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Thursday, April 29, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 141

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Playing hooky
College isn't so bad if you go to class

Andrew S. Chang
Guest Columnist

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (U-WIRE) -- "You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library." -- Will Hunting, Good Will Hunting

Next week marks my last week of classes in college, perhaps for the rest of my life. And yet, it is something of a bittersweet milestone for me. You see, I estimate that throughout my college career my classroom attendance, in lectures and sections, has barely hovered over 50 percent.

Over the years, I have developed many justifications for this poor record. I am a student who learns well reading on my own and figuring things out for myself.

Classroom time was useless for many science classes where understanding concepts and solving problems on my own was all that mattered.

And why should I bother struggling to stay awake through a 9 a.m. lecture when I could watch it in the library on my own time?

Selective attendance is a slippery slope, and one absence makes the next one all the easier. I began to believe that my time, whether it was spent sleeping or eating (or at The Crimson), was more important than going to class.

Some semesters I didn't even bother buying notebooks so I wouldn't get stuck with 60 blank sheets in an 80-page spiral-bound at the end of the term. But somehow I managed to get by, and even perform reasonably well, in my academic work.

The sad thing is that I'm not the only regular class-skipper out there. One advantage of a large school like Harvard is that an absence, even in section, is not likely to get noticed.

What we give up in personal attention from our instructors we gain in anonymity. "Face time" means relatively little, and we are judged largely on the quality of the written work we submit.

Technology has made playing hooky all the easier. Most large lecture classes offer video- or audiotapes of lectures held on reserve in the libraries. Lecture notes, handouts and assignments are often posted on course Web sites. Most course logistics are handled by e-mail. With digital submission of assignments in some departments, notably computer science, one could conceivably succeed in a course without ever setting foot in a classroom.

Such remote learning was possible at Harvard Law School (HLS) until only recently. HLS, which has more than 1,600 students, roughly three times the size of its counterpart in New Haven, has a reputation for being big and impersonal.

It was rumored that some students ran West Coast businesses and would jet back to Cambridge to take final exams. Then the HLS faculty cracked down, enacting a mandatory attendance policy last year that has proven highly unpopular with the students.

While I hope Harvard College never adopts an attendance policy, I have begun, albeit only recently, to see the merits of classroom attendance. There are some things that can't be learned very well from a book, concepts that require explanation and demonstration.

Section discussion can, at times, be enlightening (at times). And classroom attendance correlates well with academic performance.

(The summer before I arrived here, I met a recent Harvard grad who told me that the secret to success at the College was attending class. Of course, I went on to ignore her sage advice.)

What I feel I have missed most, however, is the collective experience of being in a classroom. The social atmosphere differentiates a real course from a correspondence course or classes at the University of Phoenix, a new on-line university.

Choosing where to sit, whispering conversations with your neighbor, scoping out fellow students, writing down memorable quotes from the instructor -- these are things that make going to class worthwhile. And at the end of the term, you feel as though you have endured something together with your classmates.

In high school, I had friends I hung out with outside of school, but there were kids I remember just as fondly whom I saw only in the classroom.

Sadly, while I have made a lot of wonderful acquaintances here, very few have I met in class. And of all the memories I carry with me from Harvard, very few are from the classroom.

This semester, despite a thesis, job search and lingering senioritis, I am proud to say my classroom attendance is around 90 percent. Not surprisingly, this semester's grades will be an improvement over my last few semesters.

And this week I will fill out CUE guide evaluations and join the smattering of students who say they find Professor X's lectures engaging. I only wish I had learned to appreciate class sooner.


 
Chang is a staff columnist for Harvard University's Harvard Crimson.
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