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.