To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s)

It’s entirely possible that I’m just not cool enough to enjoy this “humorous,” “fictional” take on the the phenomena of students manufacturing dead grandmothers during finals week. Maybe it’s because my own grandmother died while I was in college, my grandfather died while I was in grad school, or another grandmother died in while I was in grad school  (are you keeping track? That’s two grandmothers). I missed her funeral to go to a postdoc interview, which is what she would have wanted (I got the job). As the child of divorced, remarried parents, I had four grandmothers, so if I was so unlucky as to have more than one die during the course of your class, then, gee, I guess I’d be in a pickle!

But seriously, I do not get the mentality of seeing your students as adversaries. I don’t get the need to dehumanize them with your disdain, to the point where you need to mock them in aggregate in public. There is a time and a place for venting your frustrations with students being dishonest to get a little extra time on the final (even though it never seems to actually bring their grades up, so seriously, let it go). I get that finals week is stressful for faculty, too (even though your future is pretty certain and you have a job, so it’s not like everything is riding on this one grade). But this idea that we need to single out even fictional students for daring to have a life experience that interferes with your routine?

Acclimatrix is not having any of that, thank-you-very-much.

Let’s set aside the fact that grandmothers die for a second (they do, as I’ve already established with my n of 1). Let’s start instead with the premise that students are people, and bad shit happens to people all the time. The problem is, we don’t  usually hear about it. This might blow your mind, but: dead grandmothers aren’t always dead grandmothers. Grandmothers, as the universal symbol of love and goodness and plausibility, are an un-challenge-able event in the life of a young person. We accept that grandmothers die (at least, we did until the Chronicle updated us on that!). So dead grandmothers may actually be stand-ins for things we won’t accept, can’t know about, shouldn’t know about, or won’t otherwise believe. Sometimes, dead grandmothers are [CW: a diversity of bad shit coming]:

The time I got assaulted and couldn’t tell my teachers, because I couldn’t tell anyone, and I needed a reason to explain why I disappeared so suddenly.

The time I had to take three days to go to Canada to have an abortion and was going to miss the midterm, and I didn’t know if you’d be okay with that.

The time my boyfriend of six years dumped me and I couldn’t stop sobbing, or even take a shower, so of course I couldn’t come to class.

The time the person who actually raised me instead of my parents died, and I knew if I said “Patty died,” you wouldn’t know what that meant.

The time I thought I might have cancer, and had to go home to the family doctor to get a biopsy from my uterus.

The time I had to drive my little sister to the gynecologist for the first time because our mom wouldn’t go with her.

The time I had a miscarriage and I couldn’t tell you I was pregnant because I was afraid you would change how you thought of me.

The time I had to testify for my roommate, for a crime she asked me not to talk about because she was afraid she’d lose her scholarship.

The time I had to work because if I didn’t pay my bill, I wouldn’t get to graduate on time.

The time I spent the whole semester barely treading water because of a deep depression, panicked when I realized the exam was a week sooner than I thought, and needed a way out.

Not all of those are real, of course. I used a fictional “I” as a literary device, to draw you in and make you feel empathy for me. You know, like those kids with dead grandmothers do.

If students are lying, you have no way of knowing if it’s because they spent the entire semester playing drunk Candy Crush, or their grandmother actually died, or the dead grandmother is a stand-in for what they cannot tell you. Being a somewhat optimistic person, I would guess that the vast majority of students are telling the truth, at least in one way or the other.

When you mock students because life happens, and they react, you diminish them. And if that student has already struggled — because they don’t have a supportive family, or financial resources, because of mental illness or a disabling condition, because there is no one in the classroom who looks like them, or for any other reason — they take double damage.

Students see us. They see how we talk about them. They see how we treat them. They hear us when we say we do not believe them. And when you publish those diminishing thoughts in the Chronicle, even as a “joke,” they see the authority of the Academy behind you.

That piece should never have been published (it’s a tired trope that literally adds nothing to our discussions of classroom management), but I’m especially upset that it ended up in the Chronicle. I even have enough empathy to understand the sentiment behind it — I get frustrated, too. But I choose to err on the side of believing in my students’ humanity, because I would not be here if someone had not believed in mine, over and over again. Even when I wasn’t telling the absolute truth.

ETA: I got so mad I forgot to talk about documentation policies! My take? Don’t. Because sometimes the dead grandmother needs to be a stand-in. And even if she’s really dead, don’t make your students cut out their obituary from the town paper. Just don’t be that person.

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93 thoughts on “To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s)

  1. Excellent post. I’d much rather have my leniency be taken advantage of by a handful of students and have the rest of my class feel as though I’m deeply concerned for their wellbeing. Empathy matters, especially for young people who are going through an extremely turbulent life stage and coping with challenges that I’m in no position to evaluate. Also, using “dead grandmother” as a stand-in for “lame excuse” strikes me as extremely insensitive to the many students who have been raised in non-nuclear families by grandmothers, great-uncles, godparents, and second cousins, etc.

  2. This is certainly something most teachers/professors don’t think about. My grandfather passed away in March of this year. My brother, who is a freshman in college, was told in order to make up the test he was missing he would need to TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DEAD GRANDFATHER. My boss required the obituary in order for me to use bereavement leave but to take a picture? How tacky, rude, and unprofessional is that!

  3. Thank you for this. I am not a teacher. I am a 33 year old autistic college student, with three autistic children, and a diabetic husband. I have epilepsy, depression, and anxiety. My life is sometimes messy. That doesn’t make me less of an adult, or less deserving of compassion. School is important, but it is rarely the only thing going on in a person’s life. Many instructors treat students as if the only thing that should matter in their lives is school. The reality is that my children will always come first, my health issues are entirely beyond my control, and having to come up with a “valid” excuse when I need to pick up my nephews because my alcoholic sister forgot them at the movie theater only adds to my anxiety. I don’t expect to not be required to do the work. I do sometimes ask for a little leniency. Post-concussion syndrome seems to go hand-in-hand with flopping around like a fish on the floor of Wal-Mart, and it tends to make my brain work a little slower. If I ask for a little extra time to complete an assignment, please allow it. If it were up to me, I would rather turn in my assignment on time, than be late because my six year old kid doesn’t yet understand that biting his classmates isn’t cool. Sure, some students are trying to beat the system. The majority of us just have lives outside the classroom, and could occasionally use a little support.

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  7. Thank you for this post. I just went on an angry commenting spree on my own page, but I’ll reiterate some here: I grew up with three grandmothers (remarriage), three GREAT grandmothers, a great grandfather, and one grandfather, not to mention numerous great uncles and aunts, and some of them are still around. Or what about the time my dad’s cousin and HIS ENTIRE FAMILY were killed in a plane crash? Or when my childhood’s friend’s mother was murdered by her ex husband? Or when an old friend was killed in a hit and run? Plus numerous things already on your list. I had compassionate teachers, but not everyone does. This kind of shit, this turning ourselves into petty tyrants and petty bureaucrats, is what makes me question not only staying in academia myself, but its entire right to exist.

  8. Dear outraged,
    Here is the part where some one once again chimes in with What They Do About Those Student Excuses:
    My students, are allowed to miss a certain classes before their grade is affected. I don’t do excused or unexcused absences. They can use their allowable absences however they need. That leaves room for all the things that do happen in life that they can’t really document and you don’t want to make them: sickness they don’t really need to go to the doctor for, personal issues, et al. Everything else — like disasters that take them out of school entirely for weeks and weeks — has to go through the dean of students office.
    That way, no one has to get backed into sorting out who’s lying or not. No one has to feel suspicious and cynical on the one hand or risk compassion fatigue on the other. Bingo.
    I realize that people who don’t take attendance have another set of issues. Good luck with that.
    OTOH, you know what I get sick of? Other professors or teachers who need to perform their compassion to others, and shake their fingers at those of us who have felt more cynical. I really, really, hate that shit. I hate it so much I actually clicked this link and read your essay and I am now telling you, seriously, get over it. I am the one in the faculty meeting trying very hard not to roll my eyes when you start that shit. On and on and on with that stuff.
    Listen, you’re not more compassionate or empathetic. You’re not more virtuous, or feeling, or remembering.
    You’ve just found a different way. That’s all. That’s it. everyone has to do what suits their own policies, and those of their dept.

    • It’s sad that you think this is about performing compassion. Consider, for just a moment, the possibility that these are deeply felt emotions inspired by real-life experiences and a desire to advocate for students.

      And yes, everyone finds their own way. And when someone’s “way” involves mocking students in a blog post, I get to use my own blog to respond. You don’t have to read it.

      • I think it’s good to provide a counter-point. I have to wonder, though, why you need to display your compassion so publicly. Millions of professionals each day ride those currents and find their own ways. They don’t proscribe or preach about it. You do. That’s the problem.
        Academics are so awful this way sometimes. Do you even get that? It’s not the difference in approaches, or experiences. It’s the preachy arrogance. It’s awful.

        • Well, given that this is a pseudononymous blog, it’s not like I’m getting cookies for virtue signaling. Maybe that’s not why I wrote the post! Gasp!

        • “I think it’s good to provide a counter-point. I have to wonder, though, why you need to display your compassion so publicly.”

          Um. Do you understand your own first sentence?

          The article condemning students was a relatively high-profile, high-visibility statement. What, you think everyone who disagrees should just stay quiet about it so as not to [supposedly] show off? Have you not followed the logical train of thought here that says “oh sure, let’s just leave the thing being objected to as the only loud public voice”?

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  10. During my final semester of grad school, both my husband and I lost our only surviving grandmothers. I was grateful for the compassion and practical assistance of my faculty and student colleagues when I needed to miss a number of commitments, including at my department job, and I remember this when interacting with students.

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  12. I’m a dean of academic affairs, so my take is a little broader. I love this post and agree that the cynicism and hostility toward real student troubles is disturbing. But I also have seen that my colleagues teaching large, introductory/required courses deal with more frequent student discontent and work avoidance than others and, yes, they become more cynical. They are doing the grunt work and it wears them down. If we distributed teaching assignments more equitably, I think there would be more compassion all around.

    • Hi Dean Lady: I’m one of those faculty who teach a large first-year course (500 students twice a year). I certainly appreciate the spirit of your recommendation to distribute teaching assignments more equitably. But that comment also suggests that teaching such courses is onerous. Not everyone feels this way. Personally, the large first-year course is my favourite to teach. In part this is because I find that incoming students are more open to/excited about learning. But also I think it’s an incredible privilege to be one of the people who introduces them to university education. Part of that privilege, in my own view, involves treating these students humanely and modelling what it is to treat others with respect and to care about their education (to the extent that I’m able, and I know that I often fall short of my own ideals).

      And of course with higher numbers of students you have more of them who run into problems, and therefore more requests for help/accommodation. It’s simple statistics. Plus these students are just starting university, and so are struggling with a new system, new culture, *much* greater independence, etc. It’s a really tough year for most of them even if they don’t actually have a medical crisis or death in the family. That said, I actually find that I have proportionately *fewer* students asking for accommodations in my first-year course than in upper-year courses.

      My own anecdotal experience with colleagues at my school and at others who teach similar large classes is that you see what you want to see. If you regard students with compassion, you become aware of just how many of them (who are NOT asking for accommodation) are having a legitimately difficult time. Which makes you inclined to be much more understanding when students come to you about, say, the death of a grandparent. But if you think that all or most students are trying to get away with something, then that’s what you see. And of course there are going to be those students, at times–so confirmation bias leads you to regard your entire class with suspicion. And they can feel it. They understand that they are now in an antagonistic relationship with their instructor.

      As others on this thread have mentioned, there are also so many ways to set up your courses to be helpful to all, while remaining academically rigorous. Just build some flexibility into some elements, like counting the best 3 of 4 tests, or instating a low penalty for late assignments. Sometimes I think we forget that a key goal here is actually teaching people about an academic subject. It’s not our job to moralize to students about how things are in “the real world” (which of course is laughable in another way, as I know so many tenured university professors who have only ever done academic work! What do they know about this “real world” of which they speak?). The point here is that I don’t find that students learn more in courses with harsh penalties and inflexible rules. I do find that, if I tell students that it’s not a moral failing to hand in a late essay (and admit that I was late with academic work several times when I was a student), and encourage them to see me if they are having problems of any sort, more of them will come to me after the deadline to talk about their essay and what aspects of the assignment they are finding difficult. They’re not terrified that I will be angry or that I will judge them. And bc of these conversations they learn more about what I’m actually trying to teach them.

      One other thing: in my experience, professors who complain about students missing deadlines are often incredible hypocrites. They themselves often submit their own work (to chairs, deans, editors, etc.) more than a little past the deadlines, and with no penalty to themselves. If they care to explain their lateness at all, they say it’s bc they are busy. And of course they are! But why should our problems merit us a free pass while we continue to criticize students for the fact that their own issues interfere with their academic work?

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