Friday, January 11, 2013

What do you do when they cry?

I have noticed of late that the threshold for dissolving into tears has fallen dramatically.

I've had students come to my office hours to quibble over 1 point on a homework grade. I don't respond to grade-grubbing emails, so the truly focused ones have started stalking my open door in order to earn a few more points.

Medical Mary was an adult student who had dropped out of school to overcome cancer. Her resolution upon beating cancer and returning to school was to get 100% on everything. She was in her second term when she got to me, claiming that so far she had been successful on her 100% goal. That seems suspicious to me, but she does have As on her card (we have A- and B+ at our school, but no A+).


Anyway, when she was averaging a 94%A with me, she flipped out. She came to my office hours, told me the whole story. I told her this was very good and her complaints exceedingly minor. She asked me to revise her 9/10 into a 10/10 for a homework. I declined; she hadn't gotten the answer totally right, so I wasn't going to give her a perfect score. Besides, her nonsense 6/10 homework grade was much more egregious -- shouldn't we talk about that??

She got really quiet. And then she began to cry. I sympathized. She grew into hysterics.

What is it with these people?

Listen, I've cried in front of a professor before. There was the time in grad school when, at the end of my second year, with 65 pages already written, my adviser told me that my master's thesis subject had hit a wall and I needed to start over. I was so surprised and overwhelmed, I choked back the gut reaction of tears. He was very good about it and let me collect myself before we explored new options.

But a point? Trying to achieve an impossible goal of 100% on all college works? And trying to do so by challenging the worthiness of the text, the design of the class, my personal emotional state for not giving in to her crying?

Medical Mary is one of perhaps 10 students who have cried in front of me in the last year, young and old, boys and girls. Over missing class and not being allowed to copy my lecture notes, or about sleeping through an exam, or about attendance grades, homework grades, online requirements, final calculations, whatever.

What are you supposed to do? Because what I want to do is to dock them more points under the entry of "Emotional Maturity -- not mature enough to handle college." How do you handle your crying snowflakes?


34 comments:

  1. I paraphrase Michael Palin, saying:

    "I hate to see a grown person cry. So shove off, out of the office with you then!"

    More seriously: now we see where helicopter parenting gets you. It's not just that our students read, write, and think like such young children: they act like them, too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I hate to see a grown person cry. So shove off, out of the office with you then!"

      YES!

      Or start singing "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians.

      Delete
  2. Medical Mary is probably relying on a bit of magical thinking--if she gets a hundred on everything THEN HER CANCER WILL GO AWAY FOREVER BECAUSE CANCER CANNOT LIVE IN THE BODY OF A WOMAN THAT GETS ALL HUNDREDS. I understand the mindset. I have this belief that if I pack my purse properly for a trip, with everything I could need, that nothing will ever go wrong. Kind of like bringing an umbrella to make sure it doesn't rain. I don't think you should give her what she asks for, but I feel her pain.

    For the others, that's why God made kleenex. Sit there, wordlessly, and offer one. Do not in any way offer to change anything. That's how they got mommy and daddy to change their minds, but you're not mommy and daddy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I provide Kleenex.

    While I may not have experience their particular hardship, I have experienced hardship. Substantial hardship. I am truly sympathetic. But it doesn't change course requirements.

    If they truly fall apart, you might suggest they take a walk and collect themselves, and come see you at a later time.

    I emphasize the fact that a grade is earned, not given.

    Your student, having survived cancer, has made an admirable, but not realistic, resolution. 94% isn't bad. 94% is an A. And it's just the beginning of the semester (unless of course you are on a quarter system).

    Buy pretty box of Kleenex. If your student gets hysterical, you might direct her to the counseling center. I did this just yesterday for one of my students who is experiencing difficulties. There is no shame in talking about one's concerns and learning to develop coping strategies.

    Good luck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My supervisor said to me once "I have kleenex, but I keep it in a drawer. If they see it on the desk, they read it as permission to cry".

      Delete
  4. I had a waterworks incident with a student who wrote a rubbish lab report. When she wasn't satisfied with her mark, I offered that we meet in my office and we go through it. I thought I'd give her an opportunity to explain what she did as, possibly, I overlooked or misunderstood something.

    It didn't take long before the tears flowed and she stormed out of my office. I was left sitting at my desk wondering what had just happened. A few days later, our paths crossed again and she asked if she could do it over. Reluctantly, I agreed as I figured I'd get into trouble with my superiors if I stood my ground. I suspected that she had discussed the matter with either my department head or his assistant, which would explain her request.

    Did she submit a revised lab report? Of course not. Did she manage to graduate? You betcha. Yet people wondered why I was less than enthusiastic about my teaching job.

    ReplyDelete
  5. When a student begins to cry, I try to help the student put his or her situation in historical perspective?

    "Do you know who cried? Hitler."

    That usually makes them forget about whatever they were crying about initially.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This sounds like an effective tactic (surprise works with tantruming toddlers, too), but might most safely be employed by those with tenure.

      Delete
    2. You tell toddlrers that they are like Hitler? Damn, now that's hardcore.

      Delete
  6. I've had a few waterworks over the past semester or so, usually from busted plagiarists.

    In a few cases, it was clear to me that their offenses resulted more from ignorance and a lack of familiarity with scholarly standards ("You mean I can't just copy from the textbook?") than from any desire to cheat or any intention to deceive.

    In such cases, I sort of feel sorry for them, but also make very clear that the tears aren't going to change my ruling on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had a busted plagiarist cry last spring. She had been frantically copying from the pile of turned-in homework at the front of the classroom. Normally I take suspects out of the classroom for a quiet talk, but in this case I just burst out incredulously, "Are you copying the answers?" She looked up, perplexed. ("Of course I am, so?") I told her that was plagiarism and that she'd get a zero on the assignment, was dismissed from the day's class, and would get the other penalties listed in the syllabus. She was devastated, and I believe she really hadn't thought she was doing anything wrong. She'd already demonstrated hardly any reading comprehension or attention to details.

      When she came to office hours later and cried again, I listened, offered tissues, looked into her eyes, and softly, kindly, started with, "Let's go over the cheating policy you signed the first day."

      Delete
  7. "And then she began to cry. I sympathized."

    There's your first mistake! Sympathy just demonstrates that you're receptive to even more tears.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed, probably. The thing is, I had gone through a similar medical trauma myself, so I thought hearing that we had this in common would help.

      It did not.

      Delete
  8. I haven't had tears in my office for a while. I wonder what I'm doing right (or wrong)? Perhaps I need to be stricter? I do get occasional anger, which is probably the flip side of the same coin. I probably should buy a box of kleenex, just in case. On the other hand, I usually have stray takeout napkins floating around. Those might serve just as well, while also sending the message that I don't *expect* people to cry in my office.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm, hadn't thought that the tissue box might signal that I expect people to cry in my office. I mainly have it so I can blow my nose and so they can, too; and then I offer them my 5-gallon dispenser of hand sanitizer before they touch anything.

      Delete
    2. I carry my own handkerchief for nose-blowing (and, I guess, expect my students to do the same if they have the need; I hadn't really thought about it).

      Delete
    3. I think the stray takeout napkin sends the ideal message. Maybe a roll of toilet paper would work too.

      Delete
  9. I had one last spring, who came in with a draft of a paper (due the next day) that I looked at and said, you need to fix this. Not, you need to start over from scratch, but you need to fix this. She dissolved into tears and said But I worked so hard! I handed her a box of tissues and said You should have come to me with this a week ago. She said I wrote it last night. I raised my eyebrow. She left not long after that.

    ReplyDelete
  10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ula8oi_M4Ww

    ReplyDelete
  11. How in the eff does having cancer make any of your resolutions more attainable? I got hit by a car so then I resolved to flap my arms and fly everywhere.

    I'd tell her to grow da faque up and learn that believe it or not, sometimes you'll fail regardless of how hard you try or how badly you want something. I'd phrase it nicer and probably make her cry more, but she'll get it eventually.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some of the subcultures associated with cancer have gotten very, very weird -- lots of mind over matter stuff that comes very close to blaming anyone who doesn't recover for hir illness/death. This kind of thinking is probably bolstered by early detection of relatively curable cancers; there are more survivors out there these days, because more people learn of their cancer earlier, and/or learn of cancers that they might, in an earlier era, simply have lived with.

      None of which is to denigrate the value of whatever works for many people facing a scary, and sometimes deadly, disease, but there's beginning to be an interesting counter-literature written by people who feel bullied into accepting an approach that doesn't, in fact, work for them. As Stella points out, Mary seems to be an extreme example of the sort of magical thinking that some subparts of the "cancer community" encourage.

      Delete
  12. I get tears in my office, but I think it's usually because they're already on the verge of tears. Depending on the level of crying, I either offer a tissue or offer to call the Counseling Center. Sometimes I call the Counseling Center just to show the student that their responses is way out of proportion to the situation. We usually establish that something else is going on (except for in one case where she continued to cry all quarter about everything).

    ReplyDelete
  13. I do what I see others here also do, and it works very well for me. I actually usually do feel bad for them when they cry. I cannot help feeling a little empathy when someone is in real emotional distress. I milk that in myself, and sit quietly, holding out kleenex, with what I hope is an empathetic affect, and wait for the crying to end.

    That is it.

    I am not always empathetic only because I don't always buy into the tears. Also, if a student has made my life a misery, I have trouble feeling sorry for them. But I do think it is good policy to try to feel bad for a crier. Your empathy, or lack thereof, shows, and sets the tone for the rest of the interaction.

    ReplyDelete
  14. In a recent semester, I had a crier who was obviously faking it. I laughed. She was indignant but thankfully never reported me. I am meta-guilty about it (i.e., I feel bad for not feeling bad about doing it), but then I am an admittedly bad person. Though I have sent some clearly troubled to Counseling, so I must not be a complete jerk.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I keep a box of Kleenex. I assume that criers are embarrassed by their weakness, and I nudge the box to them and tactfully look away until they've recovered themselves.

    Of course this also works very well on the ones who were hoping I'd respond by caving, since they stop when they realise it isn't working.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Perhaps an appropriate link?

    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/01/08/are-raising-generation-deluded-narcissists/

    (not that I'm a fox news fan; it just popped up on my googe news feed)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I've had students try to fake tears when confronted with class policies. The face scrootches up -- and then nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  18. It must be nice to actually have an office with a desk on which to keep a box of Kleenex.

    I have to meet with students in a public venue, often in the classroom or hallway, where they openly scream at me and weep or whatever in front of everyone.

    And nobody does a damn thing but skedaddle so they don't have to get involved.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It sucks they don't have an adjunct office for you. All the places I was part time had them----but that was a long time ago. If you carry a bag, it might not be a bad idea to keep a small box of tissues available in it. I can see logistically it would be hard to get to them in the hallway, but it might be worth it.

      Nothing says "crying is not really going to help you here" in a compassionate way like silence and tissues.

      Delete
  19. I've had students break down in tears during office hours, but rarely. They seem as embarrassed as I am uncomfortable when it happens, so I just wait patiently and silently until they get themselves together. Then say some words of encouragement, to the effect that they can still recover, do better on the next test or the final, or when they retake the course. And that's the end of it; crying by itself won't keep me from doing what I think is right, and they know it.

    On the other hand, open displays of sarcasm or intransigence in the face of a nervous breakdown are counterproductive, and in the USA downright dangerous. You don't want to have to walk into class with a can of pepper spray, do you?

    ReplyDelete
  20. I understand where you all are coming from but I have to say- shame on all of you, and shame on our society for not making mental and emotional health a larger priority. I agree, crying in order to cover up or excuse plagiarism is awful, but completely dismissing the potential psychological issues of these kids is sadistic and irresponsible. The fact that some of you get pleasure from seeing these kids cry and sending them off without help is truly horrifying and I hope you seek therapeutic help for your sadistic tendencies. I write not as a professor but as a past undergraduate. I know dealing with 18-22 year olds is annoying, but you must understand that some of these young adults are experiencing real, traumatic struggles in addition to their college curriculum. When I was 20 years old (in the first semester of my junior year of college), my best friend and at the time boy friend committed suicide by shooting himself in the face with a shot gun. You may or may not know what that looks like, perhaps you know what it feels like to lose the person closest to you, but most people know what it is like to lose something. At the very young age of 20, this experience threw my entire life out of balance. I tried very hard to complete my junior year of college, but it was overwhelming and I just couldn't... and I came to this realization in one of my professor's offices, brought to tears. In her office I realized that I needed to get professional help in order to lift me out of the dark, dark spot I was in. If she had not been receptive of and understanding of my tears I may not have been able to make the positive strides that I have in the past few years. I urge you all to not diminish or cast off the tears of an undergrad, but to open yourselves to the possibility of their real suffering. It may be more real and horrible than you yourself have experienced, and even if it hasn't, you can likely remember just how terrifying and uncertain it was.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Emily. Comments on old posts always get caught in our filter. Also, posts rarely get read after a day or two, so unfortunately I think I might be the only person to see this. Just wanted to let you know. Best wishes.

      CM Moderator
      Leslie K

      Delete
  21. Maybe make that two readers.

    I am sorry for your loss, Emily. Through other lenses, I see that folks around here are genuinely good people who would have found no joy in your pain.

    ReplyDelete