Monday, October 29, 2012

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #2

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #2:
How Many Dead Grandmothers This Semester ...?

The infamous "dead grandmother" as an excuse for a missed quiz, test, paper, or project has become a bit of a joke among professors.  Every semester, before (almost) every test in large lecture courses, somebody's grandparent dies. Sometimes it's a close friend, aunt or uncle ... but usually it's a grandparent, and more often than not, a grandmother.

Deaths in the extended family are a popular excuse when one forgot the test or just didn't bother to study, because 1) they're harder to verify, and 2) a death in the family will net the sympathy card.

Except it doesn't.  It's been overused to the point professors are automatically skeptical.

That's something students need to be aware of.  It's such a staple excuse, if your professor seems surprisingly cool ... that's why.  You may be the fifth student that semester to lose a grandmother right before an exam.  To be honest, most students trying to come up with excuses just aren't that clever and/or don't seem to realize their "brilliant idea" isn't brilliant (or original).

But what if -- in your case -- it IS real?  What if that grandmother raised you, or you were especially close to him/her?  When my maternal grandmother died, my brother went AWOL (briefly) from the navy to come home to Illinois for the funeral.  Fortunately, our uncle (a navy vet) got him back to base before it was discovered.  And my own son is quite close to my father.  Even if he knows Grandpa can't live forever (he's 88 now), it will still be very hard on my son when he has to stand there and watch his grandfather's casket lowered into the ground.

For many younger people, the loss of a grandparent is the first significant loss in their lives.  In cases where a student really didn't know the grandparent that well, his or her mother or father may be distraught and that, in turn, upsets the student.  Or at the very least, the now-adult (if young adult) child may be needed at home to help get the necessary tasks done, which other family members may be too upset to handle.

Yet when the student informs his/her professor of this personal tragedy, the professor (cold-heartedly) demands proof or documentation on top of everything else!

Unfortunately, we have to.  Too many students have misused that excuse to the point it makes us instantly dubious ... fairly or not.  It isn't that we don't care if you really DID lose your grandmother (or grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, best-friend from grade school).  As someone who used to work in ER, ICU, oncology and cardiology, I understand that the closest ties in our lives aren't always to the standard "immediate family," and the death, at only 36, of the cousin who was like a sister, after two bouts with ovarian cancer (love and remember you still, Bren), can hurt just as much as the death of a "real" sister.

But some students don't respect the sanctity of anything.  They'll lie through their teeth and cry great big crocodile tears in my office ... only to come up empty handed when asked for documentation.  This makes me really, REALLY angry ... not just at the lie, but because it makes me doubt students who may truly be hurting, and don't need unsympathetic professors on top of everything else.

Your professors do want to care about you, and your struggles, even those outside the classroom.

So a word to the wise student ....

1) Do what one of my students just did ... send your professor an email if a grandparent (or other) is in especially ill-health, or if there's a new diagnosis.  My student emailed to alert me that her grandmother had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and wasn't expected to last to the end of the year.  She wasn't asking for time off right now, and might not need any ... but she could.  She just wanted to let me know the situation.

This helps me, as a professor, enormously.  Admittedly, it also helps that she's heretofore been a very good student with excellent attendance, inclining me to take her email seriously.  Students with spotty or bad attendance who send such a letter will still be regarded with more doubt, but it's preferable to not letting a professor know at all.

I wrote back to tell her I was very sorry, and to keep me informed -- which lets me express genuine sorrow.  It also lets me know to keep an eye on her grades, as -- if she's worried about her grandmother (and/or her parents), that could (and probably will) affect her grade.  If she starts to show a decline, I can pull her aside and see if I can help.  And, of course, if the worst-case scenario happens, I know ahead of time.  She'll still have to bring documentation, but she won't get any skepticism from me in finding a time for her to make up her exam.

Honestly, this is how professors would rather react to a student dealing with a crisis outside of school.  Because people DO die, and bereavement is a process.  Students may think their professors are "too busy" to hear about family matters or, for other reasons, are embarrassed to share them.  And yes, there are professors who honestly just don't care.  But a lot of us DO.

Please keep us informed.

This goes for more than just illnesses in the family, by the way ... if a student is going through a divorce, or the break-up of a long-term relationship, if a student's wife or sister is pregnant and experiencing complications, if a student has a family member in trouble with the law, if a student just lost his/her job, if a student is fighting with parents, if a student is struggling with depression or other illness ...  let professors know.  Some of those may feel embarrassing or shaming, and students may not want to admit to them, but we really need to know.  We can be a lot more sympathetic.

2) If the death is sudden -- and sometimes there isn't much warning -- do try to remember to inform your professor immediately.  The more specific a student is, the more authentic it will sound:

Dear Professor ____,

My mother's mother, ____ ____ (give the name), died yesterday evening of [pneumonia with complications ... or whatever].  I need to drive/fly to ______ for the funeral and to help my [parents/whoever] make arrangements.  The funeral is scheduled for/I believe the funeral will be scheduled for ____, and I expect to be back in town by _____.  I'll bring documentation and contact you as soon as I can to schedule a make-up.

Thank you,
Class # and hour

One may not know (yet) all those details, but the more specific, the more likely a professor is to believe the noteALWAYS promise to provide documentation.  For funerals/deaths in the family, there's usually a funeral-home-printed memorium or church program and/or plane tickets ... although be sure to ask, if the professor hasn't specified in the syllabus.  Yes, this may seem like just ONE MORE THING to worry about, but it's important, and will make life much smoother upon returning home to resume one's regular schedule.

3) In rare cases, a death even in the extended family can result in so much chaos in a student's life, or such an extended absence in order to deal with the fall-out, that it becomes the better part of valor to consider withdrawing for that semester.  This may depend somewhat on WHEN in the semester it happens.  If nearer the beginning, a withdrawal is a good idea.  If it happens right at the end, and most of a student's coursework is complete, then it may be possible to request an incomplete for the semester, and make up the final bit the next semester.

I've spoken to students who fear their professors will be angry, upset, or insulted if they have to withdraw for "personal" reasons.  I can't promise none will be; I've met a few jerks in academia.  But most professors have lives (and families) outside the university themselves, and understand perfectly well that, well, "Shit happens."  I've had students come to me, apologetic for needing to withdraw, but they go with my blessing.  Really ... take care of your family.  There is NOTHING more important in life than the people near and dear to you -- no, not even your degree.

As noted above, I used to work in hospitals before going into academia, and I spent some time counseling not just for ER and ICU, but also for oncology and cardiology.  I have seen -- far more than I wished -- that child, sibling, friend, other who decided his/her job/meeting/class/what-have-you was Too Important To Miss [tm].  He (or she, but frankly, it was usually "he") arrived at the hospital TOO LATE.  His/her parent/sibling/friend was already dead.  No good-byes.  And it stopped that person in his/her tracks.  PEOPLE are the most important "things" in our lives.  School is important, to be sure.  Sometimes I wish especially younger students took it a little more seriously.  But people are more important than school.  Or work.  Or that promotion.  Or playing in the Big Game.  Or whatever.

Take care of your family.  Even if that means withdrawing for a semester -- take care of your family.  School will still be there when you get done.  And most of your professors will not hold it against you, if you must withdraw.  In fact, I've had students do so, then sign up for the same class with me later.  I'm happy to have them back when they're ready and able to concentrate -- not be distracted and at their wits' end.

But my main advice is ... Keep your professors apprised of what's going on in your personal life, especially if it's potentially disruptive.  Regard them the same way you might a boss.  Honestly, we don't want to be skeptical and heartless.  But too many students trying for sympathy when they're simply lazy have made us so.

Help us trust that your crisis is the Real Deal.