Thursday, February 26, 2009

Excuses, Excuses....Excused: The Teacher Learns A Lesson

When I was a young faculty member, I had a comedy routine that went like this. I would cup my hand to my ear, look intent and say to a colleague, "Listen! Do you hear that?"

You would answer, "Uh -- no. What?"

Me: "That soft thumping sound!"

You, listening hard: "What do you think it is?"

Me: "The sound of grandparents hitting the ground."

I am, of course, referring to the grandparent holocaust that strikes around midterms and finals, grandparents whose sudden death causes their grandchildren to be unable to take their exams or turn in their papers. Some students have been known to lose more than one grandparent in a single semester; others seem to have more than four elderly rellies who slip in and out of comas, are sometimes miraculously healed (Praise the Lord!) or suddenly take a turn for the worse -- just when we thought that paper was going to come in.

OK, I'm being mean.

And I would have to say something strange has happened to me with age, which is not just that I'm not as mean as I used to be, but that I seem to have more students who have genuinely bad, documentably awful things happen to them and to their family members. I don't know why this is. Maybe I'm less of a cynic, having suffered my own share of bad things over the years, and I'm just noticing more. Or maybe it's just the accumulation of years. There are students managing chronic diseases, young people who have to learn more things about their bodies by the age of twenty than I have learned in over twice that time. Students whose fathers leave Mom -- in the company of their daughter's best friend from high school. Students who are descending into madness, living inside kaleidoscope brains that make reading, thinking and speaking a nightmare. Students whose parents are diagnosed with terrible invasive diseases; or students who have a parent or a sibling who has battled cancer for over a decade and announces that s/he is giving up treatment and is ready to die. Students who have a suicide in the family. Students with a loved ones in the hands of the judicial system, or with friends who have died violent deaths at the hands of other human beings. And this is not even counting casualties and stress to students and their families from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that I am sure is far more visible at institutions other than Zenith.

The predominant health issue at Zenith nowadays is nothing unusual. A vile illness is going around: a nasty, juicy cold that metamorphoses into a hacking cough and/or an ear infection. Everyone has it: job candidates, students, colleagues, administrative assistants. Walk into my office presenting those symptoms, and you can get an extension on anything -- guaranteed. Yesterday after class I was transformed into my visiting nurse persona, roaming around from student to student, urging them to go to the health center because I know three separate people -- one adult and two students -- who have been diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia in the last week. Who wants to drive a student to death's door just to make a point about getting a paper on time? Not me, buster. I can't even grade when I'm sick, much less write.

I have noticed, however, that sometimes the students who have the worst problems are the ones who never tell you what's wrong if they can help it: they are the ones who grit their teeth and soldier on, taking care of personal business without making an excuse or asking for an extension. Those are the students you have to really keep your eyes peeled for. Once, about ten years ago, I demanded that a student who had handed in absolutely no work all semester, and had evaded me with increasingly transparent lies, come to office hours to explain herself. She sat down across the desk from me as I began my stern lecture about taking responsibility, the importance of trust between teacher and student, the multiple excuses -- and then I noticed that she was trembling, tears sheeting down her cheeks as she sobbed quietly. "What's the matter?" I said. She whispered something I didn't understand. "What?" I said, now more urgently.

"I cut myself," she said, eyes squeezed shut in shame, leaking fresh rivers of tears. She pulled her cardigan off and dropped it onto the floor, revealing hundreds of fine, white, healed scars crosshatching her forearms, biceps and shoulders, fresh razor marks sketched like capillaries over the old wounds. "I thought I could stop but I can't."

Moments like this have made me a gentler person, even a person who sometimes imagines the worst when actually there is nothing more or less wrong with a student that an appointment book and a weekend without partying wouldn't fix. But it has also taught me that students who keep insisting on a family emergency that they won't explain often aren't fibbing. Often they have instead a fierce sense of privacy, are ashamed, or are witnesses to human pain that is far too awful to tell to a stranger -- such as a teacher. Once I had a first-year student who finally stopped promising to hand work in and admitted that she was flunking out because she slept twenty or so hours a day. Depression, I thought, and sent her to the office we call Behavioral Health. Over Christmas, I got a call from the Dean's office. My student had suddenly died, had gone to sleep one day and not woken up: it turned out she had been in liver failure, probably for over a year, and had had liver disease for far longer than that. Undiagnosed, untreated, liver disease -- not the freshman blues after all. I have never forgotten this.

I have a friend of over twenty years duration who is a dean, and who is simply one of the wisest people I know when it comes to thinking about the young. I am always calling her for advice even about students she isn't in charge of for this reason, and because I don't always know what it means to be my better self as a teacher. I asked her why a student, who has been faced with a particularly horrific family emergency, simply disappeared rather than drop an email to explain the multiple absences and arrange for extensions. "Don't they trust us to do the right thing in the face of something truly terrible?" I asked.

"Perhaps not," my friend said. "Or perhaps they think that if they don't tell anyone their lives can still be normal."

Or perhaps we just aren't as important in the scheme of their lives as we, perhaps unconsciously, believe we are.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Wow. Nothing else to say, except: Thank you.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this.

also, you might note that it's not just the ones who disappear or don't turn in any work that are dealing with really, really heavy shit.

i've turned in less-than-stellar papers on days when i was too depressed to function, and, yes, also cutting myself. but i didn't miss class. i am impressed by your sympathy for the kids who don't come to class and don't turn in work. but some of us are too proud or stubborn for that.

Anonymous said...

For me it was always the shame. The knowledge I had failed to keep commitments to myself, and would be unable to keep them no matter what promises were extracted from me. It took me a while, maybe longer than most, to figure out that shit happens and in the adult world you ask for what accomodations you need and then move on. I got there, it just took a while. I really appreciate your compassion for your students. It makes a nice change from RYS and such.

Fiona said...

Well said. I feel more comfortable erring on the side of compassion than trying to instill responsibility. And I prefer to allow my students the same privacy I expect for myself.

Anonymous said...

I am a severely depressed Zenith student who finally took some time off to try to heal. While I was attending Zenith last semester, I managed to complete and successfully turn very few papers in and I could not function. I slept at least 15 hours a day. Even with my visits to OBHS and my class dean, I could not bring myself to tell my professors my problems. I do not know the line between confiding and trusting a professor and telling them too much.

Before reading this entry, I thought the issue of self harm and suicide was something I could never tell my professors. I am still not sure whether I should have confided in my professors. Nonetheless, reading this post made me feel better about myself. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks TR, esp for the sensitivity regarding mental health issues, not always so thoughtfully addressed in academe.

I have frequently had cause to worry over disclosing my mental health problems to faculty (fretting not just about my performance as a grad student, but also about possible future career implications attendant on disclosing as "crazy") and as a teaching assistant have watched my own students hesitate over the decision to disclose as self-harming, schizophrenic, depressed, OCD, having a panic/anxiety disorder.

If your recognition of the difficulties in negotiating such issues (often only newly emergent or diagnosed amongst undergrad-aged students) were more widely evident in HE, perhaps less stigma, anxiety and ignorance would cling to "invisible" disabilities.

moria said...


At a critical moment, the thing I needed most was for someone to look at me and tell me I was worth salvaging; someone did; I saved myself and she mentored the saved me into a successful being.

So: word.

Terminal Degree said...

Thank you for such a beautiful, caring post.

Yes, we all need to be reminded from time to time that our students are real, complex human beings with real, complex lives. Thank you.

DCJ said...

Awesome post. Thanks.

Jennifer said...

Like everyone else, I want to thank you for this very sensitive post. I try to remind myself that my students have rich, complicated, and complex lives that take turns that I can't imagine because I only see them for about 3 hours a week.

And I suspect that the reason students don't confide more in their professors is a combination of factors--pride, shame, privacy, and simply not feeling it would be appropriate to talk about such personal matters.

Plus, what if they told us about their pain and we didn't respond? If we simply shut them down or acted in a cold manner to them?

I know I have colleagues who are well intentioned but who insist that they have no interest in their students private lives, and they make this known in subtle ways. So I imagine that students are not going to rush to confide in them. And my colleagues, I'm sure, would be compassionate if they had the student scenarios that you detail in your post. But more than likely, these students wouldn't go to them because they fear they wouldn't get the reaction that they wanted.

And perhaps, to finish this off, my own compassion comes from the fact that during my undergraduate years I suffered from a fairly severe bout of depression my senior year and the suicide of one of my closest friends my junior year. And I never disclosed details to any of my faculty members. I only explained my absence from class by saying I had to attend a funeral, but never explained what it was--which I'm sure my faculty were wondering about--I think they believed me, but no one followed up with me or asked me if I was OK (no one I remember at least) so I never felt comfortable disclosing any details with them or getting help when I needed it. I just figured it was a personal matter and I should suck it up.

Anonymous said...

Methinks this incredibly well-written post highlights the critical need for all of us in academia -- faculty, staff, students -- to understand that we are all whole people, even if we choose not reveal aspects of ourselves to others (which is certainly our right).

Students are not just walking brains striving to enhance their intellectual selves. They feel (deeply), dance and create (often amazingly), explore and consider (sometimes to their detriment, but often not), and have full complete lives outside the classroom and residence hall.

Faculty and staff are not heartless tools of the university forcing students to complete whatever their particular demand is this week. We have lives outside the university -- family, friends, hobbies, part time jobs, handling our finances, household chores, illnesses, church, volunteering, whatever. We struggle to balance with the internal and external demands of our chosen career field with our personal lives.

It is incredibly challenging to see a complete person when we only have bits and pieces exposed to us. But if we acknowledge that the person in front of us is far more complex than we can ever possibly know, then we'll probably be able to provide a more compassionate response.

Anonymous said...

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother had been battling cancer for five years, and in November she entered the hospital for what turned out to be the last time. My father started making the two-hour round trip from the hospital to my college every evening and every morning so that I could see her at night and go to my classes by day.

I had a term paper due sometime that month, in a class in my major subject, and I went to the professor to ask for an extension, because the time I was supposed to be in the library doing research and writing was time I was spending in a hospital instead. The professor started out by sternly asking me why I needed an extension, and I told him, and his whole demeanor changed, and he said, "That's a very good reason for an extension. Why don't you turn in your paper on the Monday after Thanksgiving instead." And I was grateful.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, my mother died. Her funeral was on Wednesday. And I finished my term paper by the following Monday and turned it in. I never told my professor that my mother had died, because I wanted my life to go back to normal. I'm sure I would have broken down in the telling, and I didn't want that to happen, because I thought if I gave in to my grief I might never come back out. My other professors were informed what had happened by my friends. Not one of them ever asked if I were all right, or ever alluded to my absence.

I've never commented here before, but I lurk here a lot. I'm a professor now, and I generally assume that my students are telling me the truth when they say they have a deathly ill relative. Probably some of them are taking advantage of me, but I can't help thinking about how much they're going through if they're telling me the truth. In my case it was one paper in a series of papers that I wrote throughout college and on into graduate school and now as an academic. But I only had one mother. The time was better spent with her.

Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I also want to thank you for this. Many years ago I was one of these students. I never talked with my professors because of the shame and because I knew they would either not believe me or not care. I also knew that if I tried to talk with them I would have cried the entire time, which just would have added to my shame.

I knew my studies were sliding. I felt like dirt. I didn't need anyone to remind me of this or to lecture me. I needed help. I just didn't know where to go to get it.

In the end, I picked myself up and managed to get on with things. But it was honestly one of the most horrible, lonely times in my life.

PickyHistorian said...

I teach adults, many of whom are coping with small children or teenagers as well as jobs, school, and, often, elderly parents. In one class they write about their personal and intellectual journeys thus far, and the stories I hear and read every day truly humble me.

Our classes last only eight weeks, and meet once a week for four - plus hours, so sometimes it is easy to miss the signs of someone in trouble. When they do come to me, or I spot them, I let them know that there are always options. And I ask: what do you need from me? Do you need a distraction, something to help you focus--do you need me to hold you to a modified deadline? Or do we need to scrap the plan and work out something else?

I am so damn proud of my students -- and awed. Sometimes I get frustrated at their lack of academic preparation or reading ability--but I know that I could never, ever come close to matching their drive and dedication. If I can help keep them in school and learning and responding, I will do everything I can to help.

the rebel lettriste said...

This is a necessary post. Thank you.

And gennie: what you wrote about having only one mother. Word.

What I'd also say is that the 18-24 years are difficult physiologically, in terms of mental health. That's when the big demons come out, and in full force. And it's brutal to have to deal with them on one's own, far from family.

I will confess here that 6 weeks before my dissertation defense, my partner of many years and I parted ways, and acrimoniously. It was the most difficult experience of my life. And I couldn't quite believe the sage kindness that my committee showed me, then. I would not have been able to continue, had they not been able to say, "I'm so sorry."

Flavia said...

This is a beautiful post, TR, and true to my experience as an educator, too. Often the students who suffer the most don't say anything, and aren't perceptibly failing.

I'll never forget the student I had, surely no older than I am, who came to my office late in the semester to apologize for not doing better--and then started cying silently as she talked about her husband who had left her and their four kids, and wasn't paying child support, so she'd started cleaning houses and getting paid under the table. . . but child care was a problem. She felt really, really bad that she wasn't able to spend more time on her papers.

I almost didn't know what to say to her--this person who was holding so much more together than I've ever had to, and still felt the need to apologize to me.

Anonymous said...

I just had a student tell me that she missed class last week because she has been in treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and depression, and that sometimes her panic attacks keep her from class. I tried to be as supportive and compassionate as possible, and will continue to do so this semester, with this post in mind. The image of the student revealing her self-injuries is haunting.

Bardiac said...

Timely and important. Thank you.

I've gotten to the point where I pretty much figure at least one of my students will have something horrible happen every semester. In a good semester, that means only a broken leg or something.

It's important to remember that our students have lives outside our classroom, and to try to be generous to them as they so often are to us.

Thanks for this, TR.

Anonymous said...

i agree so much with flavia.

please please don't forget that there are students with pain that is NOT obvious and that they will NOT tell you about.

AndrewMc said...

Funny. I give a talk on the first day of class that goes like this:

Please be sure to pass this syllabus out to your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Make sure that you get them to schedule doctor's appointments about a week or so before the papers and test. I ask you to do this because my assignments are deadly. I have killed more relatives in the past few years than you could believe. So, if you love your relatives, get them to the doctor before the due dates.

Don't know if it works, but it does set a tone for the class.

Anonymous said...

I've had some tough emotional issues in college (I've been dealing with depression on and off since I was 9) and I have usually felt pretty comfortable telling at least some of my professors. My advisor in particular knows everything I've gone through, and is always amazingly helpful and supportive. I think I'm just lucky though- I go to a small school with all seminar style classes, where most people form pretty close relationships with faculty. For me, learning with someone is a really personal and intimate activity, so talking about my emotional life with them just makes sense. But obviously most classrooms are not intimate in the way mine are, and I'm not sure I would be so open with someone who gave lectures, instead of someone who I talked with for a few hours each week.

Jim said...

As a school teacher and a Christian minister you moved me with the clarity and honesty of your words. I'll pray for all teachers and guardians of students to take this to heart. Muchas gracias.

Anonymous said...

I began my spiral into self-destructive behavior when I was in 10th grade. After graduating a year early from high school I attended a university where I promptly became overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts and the need to cut myself to shreds. I missed most class periods and failed half my classes. If I was your student, what would you want me to tell you? "You don't know me, I'm the kid who hasn't been to your class the last three times and won't come the next three times, but I just wanted to let you know that I'm addicted to cutting and it's all I can do to not kill myself most days. Please don't tell anyone or I'll get kicked out of the university. Oh, and please give me an 'A'."
I never trusted any of my teachers enough to tell them and honestly, I didn't see the point. I can understand that some people need help and teachers are the only way to get it, but help from my teachers would have ruined the rest of my college career. I pulled myself out of my depression after a few years and made it through. Sure, I failed classes and was put on probation, but I got through it! If I had to do it again I still wouldn't tell my teachers; they wouldn't have helped.

Anonymous said...


I sincerely appreciate this entry.

At the beginning of fall semester, I had a professor who started out, as many do, stating that an unusual number of grandparents die during midterms, and if such was the case with us in the upcoming semester, he’d like to see some proof. Then my grandmother died the weekend before our midterm. His ‘joking’ comments at the beginning of the term stayed with me. I did not tell him- in fact I told exactly one person, a friend from high school – and got through the week, and then the next week. This all wasn’t helped by my depression and cutting, both which seem to afflict many students here.

This all goes to say, I’m sure I’m one of those students a professor could never tell what is wrong. I’m the type of student who sits in the back row and looks expressionless even though I’m entirely present. So thank you for recognizing that we’re out there. So often professors seem like unreal, and thus unfeeling, people. Obviously, it’s not true, but professors are intimidating.

Zenith student

Anonymous said...

honestly, there's no way of telling how a professor might react to divulging sensitive personal information. and that makes me never want to do it. there are the ones that say they demand to see the obituary if you claim your grandma died-- and they make us feel like every professor feels the same, like we're all a bunch of conniving little shits trying to get out of taking the stupid midterm.

so, look at how you present yourself in class. if you seem to be a hardass, no one will want to come talk to you. you pretty much have to explicitly state that you're a big pushover in order for students to be willing to speak up when they actually do need help.

Jonathan Dresner said...

It's funny, I was just reading a piece by a popular instructor (the whole point of the piece is that he was in the top ten on RMP) which said that late assignments should never be accepted, that it's manifestly unfair to the rest of the class. I had a negative reaction to that -- as I often do to those kinds of strictures -- and didn't really have a clear sense of why until I read this.

Grades aren't a competition: they're an evaluation. Giving someone with an emotional disturbance or life crisis (or minor but disabling illness or car trouble or computer disasters) extra time on an assignment does not in any way detract from the grades earned by the rest of the class. It actually makes the grades more meaningful, in a way, because the grade reflects the actual abilities of the student, rather than a reality-show-style timed exercise. (Yes, I do in-class timed tests in some classes, but I also give out extensive study guides, practice exercises, and, in my experience, most of my students don't use the entire time available. It's not a pressure exercise; that's not the point.)

There's only so much I can do: I can't excuse people from work entirely, but I can structure make-up work so that it doesn't result in falling further behind; I don't grade people differently depending on their circumstances, but my syllabi tend towards more small assignments (or cumulative processes leading to large ones) so that they have multiple opportunities to learn and demonstrate the skills I'm looking for.

Our job is not to find reasons to fail students; it's to find opportunities to teach them.

Anonymous said...

GREAT post.

In graduate school, of all places, I once took an incomplete because my idea for the paper wasn't working. What I told the professor: I hadn't started in time and was behind. Why I lied: I didn't think I should take up his time explaining to him the impasse I'd come to in my argument. I did not think it was his job, although I am sure he'd have said it was.

Around the same time I got on a student's case for missing class and work. "This is the quarter system!" I thundered. "Do you not realize you cannot afford to get so far behind?" She'd been "rat-packed" by a gang of girls in Pinole, CA, on her way home and injured pretty severely. She didn't want to admit it because it was a very working class thing to have happen and we weren't at a working class school.

Since that term I've always tried to draw out students who said they were "behind" ... are they, or do they just need to talk their ideas out? and I've taken some pretty outlandish tales at face value. Students willing to evaluate me to my face say I'm too nice. Yet I know of at least one case where I didn't cut slack and what was really happening to the student was that she was being assaulted by her boyfriend, and I suspect there have been two more such.

Upthread human makes an important point about shame, specifically shame about not being able to keep commitments to oneself. It wasn't until much later in life that I acquired this problem, but it's one I know intimately, and it's debilitating for people who catch the malaise.

I do agree that there are more calamities now than when I was in college. People had problems then, too, but not like now. I used to think it was just the nature of life where I work, but apparently not.

JD, for practical reasons I don't like to take late papers and give make up exams, etc. - there are too many people with too many different problems. But there are lots of ways to build in flexibility, agreed - and it's worth it. I learned this in graduate school too, in another class where I bombed the first midterm due to some sort of distress. What the prof. did: (a) give a passing grade anyway - he could tell I was actually not incompetent, I'd started out strong; (b) count the grades I got on later projects more heavily than the syllabus said they did. What this elicited from me was more and better work not the opposite. That right there was instructive, too.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Gosh I'm long winded.

What is hard for me is the people who have unsurmountable problems and really need to drop out, but can't because of financial aid / rent / kids. They have to finish the semester even if it means flunking out and being barred from coming back. Sometimes it's true because they haven't been paid yet in their job, and sometimes it's just more convenient, and they're hoping that by revealing the strategy they'll get sympathy and maybe a grade. It is *very* hard to tell.


Anonymous: "I can understand that some people need help and teachers are the only way to get it, but help from my teachers would have ruined the rest of my college career." Are you sure? One thing I've done that I do not know whether is good or bad was call the dean of students about someone I became convinced was dying of anorexia. It turned out I was the third person who had called and this meant they could intervene; she was hospitalized and supposedly her life was saved; she then graduated.

I never knew whether I was being too intrusive or not or whether the therapy she got at the time was helpful or not ... this was ages ago and I've since learned that treatment for anorexics could be worse than the disease back then.

Anonymous said...

Days later I am still thinking about this.

For me when I've had trouble, and for a lot of students I've had who've had trouble, I think another issue is not realizing how bad the situation is or not realizing you can get out of it.

I.E.: you should be able to take care of your alcoholic parent and also make a 4.0 on a full load, while working, and you should do this and also have pleasant friendships. If that is not possible, you must relinquish some of these things, but you don't know you have the option of not taking care of the alcoholic parent. See what I mean? So people don't ask for help because they aren't yet able to articulate the problem.

Also, some other people who could articulate it won't do so because they do not want to solve it / are not ready for the solution.

Anonymous said...

This is very very interesting. I am a new academic and have been struggling to find a way to deal with the huge range of excuses for late work/poor work/requests for extensions. I have been on the "soft" (understanding?)side, giving extensions when students have requested them, but the hassles with marking certainly became a big pain, but the thing that annoyed me the most was the students who were quite obviously making up stories. Not quite multiple dead grandmas, but close. It is obvious that they are just disorganised and of course getting an extension on this basis transfers extra workload onto me as I have to fit late marking in around all the other things that need marking, the extra administrative hassles, and chasing work from these students. I want to be understanding and flexible (and I have been - my students tell me so) but I also want to encourage students to be organised and responsible and reduce the hassles from the real slackers. The slack students do detract from the real needs of students who are genuinely having a hard time. I struggled with depression and a very nasty marriage break up during my masters and apart from one short break, soldiered on and got through it. I am conscious of the fact that I may be demanding from my students the same "well i managed, so can you" attitude which I dont want to do - it is obviously unfair as people deal with difficult issues in different ways. A colleague suggested a blanket one week extension for everyone and then a strict "medical certificate" policy after that. So I don't know. its difficult. The learning is paramount of course. So what is the best way to help students learn?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes institutions don't make this any easier. One place I taught had a policy that extensions could only be granted by a senior member of faculty, so as to take the flak off the TAs. Good so far. And also, that if the extension was for a funeral, they needed to see the death certificate. Harsh but I can understand why even if I wouldn't want to do that myself.

But, the reporting kept breaking down. So one student had a close relative die and duly sent in e-mail, then came in with a death certificate next week which was accepted. But at no point did this get back to me, so I then got onto his back the next week because he hadn't handed anything in and of course he nearly broke down at me and was very angry that his best attempts to do it right were still landing him in the crap. This was only the worst of several such failings, and I upset far more students than I would have wanted to.

So on the whole I now favour leaving the teacher with the initiative here even if it means he or she has to do more bullshit-filtering. Those procedures really did hurt the teacher-pupil relationship, which I think should always start from the premise, "we both want you to learn enough to get this degree", not "we both know you want the degree without the work". That assumption is kind of reified by the grandparent-killing jokes, I think, and I wouldn't make them for that reason.