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Structure, Agency & Snow, Oh My!

You pop out of bed, turn on your TV to the local news, and look to see if school has been canceled due to snowy weather. Bummer, it looks like your college is going to stay open. You look out the window and see that roads look awful. So what do you do? Stay home or go to campus? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath examines how much agency a student has when deciding whether to attend class on a day of extreme weather.

Car in Ditch on Snowy Day

The roads are yet again covered in ice and snow. While my daughter’s school cancelled classes due to the weather, my college did not. Where I teach is a commuter school and serves a very large geographic area. As an employee, my options were to cancel class and take a personal day or make every effort to hold class and keep my personal day. I like to hold onto personal and sick days until I absolutely need them, so I threw on my snow gear and went to campus.

I had some agency in the matter. Agency is a term sociologist use that describes a person’s ability to affect the world around them and/or get their way. It may be easier for you to think of agency as control or as “free will”. I could have used my agency and easily cancelled class because I have the personal leave I could take. I would even still get paid for the day if I opted to cancel class.

But, what about my students? How much agency did they have in choosing whether to drive to campus or stay home? Let’s consider the factors that would influence their “choice:”

  • The college did not close, as I mentioned above, yet some instructors did cancel classes. If a student had other classes that were cancelled, then perhaps they would be more likely to skip those classes that were not cancelled.
  • What if the teacher grades attendance, participation, or both? This is true of the courses that I teach. For a student to skip today, they would lose these points.
  • As a student paying tuition, to skip class means that your money is to some extent “wasted.”
  • A student, who wants to be perceived as a “good” student, might make every effort to be in class regardless of concerns for safety.
  • Students with children, may have daycare issues to account for since schools were closed across our district. Students with children have to determine whether they can afford this unexpected cost. Moreover, her or his daycare might also be closed due to weather (rare, but this did happen a couple of weeks ago due to the “Polar Vortex”).
  • Our district is largely rural, which means that it takes a long time for snow plows to make down all the country roads. A student who lives on a country road rather than a city road or highway may literally be snowed-in and unable to actually leave her or his driveway.
  • A student may also have to take into account their financial circumstances in risking a drive on a snowy or icy day. What if her or his car ends up in a ditch? (I passed eight cars in the ditch on my 21 mile drive to campus.) Can the student afford to get her or his car towed out of the ditch?

So, what’s a student to do? How much agency does the student have in choosing to come to class or not? What structural issues weigh on this decision?

I opted to cancel my morning office hours, but made it to campus for my 11 a.m. class. On my drive, I realized conditions were bad enough (8 cars in the ditch! And then I saw two semi trucks slide through red lights) that I did not want my students traveling to campus for the sole purpose of earning participation and attendance credit. I posted an announcement to our online management system regarding my decision to hold class, but to waive attendance and participation. By the time this message was posted, my 11 a.m. class was close to starting. Nearly all of my students were in attendance for this class. I decided to “reward” them with a bonus extra credit point for braving the elements and making it to class.

While many people believe that “everyone has a choice” and should be held responsible for their actions, the reality is that those choices are constrained by larger structural factors. By Structural Factors I mean all of the aspects of a person’s life that are controlled by their community and their social institutions (e.g. the government, economy, education system, etc.). As we saw in the list of structural factors above, when deciding whether to come to class on a snowy day, a student does have the choice, but those choices are constrained by the policies set forth by her or his college and instructor. Moreover, their choice is further complicated by where they live, parental status, and social class. Many students have limited agency in determining whether or not to skip class on a snowy day.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In what way do you personally have agency over your life? How is your life affected by the structural factors you operate within?
  2. Which is stronger in the case of a snowy day? An individual’s agency or the structure factors that surround them? How much agency does a student have in deciding whether to come to class on an icy and snowy day?
  3. How much agency does the instructor have in deciding whether to hold or cancel class? What structural barriers might your instructor be up against?
  4. Think about your own life. Have you faced a similar conflict before? What factors constrained your ability to choose?