Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Thirsty (not a light-hearted one, I'm afraid). From Cassandra.

I have recently entered a zone/life stage with which I know some of you (Bubba, for one) are all too sadly familiar: my father is dying. I'm not his primary caregiver (though I do live nearby, and hope to play some role/spend time with him, subject to navigating my relationship with a stepmother I -- and not only I, though she might say the same of me -- find difficult), and I learned of his prognosis in time to design my teaching materials in such as way as to make the semester (my usual 4/4 all-writing-in-the-disciplines load) as manageable as possible. I also intend to eat and sleep as well, and exercise as frequently, as possible. And I have the support of friends, colleagues, and my church community, and hospice will be involved. I'm also considering seeking out a personal therapist (hey; everybody else in the family has one; I might as well join the group). So,

Q: Does anybody have any advice (from experience, observation, etc.) for balancing full-time teaching with a personal crisis (in many ways normal and manageable -- we all get sick, die, etc., at some point, and watch family members do the same -- but still very hard) of this sort? In particular, I'm wondering how much to say to my students. My present thought is to say nothing until it's necessary (i.e. I have to miss class, or another major commitment such as student conferences). However, if and when it becomes necessary to mention the situation, I'm trying to figure out how to model an appropriate balance of being genuinely preoccupied, and possibly even overwhelmed, at least for short periods, by what is, in fact, a very sad and difficult life event, while still keeping/catching up with my basic responsibilities, because that's what responsible adults do.



  1. Schedule catch-up days in the syllabus. If you don't need them, you can always do workshopping or review or a movie, but my experience is that you'll need them

  2. This is so difficult, Cassandra. I am so sorry you and your family are going through this. I was there 3 years ago, fortunately-not-fortunately mostly during a sabbatical.
    I think it's so brave of you to think about telling your students. I'll be honest: I kept it from my students, though not from my chair and dean. As a faculty member over 50, constantly accused of being "old-fashioned" for stuff like asking students to do homework, I worried that it would show up in my student evals as "and then Dr. Arcadia was really mean after that death in the family." Because my mother died about 3 days before spring break I was able to get away with simply telling the students that I had a family emergency.
    I'm glad I did because though the students didn't make a point of it that semester, my dean and chair did a year later, when students said I had suddenly become a harsher grader (my grade books proved that this was not the case), and my adminicritters said it must have been because of my mom's death.
    I would like to think that in less adverse circumstances I would do exactly what you are planning to do: I thought about it as well. My best advice? It's hard to say now how much this will take out of you -- sometimes that will be everything. I think what Jonathan said above is very wise, and you should try to build in buffer days, or content that can be less painfully sacrificed if or when you find that it matters to you and your family to be away from the work we do more than you had originally thought.
    Lean on your friends, your church, your family, and let them love you. And know that all of us here love you as well, though we have only met your sharp mind and generous heart here on the blog. I'll be thinking of you; I know we all will.

  3. Cassandra, I have made it a point to never discuss my mother's situation (or my roll in it) with anybody at work, except informally with a few people I genuinely like and trust (which happens to includes a few students). I have never wanted any fucktard colleagues or administrators to say that I wasn't up to the task (whatever the task might have happened to have been) because I was too busy grieving, changing diapers, coordinating hospice, or whatever. I value my mother too much to involve people who don't know her or love her. When she dies, I will not want fucktard faculty at her funeral. She is better than that, and I won't want to see them there. I suspect that a few of my work friends might go to the funeral, just as they have commiserated with me along the way. If the funeral is on a weekday, I'll use bereavement leave. So far, though, I haven't yet used any official leave, and I don't plan to (although I have informally exchanged many duties with a couple of people I trust). I guess I'm treating this kind of like it's a thousands visits to the dentist. It's exhausting, but I've become closer to a few people (including my mother). It's not something I want to discuss with most people at work. Keep in mind that mine's somewhat of a years-long "new normal" (until she dies), whereas yours sounds like maybe it's one devastating semester or so. I don't know how much that distinction matters. I'm glad you wrote the post, and I don't know if I had anything useful to write here. It's all so overwhelming, isn't it?

  4. Cassandra, I'd like to turn the question around. I have a couple of colleagues who are managing family crises right now.
    They're both mentors to me and have always been available to help me learn this job. I owe them and would like to make a down-payment. What—beyond being there to willingly and uncomplainingly take up any temporary slack on the job—could a colleague do to help you?

  5. "I value my mother too much to involve people who don't know her or love her." Hear, hear. I'm going through much the same right now--very sudden and unexpected, and now devastating--and I hated, hated, hated having to tell my sleazy shit-head of a boss and listen to his faux "sympathy." I felt as though I'd violated her dignity in some way by even mentioning her to that asshole.

    PP, from my perspective, it would have been nice if one or two of the colleagues I'm closest with and socialize with would have just asked about the situation and let me talk about it, just once, over coffee or something. It was hard to compartmentalize at first, but it's easier now, and in part because everyone seems to avoid the issue, so I just try to be fully present and focused at work and fully focused on my mother when I'm with her.

    Yeah, it's a struggle when you feel that you can't ask for sympathy or understanding because it's something that everyone goes through. I'm very lucky to have a number of excellent siblings. If I didn't, I would be pursuing therapy, too.

    My thoughts go out to you and your family, Cassandra, and yours, Bubba.

  6. Many thanks for the suggestions, and the sympathy. Once again, I find myself feeling lucky, both because my real-life school community seems relatively kind and functional compared to many of yours (though I will still tread carefully; it is, after all, a workplace, and a big and sometimes somewhat impersonal one at that), and because I have the support of this community. I'm also aware that, for all that I'm sad that my father is not only dying, but dying at least 5 years before I expected him to (i.e. 5 years earlier than his parents), there are far worse ways to die than a cancer that is manageable for several years, allowing someone who has always drawn his primary identity from his work to keep working, and then acute for what will probably be a few months at most. It sucks, but it sucks less than dementia (with which I had some firsthand experience with one grandmother; my heart goes out to you and your mother, and the rest of your family, Bubba).

    I'm also lucky to, like Surly, have an excellent (though presently pretty overwhelmed) sibling.

    I have, indeed, built some flexible days into my schedule (excellent idea, Jonathan); they were already somewhat there in case of snow days, but some had been eaten up by planned conference-going that now may or may not happen; I adjusted them to allow me to go to the conferences (driving-distance ones, fortunately), or hold class, whichever seems best at the time. I've let me chair and my program director know, mostly so they have the background if I have to miss a class on short notice, and/or need help looking for a substitute, and have received appropriate sympathy/support. I also have a few colleagues who fall somewhat into the friend category (and who, since they're also contingent, don't have any supervisory/decision-making role in the department, any more than I do), and will be telling them as the opportunity arises. Like Surly, I'm hoping that I can at least occasionally mention the subject in the more social moments that arise (or are planned) between work colleagues; based on conversations I've had with colleagues when they had family illnesses, I think that will probably happen from time to time.

    I continue to think that it's probably best not to tell students until/unless I have to. Our students actually tend to be quite decent. I've traveled to the funeral of a more distant family member recently, and the students whose conferences I had to reschedule were completely understanding and sympathetic; maybe I was just lucky in who happened to be scheduled that day, but for the most part our students tend to be pretty understanding, non-entitled, sorts. Some colleagues have even reported improved student evaluations during semesters when their own or a family member's health was bad enough that they had to reschedule things, and mentioned the reason to students. I'm not going to count on that, but it make me less apprehensive about possible backlash if I have to share some details of the situation. I honestly think the main problem might be trying to deal politely with too much sympathy (especially with my online sections; for all that I'd appreciate it on one level, I really don't want to deal with a few dozen sympathy emails from people I've never met at a moment when I'm already feeling overwhelmed).

    So I'll see how it goes. Since at the moment my stepmother is not showing much inclination to include me in the process, the main issue may well be managing my own energy and emotions. For the moment, I'm trying to get/stay ahead as much on schoolwork as I can, so that I have the time to help if and when that is possible.