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

  1. Thank you for this, these are my exact feelings on the issue. The first time a student handed me a photocopy of her grandmother’s obituary (totally unprompted) I was utterly shocked that she felt she had to do that for me to believe her.

    • The problem in this world is too many people think about saying what they are thinking and then don’t say it, then we all think no one else is thinking the same way.

  2. Brava. I have had students come to me with some of the situations that you presented and felt OK letting me know, because they have learned that I will listen and not judge. Our goal together (the student and me) is to get them what they need to finish the course and graduate. If that takes on a different form or we have to move the clock a bit, we do that. I thought that that was ultimately my job – to teach?

  3. I believe there’s some value in having a documentation policy in the syllabus that I never actually enforce. When a student has a family issue of any sort, I always just express sympathy and give whatever appropriate measure of relief is required, and don’t ask for the documentation. But I think it’s useful to have the policy on record to scare off the fakers.

    In other words, my syllabus is a hard-ass, but I’m not.

    • Not a prof. or educator, but as a student: If you have that policy in the syllabus, I, as a student, will assume you mean that. Therefore, if I have an issue that is not readily documentable, I will assume I am SOL for your class and either not deal with the issue, or take an unnecessary unexcused absence. A better policy may be to say that personal and family emergencies will be treated on a case by case basis. It leaves you room to deal with fakers and others who would abuse the system, but also lets students know that you do understand life happens.

    • I agree with this. My freshman and sophomore years of college I lost my best friend, was in the middle of a court case for my grandfather molesting half of my family, disowned by my parents for choosing to live with a black man ( which was extremely difficult because my parents were helping with school and the job I had i could barely live off of let alone continue my education), was being tested for cancer, was told i would never be able to have children, and already struggling with PTSD and Anxiety/Depression issues. Because I didn’t know how to talk about this with any of my teachers i tired my hardest to continue as normal. According to all the syllabus there would be no excuses for absences. My grades began to fall and I was given a letter saying I had to meet with my adviser. While meeting with her she asked me what was going on I couldn’t even find the words and her response to me was that she was going to tell me the same thing someone told her at her age and that was if you don’t stop partying you will never graduate. I just looked at her in disbelief to stunned to say anything. That night I was so upset and couldn’t take it anymore. I dropped all my classes and quit. Luckily after taking that semester off I was able to see a psychiatrist and get into a little better shape before returning to school. But with all those factors i almost didn’t make it. I changed the type of degree i was going for because i just didn’t want to be judged by that same women again. I had already been through enough.

      • Imagine the teacher’s perspective, though. I’ve had students with serious medical issues, students called up for military duty, students working full time outside school to support families, and I’ve had students who are just partying and not trying. We’ll never know what’s going on with you unless you tell us something – not the whole story, because we don’t need to pry into your private life, but we need to know something, or yeah, we’re going to think you’re not trying.

        As unique as you think your issues are, it’s likely we’ve had a student in your situation before. Any rare thing that affects only 1% of people? You’re unlikely to see it, but your teacher probably sees it every quarter/semester, because they have 100 students.

  4. I agree this piece was egregiously anti-student and not very funny. Also a bit of a cliche. But I have also been in that place — the place where your syllabus is cluttered with paragraphs that specifically proscribe a variety of unlikely things, because these are the ways that students have taken advantage of you in the past — where every piece of work is meticulously awarded a percentage of the final grade, because are convinced they won’t do it otherwise — where you end up treating them like children because you’re just so disappointed with the way some previous students have acted. I got over it, and i agree, you don’t want to be that person. But rather than shaming the poor woman who wrote this article, I’d be recommending counselling — she is depressed.

    • I’m not the author’s psychiatrist, so I’m not comfortable making a psychiatric diagnosis. And I’m also depressed, but manage to still have compassion for my students.

      I’m less concerned about the “poop woman who wrote the article” (she’s an adult and can take criticism) and more concerned about the harmful message students hear with pieces like that.

  5. Thank you. When I was 20-something I missed the deadline for my end of term work because my dog died, a week after a former (and beloved) wilderness trail crew supervisor died, in a year when someone I knew (a friend, or a parent of a friend) died every three months. It was a rough year.

    Luckily, my professors let me make up my work over Spring break. They understood, saw me, helped me figure out a way to get the work in.

    My daughter was very sick AND her dog died (my 20-years-later beloved Newfie), so she missed the equivalent of several days of class while she was at school. She was not allowed any leeway and got no credit for that class.

    Love this piece. Thank you for writing it.

  6. My grandfather actually did died on the morning of two of my finals during sophomore year. He had lived with us for the last 4 years.

    I biked to college that morning in a daze and told the first professor that I needed to keep my phone on during the final so I wouldn’t miss a call regarding funeral plans (which my family’s custom is to do within 24 hours of passing). He said of course, and told me I didn’t have to take the final. I took the final and received a call regarding the funeral right before handing in my exam.

    The funeral was scheduled for during my next final of the day (Calc1) so I went to speak with the professor to let him know I’d miss the final. He was also super understanding about it, and held up my grade for the class until I finally was able to take the final.

    I’m thankful that both of these professors took me seriously that day and were sensitive and accomodating.

  7. Thank you for this!!! I get so tired, frustrated, and saddened by colleagues who constantly see students as adversaries, and not as human beings.

  8. I was blessed to have a Chef that showed some compassion and understanding after I came clean and told him I wasn’t prepared for my practical. He had me wait outside the kitchen and then we went to his office. He asked me what was going on and I just started boo-hoo sobbing right there in front of him (it may have been the ugly cry). He sent me home, told me to get some sleep. He he told me to come to any of his classes before Friday to do my practical. Educators like him make the diffrrence. My life seemed to be imploding at that moment and he, a stickler for professionalism and excellence, chose not to flex his power and authority over me and my situation (the situation I wasn’t even able to verbalize because I was crying so much).

  9. As a young college instructor who had a rather intense sense of fairness and a great fear of being duped, I was on the “no excuses” side of things. But I was lucky enough to TA for an amazing professor who encouraged/modeled/taught me empathy for my students. It completely turned around my approach to classroom policies–I wanted to give the students as much opportunity to succeed as possible, while keeping my workload manageable. Thanks for your words.

  10. I loved your essay, and I loved also that one of my students sent it to me because he told me that it reminded him of me.

  11. Lawd, I is weary. I is weary of humorless education bloggers whose sole purpose is to remind us poor schlubs that they, alone, are truly serious and dedicated about the profession and Have Their Students’ Best Interests At Heart, whereas the rest of us are nothing more than cynical, jaded, millennial-haters. It’s some kind of reaction formation to being a) an adjunct who secretly knows no one values him/her or b) someone on tenure-track who has a crap-ton to prove.and is thereby Constantly Relevant. (P.S. Both you and the CHE are completely talking past the issue of why some students fail to thrive in academic environments.)

    • There are many reasons students fail to thrive in academic environments. Sometimes, lack of support, emotional abuse, or just plain trauma are part of that. Sometimes, students thrive, but the process doesn’t need to be as brutal as it is. This post wasn’t meant to be exhaustive.

      I don’t have anything to prove (this is a pseud blog, so it’s not like we’re getting accolades). I just have opinions based on my experiences. Your mileage may vary.

    • Not at all true. There are plenty of professors who have been tenured for over a decade, who are the top researchers in their fields, and yet still manage not to be the asshole that you seem to be. I is weary of professors who have nothing better to do with their time than harass students to try and catch em in a lie–oh good for you! You caught a 19 year old lying, you sure showed us!! The rest of us are busier with bigger problems that do not involve collecting obituaries from my students.

      • I am weary of grown adults arguing over “who’s the asshole here, the REAL asshole,” but I’m ere doing it too. So the next time the academy wants to hold itself forth as the bastion of reason and enlightened thinking, we should all remember lovely moments like this……

  12. Bless you. I spent too much time today trying to explain to people why the CHE piece annoyed me so badly. Now I can show them this.

  13. Brilliant- why should I have to share intimate details of my life to be treated like an adult? As a mature age student going back to studying I was shocked at the treatment of students nearly all of whom are adults. Being older than my lecturers I found it ludicrous being treated like a child having had twenty years as a lawyer, raised two children, struggled caring for them while my husband had cancer, to enter university and be told how many tutorials I had to attend etc I’m afraid university is like a chook yard and the students are at the bottom of the pecking order!

    • Adults have to share intimate details of their lives all the time. While some issues may feel too private for some students, we do them a dis-service if we say they don’t have to account for their failure to meet basic standards of behavior. Sometimes it’s not possible to make something up that you have missed: that is how life works.

      • In what world are you sharing intimate details with strangers? While some of my students do trust me with personal information, they shouldn’t have to.

        And yes, sometimes we miss things. We’re not talking about a concert or a speech; this is an hour at a table. It doesn’t affect me at all to accommodate them.

      • As a full-fledged adult : if I tell my boss I need a sick day, I get a sick day. Period. If i miss 3 product pitches due to being sick, then that’s an issue, but… sickness happens (as does the need for abortions, mental health care, and other things that falls under the umbrella of ‘sick’ but NEVER gets discussed with ones boss) and good bosses are aware of the that. If my employee is sick, she’s sick – I want her home taking a sick day and not contaminating the place. If one of my employees misses 4 important things in a row because she’s sick on those days, that’s an issue.

        If my grandmother’s funeral is on the day of a product pitch, my boss LEGALLY cannot refuse me the day off (paid, no less, thanks Quebec).

        That’s how life works. Dunno why you think it should work differently for students.

        • Not all of us have white-collar jobs with understanding bosses. Have you never worked in retail or food service? It’s pretty different down here.

          • I have worked retail and food service jobs (sometimes both at the same time). I was fired from a retail job for missing days (due to migraines).

            My post came out of my experiences as a first-generation college student from a blue-collar background who had a number of life events nearly derail my college degree (and grad school, and academic career).

  14. Thank you for this, during the second semester if my junior year I left a three-year abusive relationship. It was indescribably stressful as well as dangerous. In addition to taking ~17 credits and working 5 days a week, I had to deal with temporarily moving out of my home and all of the harrassment and emotional fallout one would expect in this circumstance. If it weren’t for my professors granting me what felt like endless extensions I don’t think I would have made it through (I went on to graduate Summa with a 4.0 as a first generation student.)

  15. Very well said. We are able to retain some dignity and save everyone else the gory details by sometimes modifying or refraining from telling the whole story.

  16. Wonderful piece, very thoughtful and insightful. Thank you! I’ve been teaching university for over 25 years and my general policy is to believe my students; I’d much rather err on the side of giving someone who doesn’t really deserve it some grace than to deny grace to someone who really needs it. But…it’s not that simple. This whole thread assumes that students are pretty much universally mature people who only ask for extensions or delayed tests for serious reasons. And lots of students are not yet there. Sometimes the best teaching you can do is to let them experience the consequences of immature choices–the late penalty on the assignment; the zero on the missed test. I’ve had plenty of students (young as well as older ones, some older than I am) who managed to have some kind of crisis prior to nearly every deadline, or who struggle with the course material primarily because they simply aren’t putting in the time. I offer to meet with them regularly to review course material; I make concrete suggestions and provide resources so that they can master the material. And maybe 2% of them ever follow through with this. What sometimes works really well is to personally (or through the student support system) teach them study and time management skills; to show them that, no, they don’t actually need an extension because they CAN manage this…and how to do so. I’ve seen students shine with pride at accomplishments they never thought they could manage as a result of a tutorial on how to manage time or how to tackle the material.

    I have had students who wanted to argue their way into a passing grade when they didn’t hand in a single assignment, missed the midterms, and failed the final…because they were having a tough time in their personal lives. I get it. Some students really are having a tough time. And my university bends over backwards to provide tutorial services and mental health supports. But in the end you have to master the material, and while most students get that, a significant minority don’t. I cannot assign you the grade that you WOULD have received if you HAD done the work.

    I also understand the complaints in here about requiring documentation to support the reason why a student had to miss a test or needs an extension. If you have a legitimate reason then it’s yet another hoop to jump through at a time when you probably don’t need that. But some students DO lie to try and get extra time because they just didn’t do the work. How am I supposed to know which one any given student is? I’m lucky to work in a place with small enough classes that I really do get to know my students, but that also means that if I ask for documentation from one, I have to do it for all of them, because they talk to each other.

    So again, thank you for the thoughtful, articulate, passionate piece that makes some excellent and important points! But please also know that it’s a bit more complicated than you–and also the “dead grandmother” author–suggest.

    • I think you misread the piece. I’m not assuming all students are telling the truth. In fact, I mention there’s no way of knowing whether a student is lying for a “legitimate” reason. The problem is, legitimacy is subjective. In the end, you can have a flexible, realistic policy (like many jobs have personal days) without dehumanizing your students. Yes, some will take advantage, but they will be a minority. I typically have 2-3 requests in a class of 200; it’s not worth worrying about which is lying. I’ve also noticed (as I mentioned) that the ones I suspect were lying tend not to do any better with a couple days’ extra time. They’ve already punished themselves, and a couple of extra days don’t make a difference.

      I’m not suggesting you give them a different grade than what they earned. I’m saying you build in a reasonable amount of wiggle room, and then you trust the students to use it fairly, and then move on.

  17. Thank you. 1. For addressing the diversity of bad shit that happens. This is an entire issue in itself- things we don’t talk about, but should. 2. For the reminder that students are people. We all are!

  18. I was asked to bring back a program from my Grandfather’s funeral by one of my college sociology professors. It was merely to receive attendance points…not even to miss an exam. I found that to be so crass. “It’s not that I think you’re lying, it’s just that some people do.” What if I had only one copy and didn’t want to risk losing it? What if I, in my state of grieving, had forgotten to bring one back from Wisconsin to Michigan and was then treated as though my loss had not happened at all? Ugh. Grieving (for whatever reason) people shouldn’t be treated with suspicion and they shouldn’t have to “prove it.”

  19. I agree completely that it’s better to err on the side of believing our students than otherwise. However, this comment really offended me: “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).” For the *majority* of us who are not tenured, this is not only condescending but manifestly untrue. It’s still no excuse to mock students, but I wish you would lay off mocking faculty as well, as not all of us are in the comfortable positions you seem to assume.

    • Hey, I’m pre-tenure, and my husband gets paid less than a TA to adjunct. I get it. But comparatively, our positions are still different. How a student dies on a midterm can affect whether they get into med school or can stay in college, or keep a scholarship. One exam. How one student does on one exam isn’t even close to being as impactful. Note I said “pretty certain,” and “not like everything is riding on this one grade.” I wasn’t trying to mock, I was trying to put things into perspective. I’m sorry if that suggested I’m insensitive to the experiences of the non-tenured ranks, of which I am a member.

      • “I do not get the mentality of seeing your students as adversaries.”

        I think it is worth noting that the writer of the original article was a contingent faculty member. As someone who very recently moved from contingent to ongoing (from semester to semester contracts to an appointment) I totally see where the mentality of students as adversaries comes from. In institutional situations that have little empathy for contingent faculty, it can be hard for us to summon empathy for our students from whole cloth. When we are treated as lesser-than—whether it be by not allowing us freedoms in the classroom, or not having confidence in our abilities, or expecting us to change schedules at a moment’s notice, or penalizing us for institutional loyalty, or over-relying on course evaluations to judge our abilities as teacher—it can begin to seem easy and appropriate to treat students with a similar lack of trust and respect.

  20. Reblogged this on emma claire comments and commented:
    I’ve re-blogged this article because it is a fantastic response to this other, terrible article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://www.chronicle.com/article/To-My-Student-on-the-Death-/240353).

    Students can be annoying, and flaky, and sometimes they’re telling porkies, but 99% of them are working hard 100% of the time, and rely on us for support- scholarly or otherwise. As educators we are here to support their learning, and this means if someone says their grandmother has died, we give them the support they ask for, and don’t mock them on the internet.

  21. Thank you!!! You said this perfectly.
    Whether it is the death of a relative, or something more complicated, we should support our students when crisis hits, not mock them!

  22. Pingback: Student Grandmothers, mitigating circumstances, and process – Fruits of the pedagogic life

  23. Thank you for this, it’s spot on. My grandfather really did die while I was in college, and the professor scoffed and laughed at me when I told her. I brought her the obituary the next class, and she told me I didn’t have to do that. Obviously, I did. That grandfather had sexually abused me for over 8 years, so there were a lot of mixed emotions about his death and a lot of family turmoil. It was made much more difficult by the insinuation that I was a liar. I will never do that to a student.

  24. My Freshman year in undergrad my grandfather died. If you think about the ages of your students, and the likely ages of their elderly relatives, it’s likely they will lose someone…and that it might be the first person that they’ve lost…while in your class. I remember telling my history teacher that I had to miss class and the disdain in her face. That, along with a couple other classic bad-faculty moments from her in particular, led me away from a history major that I had originally declared and into anthropology. I now teach and have a PhD in education. Maybe if she’d been a better teacher I would have gone into history and everything would be different, or maybe I would have realized how cool anthropology was on my own without someone judging my every 19-year-old issue. Either way, I’m glad you posted this because I remember feeling the injustice of it. Now I always accept my students excuses on face value – even when I have questions in the back of my mind – because my students are people, and sometimes they need some support. Of course, absences matter, but that’s what the syllabus is for, to spell out what happens when you have to miss class and how you can make it up if you need to.

  25. I agree with your response 100%. I try to be as understanding as possible while being fair to everyone. In my syllabus, I require documentation for medical excuses (which is a University policy), but I am lenient when people ask for delays or exemptions within reason (I have to have something to grade for the course). If a student seems to be struggling, I suggest they go to student services, who can go over the range of options for them that can help them avoid an F or an incomplete when life happens.

    Students are people who deserve respect, and life is not always smooth sailing–I am happy to give them the benefit of the doubt. It does not hurt me in any way to be understanding. In my experience, this is self-correcting. Slackers are likely to fail anyway when they finally have to take an exam at some point, while students who are trying hard and experiencing a bad patch usually do OK when things even out for them.

  26. Thanks so much for this.

    I too have seen students scam teachers, including one roommate whose fake dead grandmother I later learned was really just a ruse to enable him to steal the final from his rotation advisor and ace it a few weeks later. That scumbag later hit said advisor up for a Med School application on the basis of their spurious developmental biology prowess, and now has shuttle buses that run around Miami-Fort Lauderdale convincing the elderly that they need to use their government health insurance benefits for cataract surgery at his operatorium. Still, I’m reticent to tar everyone who comes to me in real or fabricated distress, since doing so would mainly compound that wrong and likely do no good. I instead cling to the remote possibility that somehow Karma is real.

    I especially appreciate the acknowledgement of mental illness, which is still stigmatized and misunderstood by many, and can lead to terribly disabling responses to events others might find mundane. I was personally devastated when Jerry Garcia died, and fell into two weeks of deep sorrow during the 1995 Summer session. Even though the prof was understanding nd gave me time, I barely passed the class due to the cycle of depression that catalyzed. I went on to get my Ph.D. in that field, and will never forget the kindness and understanding I was shown.

  27. So in grad school I broke up with my fiancé. Needless to say I felt like part of me was dying. I was in that night. I went to my advisor and told her the truth. She told me that shit happens and the thing is that regardless midwives show up. Maybe I should have fabricated the grandmother… but it was a lesson. It was a lesson that acperson like me who never really asks for help shouldn’t have gotten… but I did. And yeah I do always show up, even when maybe my claiming a dead grandmother would be the wiser thing for me to do for everyone’s sake. i celebrate second chances every year on a specific day – Easter. Not at all because I am religious, but because like this post I believe in compassion over all.

  28. Excellent post here and I thank you for this. I lost two grandparents within a week of each other (grandfather died while I was in grad school, I stayed to keep working; my grandmother died right after that funeral and my parents flew us out for that funeral). My department and professors were supportive and I thank them for that.

    I’ve been teaching undergraduate computing science for 20+ years and one key factor that you point out is that moving an exam or deadline so rarely affects the student’s grade. Another important message is that we need to be that “open door” that some students feel that they can walk through with confidence to share/release/vent with someone that they trust. I’ve played that role many times and hope that my ability to listen and empathize played a small role in helping those students through difficult times.

    Huh, this really should have been a post on my own blog now. I started with a thank you and it turned into a mini-post.

    So again: thank you.

  29. There’s an important bias here, too, though I can’t think of its name right now. Namely, the fact that the week around a deadline is the only time a student needs to TELL their professor that something happened, so those are the only deaths the professors hear about. People’s grandmothers die all year, but when a crisis doesn’t impact anything important the students just keep it to themselves. It’s remarkable that so many professors don’t realise this…

  30. I work in an institution where many students do not complete their degrees because ‘life happens’ to them. We all do. I tell my students that if they ask me for an extension and do not give me a reason, I will give it. You might think this turns my semester into a chaos of grading. It does not. We regularly have students have life events similar to the ones you mentioned, and worse. I had a student whose father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 4 weeks later, all within one semester. She told me as she handed me her final. We are not in a position, nor should we be, to determine if an individual student has the resilience, resources, grit, coping skills, past experience, etc. to persevere in different life circumstances. I explain to them that in my course, just like life, there are soft deadlines and drop deadlines. Soft deadlines are move-able, as they are in the world outside of the classroom.

  31. Sadly this phenomena does end in university … employers also sometimes have the same policy … I quit my last full-time job in part because my boss wouldn’t give me leave for my grandmothers funeral! We clearly need more empathy in the world.

  32. Pingback: To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s) – Tenure, She Wrote | shannon kispert

  33. Pingback: Did the Dog Eat Your Empathy? – Donna Maria Alexander

  34. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I had an extremely unsafe and violent youth. I have always been intelligent and capable and fought to escape my background and for survival. Since finding safety and entering higher education at a later age than most, 10 years later, even though I perform at a very high level when I am enabled and get very good grades. I have pretty heavy backlash from trauma, complex mental health and health issues related to being a survivor of long term abuse and recovery. I am also poor which is a constant stressor and have no family supports. I had to come a very far way to even step into the door of the university, it also cost me a lot, I gave everything I have to be here and still give everything I have.

    There was nothing else I wanted more than to prove myself and show I was just like everyone else in university. So it was devastating to me when all of a sudden I couldn’t study anymore. And then shameful and so crushing when I have recurring spells when I can’t study. Often my struggle is life and death, my reality and what I live with can also be very isolating.

    There is an enormous stigma on mental health, and in my case, those mental health issues are directly related to oppression. Oppression that is taboo or stigmatising to talk about, that could affect my employability and status in academic working groups. I am silenced, I can’t tell the full truth to my lecturers, peers or professors, so I routinely have to lie and cover up, it is shameful and crushing, insults my integrity and my dignity, but I don’t have a choice. I risk too much by telling the truth. Nor do I want to surrender, nor give up this opportunity I have fought and worked so hard for. That I have invested so much in. Most teachers act with faith in me, the quality of my work is high so they give me the benefit of the doubt and an extension or exemption if I need it. But there have been some cases when that has not been the case and professors have sought to teach me a lesson, to humiliate me, make me an example or take their pound of flesh. It has cost me a lot more time, a lot of money and their unfair treatment and demands, even in the face of advice from student counsellors, have also meant I am not assessed fairly and downgraded as well as degraded during assessment verbally, and in front of my peers.

    The terrible abuse in my past has already robbed me of so much. I don’t know why people feel like it’s their job to rob me of opportunity, to penalise me financially. to punish me further for the things I did not ask for and have no control over. To teach me a lesson about time management is also meaningless when I am living with the crushing weight of flashbacks and major depression. It’s meaningless to question my motivation when I have given EVERYTHING to be here. I can manage my time, my motivation and my course work just fine when I am not in living hell. I believe O have a right to recovery and participation in higher education, in society, to be independent and find my own way Supposedly this is the model all of us ‘unfortunates’ are meant to pursue. But when we actually break down the door and the plethora of barriers facing us, what we find instead is contempt and the implication we are impostors in an institution and world not intended for us.

    I don’t know why people don’t question more who university is for. The whole institution and most supports in society favour one kind of body above all the others, constantly enormous amounts of resources are invested in them, but this is not made visible because it is the ‘norm’. And then people with this kind of privilege have the nerve to question ‘others’ about their right to support. I have a right to dignity. I want to participate in professional life and public discourse. I am not a burden to the system, the system fails people in my position, it overburdens us and further robs us of opportunity. I think people should understand what people with this kind of resilience can offer professional life and academia. We should be encouraged to flourish. We are the true overachievers.

    I like this sentiment: Yes I have impairments, but it is society who decides whether or not that becomes a disability.

  35. I don’t know, reads to me like someone who hasn’t been teaching long. I get the exhaustion at the tired joke of how weak the students are. I’ve been irritated at times by what I perceived as a default, a sad, “my students suck,” ongoing joke. The default can be challenged. The fact that such jokes crop up at all cannot. When you have hundreds or thousands of pupils come through your tutelage, there is going to be a lot of nuance in how you deal, how you interact, whom you trust, whom you bend policy for, etc. As good intentioned as this point of view is, defending the integrity of every student at once against a satirical post, the point seems vacuous, too general, and frankly kinda high horse.

    • Based on your CV, have had a PhD position for longer than you, at least. Whether that’s long enough for me to get that jaded, I guess is up for interpretation. I’ve received a ton of positive responses, so I guess I’m always happy to get on a high horse in defense of others.

      • Yeah, maybe. I don’t mean to imply my teaching experience gives me some authority over you, by the way (I haven’t bothered to suss out or compare, still, and I won’t, because that’s not my point, it was a point about tone). I’m pretty fresh, 10 years or so experience in front of classes, 3 years post PhD, mainly just two (very different) teaching establishments. I don’t think I’m “jaded.” (I also think the term is trite, and obnoxious, but I don’t think I am what it refers to). To my mind, it’s not as simple as “have the right, innocent, sound, crowd supported message,” but if that’s your jam, you can bathe in it. I’ve had ridiculous students, I’ve had manipulative students. I’ve had a huge swath of brilliant, inspiring (and inspired) students that have been very visibly and vocally turned on by my enthusiasm, and what I did for them as a very invested, compassionate educator. I’m really, to be honest here, more tired of writing aimed to please a faux-critically minded literate audience than I am of jokes about students. I just don’t think you have the authority to codify what does or doesn’t make a great teacher, and the generalities about always being supportive and understanding and trusting are, frankly, BS to my eyes, when set in contrast to satire. I’m a human first, and that’s part of my teaching. But, yeah, teaching evaluations and personal testaments aside, we can compare positive responses on the internet. You win.

  36. Thank you for this piece. My grandmother died during my freshman year of college during finals week. I dropped everything so I could go see her one last time, because family comes first. I was lucky enough to have supportive professors who understood that life happens, and who allowed me to reschedule my tests until after I had returned from the funeral.

    Seeing the piece in the Chronicle was infuriating, and I’m glad that there’s such a strong backlash against it.

    • I tell my students I’m not in the business of evaluating their excuses. I have an extra quiz at the end of the semester and tell them if they miss an exam, they can insert the prorated, comprehensive exam for it. It’s their decision. I’m here to teach them to be professional and to take responsibility for their decisions. It would be unprofessional to discuss personal details with a boss just as it is for a professor. I expect them the show up and when they don’t, it’s their decision and not my issue.

  37. Love, love, love this post. I am sure I have been taken a few times, but I too would rather err on that side than to be “that person.” And to those of you who think, “none of this happened when I was in college,” yes, it did. You just didn’t hear about it because back in the day those , regardless, life is tougher for college students these days, especially as taxpayers and parents alike have abandoned them to their own financial devices. So, today the dead grandmother may also be homelessness, or even food insecurity that keeps a student from class so that other students don’t hear their stomach growling. So, be an ear, bring snacks to class, and make your goal providing the opportunity for each student to do their best work, even if it means giving an extension on an assignment. Your will curse the momentary inefficiencies, but will feel better about your job in the quieter moments.

  38. Thank you for this article! I have both fond and painful memories from my final semester in college based on treatment by my professors when I suffered a serious loss.

  39. thank you so much for this. as a neurodivergent woman of color, a survivor of multiple violences, and as someone who has always had to put out personal n community fires while holding down a job n getting a degree, this article felt like being seen for the first time. And as a doctoral student thinking about the kind of classroom I want to create, I will be returning to this article again and again. Sharing widely.

  40. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s)

  41. What’s surprising reading the comments above (which mostly seem to be from US institutions) is that it seems to be common practice for students to ask course leaders directly for extensions and that supporting evidence has to be seen. In my UK institution, we have a policy whereby if you need special consideration (extensions, or for circumstances to be taken into account when final degree classification happens), you go through the administrative office or through specially designated tutors, not the people actually teaching you. That’s in part to avoid favouritism based on subjective ‘I like this student, s/he works hard, so I’ll be lenient, but not for this one as s/he is a time-waster’. Mainly, though, it means that requests are dealt with anonymously by a small committee, who are given a summary of the particular circumstances and told whether or not evidence exists, but are never given names or gender. I was on that committee this year for my department, and some of the stuff that students were going through was horrific and all of it was dealt with, I hope, sensitively. We do ask for evidence, but we don’t see it, it is just summarised for us. I don’t know if students find it offensive to be asked for evidence, I have no way of knowing, but at least we guarantee anonymity. A lack of evidence doesn’t mean that no consideration is given, but we have a grading system for how much consideration, so if we have no evidence of impact on students’ work, we’d grade lower. A lot of the time what the evidence is about is dates – if your grandmother died the week of your finals, then that obviously has a really serious impact on exams, if she died at the beginning of the year, then there’s likely to be an impact on coursework, but less on exams. I’d echo comments above that actually it often makes very little difference to grades – it’s amazing how well some students still manage to do.

  42. You’ve made some very valid points. Student lives are rarely as simple as a grandmother who passes away during finals. I have one policy in my syllabus that states, “Any student-requested change in the semester schedule for special circumstances will be handled on an individual basis. Please see me if you cannot follow the course schedule.” If a student makes an effort to come and see me about missing a test, assignment, final, or whatever, I support them no matter how many of their grandmothers pass away. If they are willing to make an effort, I am too. If they are willing to request this of me in person, it signals to me that something is serious enough to need my support. There are those that turn everything into a battle to be won, and I feel for students who run into those type of professors.

  43. I asked for lots of extensions and had lots of support. In all honestly, I mostly an not concerned about the “truth” of the situation. I always ask student when they can hand in whatever is due – but I always tell students what the limits are to my power in the system – ie when the marks are due in the system, because then they have to deal with the academic machine – which as a non-tenured faculty, I don’t have much power to work around. I ask for documentation, only when we are talking about exam deferral in formal exam systems, because this what the machine I work in requires. That being said, I have learned from my own experience that sometimes it takes less work to do the assignment than dealing with the anxiety of getting the extension and doing the thing later…even when the reason is a series of dead grandmothers – who are real, real-ish or proxy traumas. I handed in my thesis 20 minutes before I took my mother for a blood transfusion…because the thesis wasn’t going anywhere and the situation with my mother wasn’t getting any better. My thesis wasn’t perfect, but my life has never been perfect.

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