Friday, April 28, 2006

On Not Crying in Front of a Student

Today my writing students turn in their formal papers. It is the last day of the regular semester, and since we don't have a final, this is the last day Usually this is a happy day, in which we don't have class and they come to my office to drop their papers off - exhausted and relieved to be done with my rigorous course - and we all say "have a great summer!" and "I hope I see you around next year!" and things like that.

A student just came in, paper completed. He had multiple deaths in his family this week. He has spent this week attending funerals. He told me this by way of apologizing for his work, and for not being in class. (And to think that I was pissed off that he didn't show up for peer review. God, I'm an asshole.) He seems like he hasn't slept. He seemed like he was on the verge of tears. But he finished his paper. And he turned it in on time.

And I was on the verge of tears, as I am whenever this sort of thing happens with a student. There was nothing I could say - no way that I, his writing teacher who doesn't ultimately know him in a real way, could comfort him. And there was no way that I could communicate to him adequately how impressed I was that he got the paper done at all. Will he do well on the paper? Probably not. But because he got it done he will not fail the course. And that won't be a gift that I give him because of a sob story: it will be something that he earned.

Do you ever notice how students who have real tragedy, real obstacles to doing the work of a course, always seem to pull it together and to get it done? I've had a student diagnosed with leukemia; I've had a student find out that she was pregnant, have the grandmother who raised her pass away, and the next week have the father of her child be murdered (yes, all the same student; yes, in my first semester on this job; yes, this was another time where I had to stop myself from crying in front of the student; yes, she passed my course); I've had students with ill family members (cancer, CF, etc.); I've had students with deaths in the family; I've had students with as many as 11 children. These students don't look for me to cut them breaks on deadlines or on required work. They apologize because they're not doing their best work. They kill themselves to turn everything in.

I wish that I could tell those students who ask for extensions because they have a final they want to study for or because they broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend these stories in a way that would get through to them. I wish that I could explain to them that I'm "mean" about these things not because I'm heartless but because it's not fair to those students who manage - in spite of much greater obstacles - to do the work.

So these are my thoughts on my last day of the regular semester.


Shaun Huston said...

I can't think of a year since I began full time at my current university when I haven't had at least one student who found themselves confronting something dire and tragic, but who nonetheless strived to finish a course. Like you, it makes me feel less than charitable towards students who ask for extensions, etc. because they are simply incapable (or unwilling even) to manage their daily lives. However, awhile ago I decided to liberalize my policies about extensions and make ups. In part this is selfish. I prefer to give students, especially those that are less than committed to my classes, every opportunity to finish and move on. In many cases, if I don't do this, I'll just end up having to deal with them again. I'm also uncomfortable with having to adjudicate between different reasons for needing extra time or consideration. You're right that many students who are experiencing real tragedy often bend over backwards to get the work done, but even they will need an extra day or two to do it (or maybe my policies simply invite those requests). Is the death of a child or having to start chemo more serious and debilitating than a mid-term in another class or a fight with your best friend? Unquestionably, but at some point I decided that I cared more about students staying in communication with me than I did why they might need or want an extension, etc. So, regardless of reason, I mainly require that students contact me within a week of when an assignment is due to discuss the possibilty of extra time. As long as they can manage that, I'm willing to work something out. There are times when I want to draw a line, in part because of the kinds of students mentioned in your original entry, and I'm waiting for the day when a student really abuses my policy, but for now this seems to work for me.

Dr. Crazy said...

My policy on extensions is that I'll only grant them in the most serious of cases (which I leave undefined) and is entirely up to my discretion (letting them no that I may well say no), but in terms of accepting papers after the deadline I have become looser about that. If I accept a paper late, it gets docked 10 points per calendar day it is late (and a paper counts as being turned in on time as long as I get it by 4:30 on the day that it's due - I'm not a stickler about getting papers at the start of class or whatever). This seems to work for those students who just don't have time to get it done by the deadline but who don't have some major reason why they aren't able to get it done. I understand your not wanting to weigh one excuse over another, and my policies actually tend in the "I don't need to hear your reasons," direction, but at the same time, when it comes to an extension without penalty, for me it's got to be a damned good reason. Otherwise? Yeah, I'm docking you a letter grade per day it's late.

jo(e) said...

Last semester one of my first year students lost his father unexpectedly. He handed his paper in TWO DAYS EARLY so that he could would not have to worry about it while he was out of town at the funeral. And it was an A paper, just like all the other papers he had handed in.

On the other hand, I had three students who failed the course because they never did get their final papers in because they got caught up in the party scene.

Laura said...

My sister died and my parents got divorced when I was a junior in college. When my parents separated, I missed a class and didn't turn in a paper. I couldn't even get out of bed. I had planned to finish the paper (which I had nearly finished when my father called to tell me) over the weekend. My professor called me midmorning on Saturday and asked what was going on. I told him I'd see him in his office on Monday with the paper in hand. I did and broke down in his office. How embarrassing!

When my sister died just a few months later, that same professor sent me a card, flowers, and gave me a call even though I wasn't in any of his classes. I was offered extensions and all kinds of "relief" from my school work, but I didn't take any of it. I just did it. It seemed somehow wrong and like it would dishonor my sister to do that.

I've had students in even worse situations. Many of them get their work done, but I've also had a few who've just disappeared and I always wonder about them. Like the one who had to dig bodies out of the Pentagon after 9/11. I got a note that he'd been institutionalized. I don't know how to convey to students that their minor conflicts and discomfort are nothing compared to what most people go through at some point. It's likely they will too and maybe until they do, they won't learn.

hot mess said...


"I don't know how to convey to students that their minor conflicts and discomfort are nothing compared to what most people go through at some point."

I think about that a lot. I'm clinically depressed, and that affects my performance, but I already know that it could be worse. Somehow that doesn't help.

Scrivener said...

[nods head.] yep.

StyleyGeek said...

Good points in this post.

I have a student this semester who has handed in high quality work (A- on most things, sometimes an A) and got everything done on time. I recently found out (because she called to tell me she would have to miss a class) that her mother is dying of cancer and has only a few more weeks left. The student has known about this ever since the first week of class and hasn't asked for any special consideration.

And then I get a student who didn't hand in a paper (AT ALL) because his room-mate had a loud party the night before it was due. And seriously asked me whether I could give him an extra credit assignment so that he won't fail the course.

I would SO like to introduce these two students to each other and hope that something from each of them rubs off on the other one.

And Kitchen, I think clinical depression puts you in the category of students who have a legitimate excuse and who we sympathise with; NOT in the category whose heads we want to bang together and who need to understand that other people have "real" problems. Yours is a real problem, not a minor conflict or discomfort.

Weezy said...

Okay, so i'm jumping on this conversation a litle late, but this post really hit home. Yesterday I had a student fake a family member's death (he overslept for the final.) I was appalled, mortified, and must admit-- made HIM cry when the ruse was uncovered.

In the same class I had a student whose child died suddenly who was there the day after the funeral.

I turned this into a story for my other four sections along the lines of-- don't blame the faculty for being jaded.

W. Shore said...

I don't think it's true that there was nothing you could say that would comfort him. I think it's always comforting to hear genuine empathy, if you can muster it. (It's hard. I'm bad at it.) But to say, "I know how it feels to lose someone; I know how terrible you must feel; I'm really proud of you for doing this work" is really meaningful. It may not seem like it's true that you know how he feels, and you shouldn't lie, but it may be truer than you think.