marketing, branding and digital worlds. In a statement made by Liam Killen, ESMA Director,

“I’m keen for the ESMAs to showcase out of the box thinking within the equestrian industry. By giving the next generation of industry professionals the chance to broaden their knowledge with places on the Expert Panel they will no-doubt contribute a great deal to the ESMA experience for all involved.”

Nominations for the ESMAs open on December 10, 2012. I look forward to contributing to the adjudication process, but also hope to see Team Wallace Eventing among the nominees. Of course, I will not be judging any category in which Team Wallace appears, but I have been working very hard with Elisa and Rick over the past year and a half, using social media to increase public awareness of their successes and initiatives, and would be thrilled to see them recognized with an Equestrian Social Media Award.

The Beast Without: Red Dragon, The Cleft Lip, and the Politics of Recognition

The film Red Dragon features a serial killer whose cleft lip is the primary factor motivating his murderous behaviour. Although the film initially capitalizes upon the tradition of linking cleft lip and palate with homicidal psychopathy, however, it does so through a keen awareness of the politics of identity formation, and so has the effect of ultimately shifting the locus of monstrosity away from the cleft lip, and toward those social systems of representation that would constitute the cleft lip and palate as such. With particular attention to the image of the mirror, this paper is concerned with offering a psychoanalytic reading of the film, through the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage, in order to demonstrate certain ways in which Red Dragon subtly deconstructs the filmic tradition that has thus far, failed to do justice to the cleft lip and palate as a social issue.

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