Writing Advice: Take Your Time

Seems like I’m back to writing about teaching and my students after a bit of a break to talk about higher education more generally. Today, I handed back an essay assignment to my first-year composition students. Being that this is second semester, most of the students taking my class either failed their first try or did developmental writing during the fall semester. Needless to say, anything we write in the class is a huge challenge for both the students and myself.

I blindsided them in a way by demanding that they have a meaningful thesis for their recent compare and contrast essay. I struggled with how to help them figure out what meaningful things they could say in their essay without simply telling them, your essay could be about x, y, or z. I wanted them to work through it on their own. Each student had their own unique ideas, as well as their own unique set of challenges. How, then, do I maximize my effectiveness? 
It turned out that the only way I could do it was to work with them one-on-one. I read and gave detailed feedback to a draft and set aside class time for conferences. A large part of what I ended up having to do was cheerleading, reassuring that yes, they did have a good thesis, examples, and organization. Yes, I had to talk out some of their thesis or suggest better examples, but for the most part my students had good ideas that they just didn’t believe were good. But, to me, it felt like pulling teeth, getting this essay out of my students.
When the long (we worked on this essay for almost a month) process was finally completed and the students handed in their essays, I was thrilled with the results. Each student had, indeed, found their thesis and crafted an essay that tied their sometimes disparate examples together. The class, or at least the part of the class that actively participated in the process, did very well. And I told them as much. But I also pointed out the one important factor in their success: time. They took the time to work on their essays. The time and effort paid off, but they needed to understand that if they wanted to continue being successful in their essay writing, they needed to give themselves the time.
Learn what is the most difficult part of the writing process and start early enough to get that part done without panicking or rushing. Look at your schedule for the semester, and rather than blocking out the weekend before the essay is due, block off the one two weeks before it is due. Even if you’re not actively writing, at least plan to start thinking/reading/free writing/outlining on the topic. Take the time to sit down and run your ideas by the professor at least a week before the essay is due (it’ll look good for your ethos, too). Allow yourself an opportunity to try, fail, and then try again. Make sure you can read through the essay at least once, carefully, before handing it in. 
All of this takes time. I tell my students that one thing that I do is give them the gift of time in my class to allow for them to see that if they take the time, they’ll get results. I’m hoping that if they can see the impact extra time has on their final work and final grade, they’ll really take the lesson to heart. I’m not optimistic, I’m sorry to say, but at least I tried. And I can also sleep well at night knowing that, for at least one essay, we did it and we did it well.

Student Ethos and Email Etiquette

I’ve been silent this past week, in part because I got sick, fell behind, prepared the house for weekend guests, planned my soon-to-be four-year old’s birthday party, partly because while I had a whole list of planned posts, I couldn’t concentrate on writing them. No, I was distracted by trying to come up with a way to write the following posts without impacting my own ethos as a writer and a teacher in higher education.

I received a number of emails from my students all at the same time that really, really got under my skin. Now, I am (still) a regular visitor to College Misery, and I talk to my colleagues, so I know that my students are not an anomaly and professors all over the country are dealing with emails from students that are…frustrating in any number of ways. What really bothered me was that we have just spent an entire semester talking about ethos in writing – how a writer is perceived and how students want to be perceived as writers, students, professionals. We are even doing a blog assignment so they can really start to think about how they are seen by people other than their professor.
But nonetheless, I think it’s important that students realize how their emails impact their ethos with their professors. This, of course, should be expanded to face-to-face meetings and any assignment, written or otherwise, handed in to their professor. And I tell them this. I had hoped that the lessons about ethos, even though not explicitly taught, had been applied by my students to other facets of their communications with me. Namely, their emails. 
But I guess not. This troubles me not because their emails communicated to me that my class was indeed not a priority, but because they haven’t applied what they have learned beyond the classroom setting, beyond what they were “told.” And again, I can imagine an undergraduate reading this and complaining, I didn’t mean it that way. And I get that how a student understands the ethos they are (trying) to present versus what a professor may actually read and receive. 
For example (and this is an example based on an email I received this week), a student emails explaining that he has an opportunity to go hunting but it would mean that he would miss two [out of three] of the classes this week. Would it be ok, and he promises he’d make up any work that he missed, especially if I let him know now, before he leaves.
Now, some additional context. They have a paper due next week, and the classes missed are peer review/writing workshop classes. This student is pretty good; not the best but also not the worst. I can imagine the student thinking that they were doing the right thing by a) letting me know they intended to miss class, b) not lying about why they were missing class, and c) showing initiative by proactively asking for the work to be missed. 
For me, all I read is: your class, in fact, university, is not that important to me. And that may be true. But why, then, should I, someone with over 100 students all taking writing-intensive classes from me, make you a priority, or devote extra time to you? I also wonder about how serious a student he is when he claims he can keep up with the work while outdoors trying to shoot animals. 
Critical thinking. We, as professors, want our students to develop the skill. Employers want employees with that skill. But my students can’t think critically about their own communications with their professor, the person, for better or for worse, who holds their future (through their grades) in their hands. It’s frustrating. I don’t care that the student doesn’t care about my class. I care that they don’t see what that might be a problem. 
This email will become a unit on ethos, on digital communications, on email etiquette, and on why my students are even in college to begin with. I’m sure I’ve opened a can of worms by writing about it, but it’s been bothering me for a week, and I needed to get it off my chest. 
What do you think? Why do students have such difficulty recognizing how their communications with their professors impacts their ethos?

What Is A Thesis Statement? Or, Using Literature in a Writing Class

In my Freshman Writing class, we have just finished reading Fahrenheit 451. The students are writing an essay comparing America in the novel to our present-day society. They discussed the similarities they observed in small groups, then we came together to share our observations as a class. They then had to go and find a variety of sources (one book, two peer-reviewed articles, two others of any kind) that illustrated or backed up their claims about our society. After that, they had to choose quotes from the book and match them with quotes from the sources. 

At this point, 90% of their essay has been written. This is probably the easiest essay they’ve ever written. Except for one little thing: I asked them to tell me why this comparison matters. So what? What do we learn by doing this comparison? Their thesis isn’t just: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 with our current society. Their thesis should be: This essay will compare and contrast Fahrenheit 451 in order to…
From the looks on their faces, I’ve clearly rocked their world. We had a long discussion on what the similarities could mean and why it is important that they mean something. I used my recent brush with wordlessness as an example: I had many of the same symptoms as a stroke, but I wasn’t having a stroke. Their are important distinctions to be made when making a comparison and just because something looks the same, doesn’t mean it is. At the same time, if there are lessons that Bradbury wants to teach us using his fictional world, can we apply them to better understand our own situation?
A compare and contrast essay without a clear purpose is just two lists. Any essay that doesn’t have a clear purpose is just a long series of words. If a students is able to answer the questions, why am I writing this or what am I trying to say, then they will not have any problems writing any assignment. And the answer has to be something more meaningful than, because I have to. The answer to the question is your thesis; as long as everything you write is in service of your purpose, then everything you write will have meaning. 
One of the most common issues I had with my first batch of essay is that they were writing to fill pages, not fulfill the purpose of the paper (rhetorical analysis); most of their observations were good, but the students didn’t tie their observations back into the central thesis. For how many of our students is that ultimately one of the biggest issues, staying on topic or realizing they have a clear focus from which to write from? Or that they need to organize their essays in order to best serve their central purpose?
But, ultimately, this is an exercise in critical thinking. They have to come up with their own purpose, their own thesis, or at least try. Some already have made connections and shaped a thesis. Other have an idea but are having trouble putting it into words. And I know that in two weeks, when the final draft of the essay is due, I’ll have some who still won’t have a thesis. At that point, I’ll give them some suggestions. But I want my students to do the hard work of coming up with one little sentence on their own. 
This is why I still like using literature (or even pop culture) in my writing classes. When we engage with ideas in different ways, we can “force” students to think about our world in a new and challenging way. It is only when a students’ pre-conceived notions are disrupted can they begin to form their own ideas, their own thesis statements. It’s important not just to give them materials that are engaging, but to provoke different ways of engaging with it. 

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part III: Helping Students Find Something Meaningful to Say

One of my fellow writing instructors and bloggers, Laura at Red Lips and Academics, recently wrote about the challenges of teaching students in our culture of over-share. I’ve written previously about why I actually don’t mind assigning a narrative essay, even if it does reinforce some of their more narcissistic impulses. But the post, my own brush with wordlessness, and being in the middle of grading papers, made me think about what, exactly, our students are saying. 

The idea that I would be devastated if I were no longer able to talk/write/communicate is predicated on the fact that I believe that I have something meaningful to say. I blog here and elsewhere because I want to participate in the ongoing discussion regarding the future of higher education. I teach because I believe that I have knowledge that can and should be shared with students. People read, comment on, share, and compliment my posts, so I imagine that there are at least some people out there who agree with me. And my student evaluations are usually pretty strong, indicating that my students agree that I have something valuable to share with them.
But let’s look at what our students talk or write about: themselves, and usually not with very much depth or insight. Part of the narrative essay assignment is to get the students to reflect critically on a moment in their lives. A narrative essay has to have a point, and that point has to come from some self-reflection or self-awareness. When I talk about being a disruptive influence as a teacher, I want to push the “whole person” so to speak, to get them to think about what they say and why they are saying it.
But it has to go beyond just pushing the perception of themselves; they have to pop their heads up and take a look at the world around them. And not just look at it and react, but take the time to think and reflect. One of the things that has always startled me (although at this point, it shouldn’t anymore) is the superficiality of the “analysis” I read in their papers. One reason, I know, is that they don’t take the time to really think about what they are writing about; they simply grind it out and get it done. The revision process also seems to reinforce this superficiality; the ideas don’t get any deeper, even if the words and sentences used to communicate them are cosmetically more pleasing and grammatically correct.
This is where I come in as a teacher. I have a responsibility to assign them readings that challenge them, that make them uncomfortable, either because of the difficulty level or the ideas expressed (usually both). We can try to provoke them into thinking differently about their lives and what they consume (pop culture, etc), but unless we give them alternative models to try, then we are essentially dooming them to only ever being able to superficially engage with a subject. Critical thinking is meaningless unless we give students something meaningful to think about and some examples. 
I go back to my example of “ancient” texts about education. Point me to a place where students can read contemporary arguments about education that explain its value in something other than economic terms? If I limited my students to contemporary texts on education, they probably would not have been exposed to the idea of education as something other than a way to make money and grow the economy. And that we are even talking about education; if polled, my students would almost universally tell you that this was a subject they had no interest in learning about, yet are all readily (and ignorantly) participating in the system. 
I believe that students’ should have some say and control over what they want to learn. At the same time, though, they have to accept that learning moves beyond just simply remember facts and information. My job is to push their learning towards knowledge. This is not easy, but it is how we can help our students find something meaningful to say that isn’t just confessing something about themselves. 

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 1: Losing My Words

As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn’t gibberish, but it wasn’t related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can’t talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.

I was shaking and crying, full of panic and dread. My thoughts still seemed coherent, but the words couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of my mouth, at least not with a great deal of effort. Talking, you may imagine, has always been one of my strong suits. While others shuddered at the thought of doing presentation, speeches, or, say, an oral comprehensive exam, I run straight to them. A high school teacher once gave me a back-handed comment when I volunteered to read my writing, and she exasperatedly exclaimed, “Oh, you always make your writing sound better than it is.”  I teach, in part, because it involves public speaking, which I am very good at. What if I couldn’t talk anymore, at least not with ease?
I was losing my words. I couldn’t express myself. If I was having a stroke, what else would I lose? My other metal faculties? My memory? My intellect? After ten years, heck, thirty years of developing my brain and finally being able to really use it in a meaningful way, what would it mean to lose it? I recently wrote that ignorance is bliss, but, when faced with a very real possibility that I was about to once again have ignorance force upon me, I lost all bearing. This could not be happening.
(Looking back, I wasn’t worried in the least about either the loss of my physical faculties or losing the memory of my husband or kids. I was athletic in the water, but I have never been particularly adept on land, and while I have no doubt that any physical disability would be hard, it isn’t my most prized skill set with loads of money invested in it. My husband and kids, on the other hand, is much more troubling. Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that “love” would transcend any sort of mental loss, which I know to be false. I’m still working through that question.) 
Who would I be if I was no longer a teacher, writer, educator, thinker? Would I lose my ability to speak, but still be able to read and write? Would I still be a quick study and enjoy pondering and asking questions, or would I stop being able to learn new things and form new ideas? What would be left of me? And a realization that I am not proud of ran through my mind: I could turn into my “worst” students. Or at least, the worst stereotype we have of our worst students. It was more than I could handle. When the doctor told me that my CAT scan was clean and that it was probably “just” a migraine, I wept with relief. 
I still have my words. But I am now at a loss as to what I am going to do with them. And I chose, in part, to be quiet for a few days. 

Rhetorical Analysis Essays and Following Directions

I have just corrected the first batch of my students’ rhetorical analysis essays. They were…not as strong as I would have hoped. One of the most frustrating elements was the students’ inability to follow simple directions. They were limited to using the textbook and the piece of rhetoric they had chosen to analyze and needed to be approximately five pages long, double-spaced. 

For students, and even for some professors and instructors, the requirements of assignments often seem arbitrary; why the textbook and not online sources, if it’s the same information? And why five pages? What if we can do it in two? And why a rhetorical analysis?

Seemingly arbitrary assignments that ask students to fulfill certain requirements are not, in fact, arbitrary and actually teaches them practical skills like knowledge transfer and good, old-fashioned following directions. Placing limits on the students’ resources was meant to focus their attention on the task instead of research. The page count was framed to let the students know that the depth of analysis required will take about five pages. The one piece of rhetoric was, again, selected to allow students to focus, read and re-read, as well try and accomplish the proper amount of depth in their analysis. And finally, why a rhetorical analysis? Considering the amount of rhetoric students are exposed to, it seems like a worthwhile exercise to get them to think more critically and deeply about it.

Some of my students ignored the page count. Others, the resource limitations. And still others seemed not to bother with the analysis part of the assignment. These are all elements that we discussed at length in class, which they had been reading about for homework, worked on in small group discussions, and went through in the guided peer review and self-assessment. I prepared them as much as I could to fulfill at least the minimum requirements of the assignment. And yet.

They will probably never have to do another rhetorical analysis essay in their lives, although they will use rhetoric, whether they intend to or not. But they will have to follow directions, deal with seemingly arbitrary limitations, and produce quality work in less than ideal with even less guidance than I provided. Job applications, reports, presentations, bureaucratic paperwork, emails, and everything in between all have their own set of rules and directions to follow which can change in mid-stream. Plus, it’s not a poor grade that the student will have to deal with, but the very real possibility that they won’t get the job, promotion, sale, or even lose their job.

But students also need to be able to think critically and independently, because often they won’t receive direction but a set of parameters and expectations that they need to meet. The only advice that they will get is to figure it out. While I don’t expect my Freshmen and Sophomores to do their assignments with so little guidance, I do expect them to begin to actively work in order to eventually get there. It’s not just about the grade; it’s about their employment future.

So while I am fulling the student learning outcomes set forth by our university, I am also trying to get students prepared for life after college. Follow directions and meet parameters. There is nothing arbitrary about it.

When a Failing Grade is the Only Motivation that Works

I’ve written about it before, but I’ve got carrots and I’ve got sticks. It is up to my students to figure out which one works best for their motivation in my class. Today, in my developmental writing class, we started the peer review process. They were supposed to have brought a full draft of their narrative essays to class; not even half did. The ones who did, after I spent 10 minutes trying to get them to discuss the purpose behind peer review (more feedback from  many people is always better, they need to learn how to do this on their own, and I am trying to get them to practice), half of the class that did bring their draft sat there doing nothing even as I said, “now exchange your papers and start giving and getting feedback!”

I acknowledged their lack of confidence; you’re all in the same boat, and you are all here to help each other learn, I said. I provided questions that they should answer that provide guidance as to what they should be looking for in a “good” narrative essay (I tried to get them to come up with it, but after five minutes of dead air, I gave up). I basically provided every incentive and justification I could come up with (the carrots) to get them to take some initiative and take this process seriously. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but let me frustration with them show; the student who sat there for half the class not doing anything because no one either told him who to exchange his paper with or came up to him personally to ask him to make the switch sent me over the edge. Take some initiative and responsibility for your learning, I hollered. 
Today, I reached the limit of my mother-hen approach to teaching; some of my students expect Mamma to do it for them. While I am there for advice, guidance, and support, I am not there to mash their food for them and spoon it into their mouthes. I think that’s an apt metaphor for the educational experience many of these students have had: pre-chewed, easy-to-digest education that is bland and tasteless, doing the bare minimum to nourish their minds (if that). When I think of it that way, I do have some sympathy for them. But at the same time, I’ve given them all the tools they need to do it themselves, and yet they still sit there passively waiting for…what, I don’t know.
Thankfully, I am old-school insofar as I give grades. And, for many of these students, that is the only thing that will get their attention: a poor or failing grade. This is a last-chance situation for all of them because if they don’t pass my developmental writing class this semester, they will be kicked out of school. They all have the potential to do well in my class, but they have to be willing to put the work in. A big E (we don’t have F’s) can force even the most apathetic student to grow up and at least attempt to fly on their own in a hurry.
My best students are the ones who had me last semester and didn’t pass; they know that they need to be there, do the work, and take it seriously. Maybe I need to have them speak to the class without me in there. Because for the other kids in my class, the lesson will otherwise come a semester too late.

How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (nas.org), and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

Wasting Time? Try being a little more active

One of the first things I talk to my students about at any level is active reading. They’ve all had the experience where they’ve gotten to the bottom of a page of reading and realized that they have no idea what they’ve just read. And then they keep trying to re-read without any change in the situation. So they go through the motions of looking at the words on the page, feeling good about having technically done their homework, but showing up to class with little to no ability to participate in the class discussion.

Why not read more actively, I suggest. Take notes, do some research, even just write questions in the margins, anything to make the readings more meaningful. But, they protest, active reading takes so much time. Really? How much time do you spend simply going through the motions over and over again? And how much time do you spend at the end of the semester not sleeping, cramming for your final exam or paper, trying to complete all of the reading you didn’t have “time” to do properly during the semester? How much learning do you end up doing when you spend a week living off of energy drinks and little sleep in order to do everything you didn’t do during the previous 15 week semester?
My students can be a little more active in all of their course-related work. One of the biggest complaints about homework is that it is a waste of their time. And while I don’t claim that all homework ever assigned during a student’s academic career is meaningful, the student should at least try view homework as a positive learning activity that, if taken seriously and done well, can help you learn. Same thing with in-class activities. 
I tell my students that every exercise in class or at home is an opportunity for them. If they choose to see it as a waste of time, then it will be. And thus it is the student, not me, who is wasting their time. I can only set up the conditions for the students to learn and be successful. It is up to them to take advantage of those conditions. I can entice them with promises of a more meaningful education experience, and I can threaten them with a failing grade. But I try to get my students to come to understand that the choice is ultimately theirs if they are going to actively engage in their education.
I care about my students and I care about their success inside and outside of my class. I know my students care about their grades, but I wonder about their commitment to their education. If they don’t get more active in their learning, then we will all have been just wasting our time.

What’s Your Attendance Policy?

As I have admitted before, I was not the best undergraduate student. I routinely didn’t go to class. I can count on one hand the number of courses where I attended every class. Most of them were taught by the same teacher. She was an adjunct, and she taught some of the most thankless courses. Our first course with her was Technical Writing. And yet, we all attended every class, did every assignment, and were usually lined up around the corner to see her during her office hours. I don’t remember if she had an attendance policy in her syllabus (she probably did), but it wasn’t for fear of punishment that we did or did not attend her class. We wanted to be there, and we saw the utility of attending her classes. 

Another instructor (another adjunct) that I vividly remember also got me to attend every class. But it was because there was a severe penalty built into the syllabus if you missed even one class. We hated it. Everyone in the class resented the fact that we were being “forced,” through threat of punishment, to attend the class. We would sit through his long lectures and plod through his boring exercises wondering why it was we absolutely needed to be there. It didn’t help that it was Editing at 8:30 on Friday mornings, but if our Technical Writing teacher had been the instructor, we would have been there, no matter what.
This is the problem I have with attendance policies; it gives students the wrong incentive to attend class. if I am doing my job as an instructor, students will understand the utility of my class, enjoy (or at least appreciate) the learning process, and willingly attend. If a student at this level doesn’t yet understand that attendance matters, then docking them a few grades won’t help; if anything, they’ll end up resenting you, your class, and your policy.
A number of my students have told me about the zero tolerance policy their high schools have developed in regards to attendance; if you miss a day for any reason not deemed acceptable, you get detention or suspension. Most of the time, however, those students who are “forced” to go to school are disruptive or don’t bother doing the work required of them. No amount of punishment seems to change their attitude towards school and schooling; they see it as a waste of their time. I want to make sure that my students don’t think that I am wasting their time.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a stick that goes along with the carrot. The students learn very quickly that every day we do a variety of activities in class that directly relates to their upcoming (or in progress) essay assignment. All of these activities count in their final grade. For me, the incentive isn’t that they lose marks by not being in class, but that they miss out on important practice and preparation for major assignments. Doing well in my class isn’t about just attending, it’s about actively participating and working on what we focusing on that day. I have a number of students who show up and either sleep or just stare at me during class. The quality of their writing has not improved. 
I want to be more like my Technical Writing instructor than my Editing instructor; I want students to want to attend my class, not feel that they have to attend but are wasting their time in doing so.