Sunday, August 30, 2015

Cynicism or reasonable doubt?

I wonder if anyone can help me get a better perspective on a situation that has arisen in my department?

We have a female student who struggled in first year, failing a few modules (gender matters for this story).  Our system allows such students the chance to resit over the summer so they can continue to progress with the rest of their cohort, assuming that they meet certain requirements (they have to have failed by 'honest effort', which means attended classes, handed in work etc. - if they were absent above a certain threshold and/or didn't submit major pieces of work, we expect them to retake the module in their own best interests).  When Stuette attended for her resit exam, it was very obvious that she was quite heavily pregnant, so (after some traditional shuffling and mumbling) someone sat down with her and asked what her plans were.

Stuette, it turns out, thinks a baby will have no effect on her life (this is her first, and she's not yet 20), and has researched her 'rights' according to the university.  The baby is due the first week of the semester.  Stuette states that she will be back as a full-time student attending all classes, laboratory work and field work from week 5 of the semester.  The university states that we must therefore redo all risk assessments to specifically cover the inclusion of a recently post-partum female AND a very young baby, which means everything from weights lifted to chemicals involved to walking distances to breast-feeding and changing facilities (Stuette has signed up for modules which involve multi-day trips to remote nature sites, where the day-time toilet facilities MIGHT include a primitive wooden spider-infested long-drop or a urine-impregnated concrete monstrosity, but often consist of a few rocks or shrubs).  Where the needs of Stuette cannot be met on the original, the university requires that we develop alternative but equivalent activities (perfectly possible, with sufficient notice, but as a certain number of field and laboratory days are required for accreditation in Stuette's programme, pricey in staff time and sometimes resources too).

I wish Stuette all the best, hoping for an easy on-schedule birth, an easy baby, a rapid recovery and cast-iron child-minding arrangements (which we are not allowed to ask her about and which she will not tell us about, which kinda sends up a red flag to me, but maybe I am being unreasonable?) for her.  Perhaps I am showing my own ignorance, as a childless older female who really Needs Her Sleep living in a legislative system which considers up to a year of parental leave to be appropriate to allow new mothers time to recover and adjust. 

But... Stuette is a weak student who did not give us long enough notice to actually make arrangements (according to the stated due date she was 33-34 weeks pregnant when someone asked her what was up, so well past any reasonable time to begin planning, one would think).  We have a 12 week semester, so she will return in week 5 with four weeks of work to make up on top of a full load in classes with relatively high hours (in the UK contact hours vary according to the subject, and science subjects with field and lab classes have the highest hours on the whole).  I therefore anticipate that appropriate accomodations will also include extensions on course-work, at the least, if not deferral of assessment into the SECOND semester, which just puts more pressure on what is widely agreed by staff and students to be the hardest semester of the degree in Stuette's programme.  Effectively, staff are going to be expected to act as private tutors to get her up to speed on those missing four weeks (university guidelines explicitly state that individual tuition is a reasonable accomodation request for such circumstances).  NO there is no money for a TA to help, or anything like that.

I'm really not convinced that this is in the student's best interests.  Or in the interests of the other 50 students in her programme or 175 students in her overall cohort within the department.  And naturally as a member of staff currently redoing risk assessments and attempting to work out how the HECK I can shoehorn in replacements for the field and lab classes in the first four weeks of the semester into the later weeks in a way that gives Stuette a chance of actually being able to successfully take part in the rest of the module without messing up her group's work or putting unmanageable extra pressures on me and my delicately balanced marking schedule, I may be somewhat biased.

Any comments or opinions, Miserians?  Or just some sympathy would be nice right now...


  1. That is a tough situation, and a bit of a rock/hard place for you, clearly.

    If you don't do the work necessary to accomodate the student, you're going to have to do the work to justify/excuse not accomodating the student. That could well be more work, and damaging to you, other instructors, or the program in the long run. If you accomodate her and she nonetheless fails, you are reasonably blameless, though you should carefully document what you do by way of accomodation because it will likely end up being a question.

    Perhaps the best way to look at this situation is as an opportunity to seriously consider whether the program is really accessible, and what would need to be done even for a solid student in similar circumstances that should be standing policy/procedure.

  2. Be "fairer than fair," like Harold Washington. As he said, "No one, but no one, in this city will be safe from my fairness."

    I would be clear with the student about what my expectations were going to be and what accommodations I was going to provide. After talking with her about it, I would send her a very clearly stated email to confirm what we had discussed. And I'd conclude by emphasizing that nothing would make me happier than to have her finish the program with flying colors.

    Hang in there, GA. And don't complain for one second to Stuette or anybody about the extra work you will need to do. When she finishes the program, you will know you did the right thing, and she will remember you as a model for how she will need to treat her colleagues/students.

    I hope you let us know how it turns out.

    1. And if you objectively document (for your chair/dean/whoever) all the extra things you do to provide reasonable accommodations for Stuette, they will appreciate you.

  3. Your concerns are realistic, except that the implied danger of dropping the baby down the privy is a non-issue. And if Stuette has chosen a programme with fieldwork, she presumably has camped before. Baby wipes, a canteen and hand sanitizer will work just fine. May I suggest that as an accommodation for the field modules, she be encouraged to bring along someone to help with the baby? That's how scholars who are mothers in my discipline handle conferences and long-term fieldwork.

    Stuette's expectations do seem naive, and take me back. It took me only a few days after giving birth to understand why my sister laughed when I blithely said I'd cleared out a file drawer for the baby to nap in at the office where I was a copy editor.

    Is she really a weak student? Counting the months backwards, she apparently had much more to learn and think about for most of her freshman year than the rest of her cohort, not to mention the fatigue, needy bladder, and sleep disturbances inherent in pregnancy. Of course, she's facing much more of the same ahead. But she may be a stronger student than you think.

    J. Dresner and S. Bubba have great points. To JD I add that these accommodations will also be useful to have in place for faculty who have babies.

    Best wishes to her, and to you.

    1. I actually saw the toilet and hygiene issue more as a serious infection risk, especially for the mother. That's why, even if she gives birth naturally and is very fit, she can't go on trips until the bleeding, which is initially quite heavy, stops or is greatly reduced, and that explains why she's taking four weeks off. To be honest, I hadn't even thought that she could drop the baby.

    2. Agreed. Generally better adaptation to actual human families is something academia needs to work on at all levels.

  4. Had almost the same thing happen in my program. Weak student who was repeating some year 1 classes said she needed to finish year 2 on schedule so as to be able use summer break to have the baby and return for year 3. Other personal drama was also still in play from year 1.

    She did not do as well as hoped in the fall semester, and therefore needed to take a lighter schedule in the spring because she needed straight As to make minimum GPA requirements. So made it, barely, but she will be finishing year 2 when her former cohort is in year 3.

  5. Dare I go out on a limb and sound like an asshole, but I like Judge Judy's take on a situation like this: If you can't handle the consequences, then don't make babies!

    Unless there were other mitigating circumstances (such as supernatural causes or unfortunate events) then she knew what she was doing.

    As much as I have probably made my self sound like an asshole and/or misogynist, I do believe that reasonable accommodations would be a good thing. The key word here, however, is "reasonable". Our litigious society often looses sight of the meaning of that word, and sometimes it is just there because it looks good in writing.

    Sorry, I guess I don't have any real advice here.

    I had a pregnant woman in one of my sections one semester. She was one of the best students I ever had. Never had reason to miss an exam. There was the week she had to deliver, and I gladly let her make-up missed tests and exams. She never abused the situation. There were never any complaints about the fact that the classroom was 10 miles out at the satellite campus.

    One can be entitled to reasonable accommodations, but that does not entitle one to the entire store. We are all responsible for making sure our lives fit our schedules.

    1. Maybe the reasonable accommodation is to help the student understand that taking the appropriate time off is best in the long run for the student and her future family. And, a weak student trying to compress a 14-week course into 9 is statistically more likely to wind up delaying graduation anyway.

      Having a baby is a grown-up thing to do (or can be). Setting a reasonable schedule that takes into account the changed circumstances is also a grown-up thing.

  6. Background: one of my closest childhood friends had her first baby at 20, soon after she finished her freshman year in college, and her second while she was still finishing her undergraduate work 4 years later, and, while it wasn't easy, all are doing well, academically and otherwise, 30 years later. She also had some advantages, including considerable brain power, a supportive partner (to whom she was engaged, though not yet married, when the first baby was -- accidentally -- conceived, and married by the time the baby was born), and slightly crazy/dysfunctional (which partially explains the early marriage) but in other ways supportive grandparents on both sides. She also took at least a year off to have the baby, and switched schools from a large private uni to a small, supportive women's college (mostly for geographical reasons, but it's still a significant difference). And she chose English over a lab science (to which she has since returned) as an undergraduate major in part because of the difficulties of scheduling longer labs around childcare, and the impossibility (at least in her mind) of bringing a baby to the lab if childcare fell through (she did sometimes bring babies and toddlers to lecture/discussion classes, and took them, and herself, out again if they became disruptive).

    A young(ish) cousin (with similar support) got pregnant even earlier (senior year of high school), and is also doing well at 30, with two kids, a strong marriage, and a good degree and job (BS, RN). She's also managed to work considerable elder care (of the grandparents who made it possible for her to continue her schooling while raising her kinds) in the last decade, up to and including managing end-of-life issues for her grandmother and settling her grandfather in assisted living. So it *can* work out, and sometimes parenthood actually accelerates the maturation process.

    Also, Proffie G makes good points about unknowns, including the possible effects of a probably-unexpected pregnancy on the student's work during the first year. Since you can't ask about child-care arrangements, you also don't know if she has a partner, or parents, who will be actively involved in the raising of the child (it sounds like you do know that the student intends to be the/a primary caregiver, but, unless you're allowed to ask or she's volunteered the information, even that's not a foregone conclusion; she could be planning on ceding that role to a partner, a relative, or even adoptive parents, and might be uncomfortable saying so).

    1. That said, one thing that strikes me in this scenario is that the case of the student and that of a similarly-situated employee aren't exactly parallel. At least at my institution (which is no model in this regard), a professor who gives birth, or is expected to return to work, in the middle of the term teaches only the part of the term during which she isn't on leave. She isn't expected to compress a 14-week class into 9 (or however many) weeks, and she's only responsible for the grading for the part of the term she's actually working (of course there ends up being a good deal of communication and possibly negotiation with the substitute, and often people end up taking unpaid leave and/or teaching courses the next summer term in lieu of 4 half-courses during the year to avoid such split-course scenarios, which don't really work very well for anyone involved, but that's the official line). That option isn't available to the student, who can't take half a term's work, or hire a substitute (well, at least not officially). Of course this problem isn't limited to pregnancy, but can apply to any sort of situation, mental, physical (or even family or legal -- what happens if a student is arrested and locked up for a month or so? especially if (s)he is later judged to be innocent) that prevents a student from participating fully in class activities for a significant part of a term. While I'm sympathetic to all such situations, I tend to feel that students who face them are usually are best served by taking the full term off, and starting fresh the next term (and that the uni could encourage/support such situations by refunding tuition). Of course that's easier to do in a field, and a university system, where it's possible to begin almost anything in any term; it's trickier when there are cohorts and certain classes are only offered once a year and so on.

      But, as others have pointed, ultimately you have to provide the accommodations you're legally required to provide. Proffie G rightly points out that babies don't actually use grown-up sanitary facilities (their elimination habits are, in fact, pretty uncivilized), so the lack thereof may not be much of an issue. I'd be more concerned about things like transportation and making sure there's a properly-installed car seat if university vehicles are involved, and, yes, the availability of someone to take care of the baby while the mother/student needs to concentrate on fieldwork (and transportation and accommodation for that helper, who presumably needs to be able and willing to camp as well). Here, too, there's some difference between the student's situation and that of a professor (or even TA) who is making the arrangements, especially if the student isn't realistic and/or forthcoming about her needs.

      I strongly suspect you're going to end up making arrangements, only to have the student, however determine/well-intentioned, drop out, at least for the term. But it sounds like you have to offer her the opportunity, and who knows? Maybe she'll rise to the occasion.

      P.S. If you know that some of her work is likely to spill over into the winter break, is there any chance that you could work out a timetable that includes that assumption? That may be hard to do, since logically-organized courses tend to build as they go on, but if you could avoid the charade of creating an unrealistic schedule, having her fail to meet it, and *then* coming up with a more realistic schedule, that might be easier, logistically and psychologically, on all concerned.

  7. Yeah, the parallel I saw with professors was limited to having a clean, private place to pump breast milk. I agree that the studemt is being naive and would do best by taking the semester (at least) off.

  8. @EMH: Wow. Can you guess which part of your first paragraph I agree with?

    For the record, I am 100% for waiting until one is financially and otherwise secure before starting a family. I am also 100% grateful that my college scare turned out to be just a late period.

    2nd paragraph: mitigating circumstances such as "unfortunate events" ? Like rape, a bullying partner, a broken condom, or lack of access to birth control or safe, legal abortion? UNFORTUNATE? "She knew what she was doing" -- by herself?

    My anti-ad hominem muscles are working so hard that I'm too tired to appeal to your sense of compassion.

    1. Having been walked all over a great deal in the past, I find it difficult to be sympathetic to poor choices.

      A situation involving rape and/or a bullying partner would garner a great deal more sympathy from me than otherwise.

      I'm torn (no pun intended) about the broken condom. On one hand, things break in this world. When I get in my car, I am aware that there is a slight risk of getting a flat-tire on the freeway and the result could be rather unpleasant. However, if one does not have access to birth control and/or safe legal abortion, then one still has to be aware of the consequences of having sex.

      And to clarify, barring rape or immaculate conception, both she and her partner knew what they were doing, but in particular, she knew what she was doing a fortiori.

      Not trying to upset anyone, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves that sex (barring rape and/or a bullying partner (which would constitute rape btw)) is a choice. With any choice comes the responsibility of dealing with said choice, whether we like it or not.