College should let us see more of the world outside the classroom

Rigid attendance requirements make it too difficult for many students to get involved in the kind of extracurricular experiences that change lives.


Extra credit? If only

Search “extra credit” on Google and there are great stories to be found.

There’s the one of students in Northern Michigan University who were given 20 extra credit points for attending an “Occupy the Upper Peninsula” rally. Protest signs were compulsory and students had to sign attendance sheets before and after the rally, in case they thought they could pull the sign-in-but-leave-early trick.

A more recent scenario in the University of Wisconsin saw students in a freshman English literature class being offered extra credit for attending a rally against Governor Scott Walker, who had proposed budget cuts to the university. Then there’s Boston College, where an adjunct professor of philosophy tried to teach her students how to have meaningful relationships by giving them extra credit for asking someone on a date.

Perhaps the most ingenious of all is the gender studies professor in Arizona State who offered female students extra credit if they stopped shaving their underarms and legs, with an equivalent male assignment to shave from the neck down.

These sensationalised stories and clickbait headlines are indicative of a broader phenomenon: for many US students, it is normal to get some form of academic compensation for attending non-compulsory events that a lecturer deems beneficial.

In the depths of my Google search, I left the wacky examples behind me and began to find the boring but ubiquitous ones. Students were getting extra credit for attending departmental seminars, guest speakers, debates and gallery or museum exhibitions. They were getting extra credit for being on Model United Nations, book clubs, speech and debate teams.

Just imagine. Pop along to the Douglas Hyde and get an extra 2%. Oh, I see SOFIA have the Russian ambassador coming – maybe I could get some credits for showing up and writing a short report. For someone who has spent the majority of her university career attempting to justify missing this or that tutorial for a guest talk or an intervarsity debating competition, the prospect of being able to improve my grade simply by attending a debate is salivating.

Feeling like a liar

I don’t know how many times I’ve held my breath while sending an email to a member of academic staff, hoping that they buy my excuse and don’t dock me attendance marks or think I’m lying or dossing. At this stage, I know the tricks of the trade. You have to try to make it sound impressive. I always write “I’m representing Trinity at…”, or better yet, “I’ve been selected to represent Trinity at…”, whereas in reality, I just signed up and got a spot to go to the UCC Debating Intervarsity, along with about sixty other people.

Emphasising international involvement is good, too. It’s just more impressive if you are picking up a guest arriving from Canada or judging a team from Australia. After all, they’ve travelled from thousands of miles away, so surely you can miss class?

I always feel guilty and nervous sending those emails. Even though I’m not lying, I feel like I am, like I’m breaking the rules – because I’m just not sure what those rules are. What’s a legitimate excuse? What do you need to prove? Will they let it slide if I can make it seem prestigious? I’ve had wonderful experiences of professors wishing me well and best of luck and isn’t it great that I’m broadening my mind and so forth, but equally, I know that some lecturers can even be reluctant to allow students to miss class for obvious worthwhile activities like community engagement projects or leading a debating competition for schools.

You don’t know what the reaction will be until you send the first email, and then the damage is already done. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for students of science or medicine, whose hours are longer and labs much more difficult to miss or reschedule.

So why do I care? I guess it’s because like anyone who is heavily involved in a society, a sport team, a student publication, the SU or any other extracurricular, I have had to make academic sacrifices. A certain amount of that is inevitable; there are only so many hours in the day. But I think Trinity could be doing a lot more to make involvement in college life a bit easier or at least less scary or at least have any system at all.

Missed opportunities

It’s clichéd (I know and apologise), but events that I’ve missed classes for have shaped my college education more than any class. I’ve been inspired over and over, grown confident and articulate, seen my ideas come to fruition and listened to words and arguments that I still dwell on years later. Other students missed those events, those moments that could have shaped them, because they didn’t have the courage to email a lecturer and ask to be excused, or didn’t even know they were allowed to do that. I’m still not really sure if we are.

One of the most exciting experiences of my first term in college was participating in the UCD Novice Intervarsity Debating Competition – which I recognise is probably a bit pathetic, but it’s the truth. My partner and I were much more successful than we expected, and I was telling everyone who would listen about it for weeks to come. In fact, I still talk about it. In fact, I think I’ll probably be telling my grandchildren about it. But I had friends who didn’t go that day because they’d be missing tutorials, and I still find it sad that they missed out on that.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a policy of total leniency with regard to class attendance – but it would nice, for example, to have some sort of system where you can apply for exemption from a class for extra-curricular purposes and for students to be informed of the process involved at the beginning of a module. Then when that thing you really want to go to comes up, you know that the option exists. Maybe then my friends would have come with me to UCD. This sort of system would probably also lead to better advance preparation and less pretending to be sick or attending a funeral, or the more classic method of just not turning up and crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

While a part of me will always pine for the “extra credit” of my US peers, there is nevertheless something uncomfortably patronising in the idea that third-level students need to be coaxed into visiting an art gallery. I think ultimately, a culture of attending events because of your own independent desire to learn and broaden your mind is a healthier one, one that I’m glad to be involved in.

But while Trinity prides itself on the diversity of activities available, it could definitely be doing more to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to participate in these activities. It shouldn’t be a struggle to miss class for something really important to you. I’ve never regretted a decision to do so.