At Dot Physics, Rhett Allain discusses his philosophy about class meetings:
Here is the point I am trying to make – class is for students. Class is not for me. Students pay for classes, so they should get them.
Here is the other point. If a student chooses not to come to class, that is the student’s choice. I am ok with that. Maybe it is not a great idea, but these are adults. There can be a problem. What if the class has attendance as a grade? What if the class will give a pop-bonus-quiz if attendance is low (which is essentially the same thing as attendance for a grade)? Well, I don’t do these things nor do I encourage them.
Rhett doesn’t cancel class because it’s his job to deliver a class meeting. If students don’t avail themselves of what he’s offering (which, as it happens, they’ve already paid for), that’s their choice.
I reckon this approach works pretty well for a lecture-based course. However, it doesn’t always work so well for a seminar-style course that is driven by in-class discussion (e.g., of assigned readings), or for a session where students are supposed to be working on their problem solving. In these cases, a successful class meeting requires students to bring something to the table.
A few semesters ago, I taught such a course. There were about twenty students in the course, a number of them philosophy majors and masters students. There was a significant amount of reading for the course (which one might plausibly expect for a course titled “Philosophy and Literature”), but the literary selections were not as much of a slog as the philosophical ones. And, to make the students’ lives easier, I even distributed reading questions to guide them as they worked through the assignments. They didn’t have to turn in written answers to these questions. Rather, they had them as a heads-up about what we were likely to discuss in class.
One afternoon, all of the students turned up to class. I tried to get our discussion going … and just one student was stepping up to answer questions and pose questions of her own. All the other students were silent.
After five minutes that felt more like half an hour, I asked, “Did anyone else finish the reading?” Heads shook.
“Did anyone else start the reading?” Heads shook some more.
At that point, what were my options for going forward?
I could have lectured on the material we had planned to discuss, but what would that have accomplished? It would have given the students my view of how the themes in the literary work they had blown off reading connected to the philosophical issues we had been developing. But the point was not to give them my view. The point was to have them do the work to develop their own view, and then to try out that view on their classmates.
As it happens, this was something they could only do by actually doing the reading assignment and actually coming to class and participating in a discussion.
They did come to class, it’s true. Apparently, though, it was with the intention (conscious or unconscious) of free-riding on the intellectual labor of their classmates, or their professor. It might even have worked if only a couple of them had blown off the day’s reading.
So, because my job in the context of this course was not to pour preformed views into the students’ heads, I read them the riot act about doing the reading and being ready to discuss, told them that our next class meeting would encompass that day’s assignment plus the next day’s assignment, warned them that I would be having them carry the burden of a productive 75 minute discussion the next time, and canceled class.
And I’d do it again, too.