My morning routine includes one of those UV sun lamps that helps with seasonal depression and, in my case, sleep drunkenness from my Delayed Circadian Rhythm sleep-wake cycle. It’s called a Happy Lamp, and it has 4.5 stars on Amazon based on reviews from 7,545 people. I also have a small whiteboard on the left side of my bathroom with a list of get-ready items: put on clothes, take meds, contacts, deodorant, Oh my god please brush your teeth, Lily pack your damn lunch. I set ten alarms, each for fifteen-second increments; my contacts and medication are in a neat pile next to my outfit on my bedside table.
Recently, I’ve been about ten-or-so minutes late to my eight thirty despite all of the planning. This behavior culminated in my tardiness for an exam. I went to grab my paper as silently as possible, and my professor asked me a question in front of our thirty-or-forty person class that I’m not sure was meant to be humiliating, but it was certainly received that way. Needless to say I’m not sure I did very well on that test.
Admittedly, I’m only taking an eight-thirty class to finish my graduation requirements: my masochism has its limits. But every Sunday, I write on that sloppy little whiteboard another, final, note to myself: Get the f*** to class.
It’s not just tardiness, especially morning tardiness, that I struggle with. It’s everything. My narcolepsy cluster-disorder leaves me trapped within the lavish comfort of my blue fleece blanket, dreaming of no worse hell than getting up. Due to my recently-diagnosed ADHD, I’m constantly miscalculating the time I need to get to campus, or, perhaps worse, I remain trapped in hyperfocus–an alleged skill that often turns into an hours-long curse when I’m needing to commute to class or use the bathroom or ensure that the house isn’t burning down around me.
My weekly goal, despite everything, is to make it On Time to Every Single Class each week. I have about a 10% success rate, but at least I’m strategic about it, picking and choosing which one to skip or rush into breathlessly so it doesn’t become a pattern. I usually forget to STINF many of these classes because I can’t seem to get myself to perform this simple executive function. On the weeks I manage to attend every class, I’m miserable in exhaustion, no matter my sleep routine or schedule. My roommates may not hear from me for eighteen hours while I complete my period of disgusting hibernation to prepare for another whiteboard-filled Monday morning.
My internal narrative produces an outward perception of laziness. I don’t care enough because I’m a washed-up senior, but I do care that my absences have the possibility of affecting my grade (gross!). It’s sob story after sob story to professors who can be understanding but often add to my excessive amount of shame and guilt. If I were the only one with class-attendance anxiety, I would simply discuss these woes with my trusted Primary Care Provider. But although our sob-stories differ, disabled and chronically ill students are all aboard the same sinking ship that is a mandatory attendance and tardiness policy. This isn’t a hot take, y’all: mandatory attendance and tardiness policies are ableist.
(Although I do not have the words to do justice to other aspects of class attendance policies, I want to mention that not only are they ableist–they also perpetuate all of the other "-isms": if students don’t have money to see a doctor, they’ll be sick longer, thus extenuating class absences; our medical system professes subjectivity in the face of marked differences quality of care for folks of different racial backgrounds.)
We know that for every minute we miss class we lose, like, around two dollars and fifty cents which equals I-don’t-know-what proportion of our college tuition. I can also say point-blank that before treatment, I was asleep in front of my professor for about fifty-to-seventy-five percent of class time. I probably made one or two meaningful contributions to a six-person seminar wherein every so often something outlandish would be mentioned and I’d perk up, say a nonsensical response, and continue sleeping. I do wish someone would calculate how much money I was losing. Honestly, entertain me.
Typically only seminar-based classes at Duke have a mandatory attendance policy, which at least spares us in introductory lectures, but seminars are the majority of my curriculum and that of many other humanities and social science majors. Rather than missing, I’ve attended class at the expense of my mental and emotional and physical health. So many of us still do.
Look: time-blindness from ADHD is a real thing. Not many people actively try to be late to class, and if they do, that’s honestly bold and quite impressive. Forgetting to fill out STINF forms is also a real thing. Sleeping through class due to a chronic physical or mental illness is, again, a real thing. I feel upset that I am trying to legitimize these as real things, all of which create the Realest Thing Of All: being tasked with constantly apologizing for our disability; in other words, constantly apologizing for our existence.
The Student Disability Access Office will grant many lovely accommodations, but if you try to ask for more excused absences, it’s a hard no in my experience. That’s after you’ve gone through the process of applying for disability status and accomodations and doctor’s notes, which is extremely daunting for someone with poor executive function. Fifty-percent extra time on exams is fine. So is late work. They draw the line at missing class. Simply inexcusable.
I’m honestly not sure why people advocate for attendance policies in the first place. Sometimes we’d rather not explain why we are not in class. No one wants to have to rehash a loved one’s funeral or their traumatizing mental breakdown or a specific surgery that is also highly personal. And we also don’t need to justify missing class because we are sheepishly hungover and just want to breathe for a second. I understand why seminars may be less brutal if all twelve students show up rather than three, but if the other nine students were forced to sit through class, would any real and meaningful contribution actually be made by any of them without resentment for the material and the very fact of learning?
Sure, attendance policies prepare us for the American workforce. The capitalist workplace has many issues – thank you, HBO Max’s Industry, for shedding light on the worst of them, although I’m not actually sure one can fatally overdose on Modafinil — that I can’t fully discuss here, but my response is, of course, why do we need preparation?
Ableism is perpetuated in the workforce because self-care runs counter to the American dream: when everything is productivity, our bodies become capital. We are distinguished by what we can produce that makes us valuable. The capitalist work system says that with its chest.
College, however, claims to be a place where we can seek solace and be harmlessly stupid and foster a certain love for learning, but we all know that’s a lie. How many essays can we produce, things can we do, while hole upon hole is drilled into our ship, and we sink little by little by little? By the time we graduate, we’re so far underwater that the only thing left to do is try to find meaning in the submergence.
I want to be able to miss class or be tardy because my disability is flaring up this week without worrying about a five-point penalty in my grade. I also want others to be able to miss class because the day is so bright and daylight savings is soon and we don’t have much time before everything gets dark again.
Mandatory attendance policies may be well-intentioned, but they rely on the natural distrust of the student, the ableism-coded “laziness” of the individual. If students miss class, we miss the material. This will hurt us on book reports and essays and tests. We probably also feel an intense amount of shame because of the messages we’ve been fed time and time again about skipping the one lecture that could maybe even change our lives completely. Please, let this be penalty enough.
Lily Levin is a Trinity senior.
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