Friday, February 11, 2011

on compassion (or lack thereof)

I've not been around much lately because of a death in my family. Almost all deaths are tragic, but this one is particularly difficult for me because it's a younger sibling, it was completely unexpected, he was missing for days, and there's an excellent chance foul play was involved. We won't know anything for several weeks because we have to wait for the autopsy.

Upon learning of this, I immediately explained the situation to my students, arranged for substitutes for my classes, and made the 1,000-mile journey home to help my family with arrangements. The Snowpocalypse hit, we had to reschedule everything, and this dragged out over a week. Needless to say, I'm a wreck, but I started back to work this week knowing that keeping busy would help me start healing.

Almost all of my students have been wonderful throughout this ordeal. They know I did everything to ensure they were taken care of in my absence (though something always goes wrong when subs come in, nothing catastrophic occurred), and many of them sent me notes of condolence or ecards to let me know they were thinking of me.

Then there were the few, the proud, the snowiest of snowflakes--the narcissists.

One student had her panties in a wad because something went wrong with the auto-divide feature of Blackboard. It seems that in our latest upgrade, instead of dividing the points so that they would total 100% in a question with three correct answers, it lopped off 2/10s of a point. She demanded my substitute contact me right away about fixing this terrible error because HER GRADES ARE VERY IMPORTANT. The class is worth 1,000 points. Thankfully, my sub left me alone, but no sooner did I announce I was back than I got an email demanding I fix this right away.

But my favorite by far is Self-Centered Susan. I had been back a grand total of two days when I received a lengthy missive from her. She made the requisite pleasantries about how sorry she was for my loss and then went into a 700-word essay about how I could make the class better for her. She said she knew I would want to know this because she could tell how much I care about my teaching. Among the requests: I should put all the calendar information on the syllabus and all the syllabus information on the calendar because that way she would not have to look in two places to find the information. I should set it up so that everything appears on a page at the same time (which is something she would know how to do if she'd gone through the Blackboard orientation--I can't control her personal settings). I should not use PowerPoint presentations because they load too slowly. I should use more video files. (If she thinks PowerPoint loads too slowly, WTF is going to happen with video files?)

It seems like no matter what I do, it's never enough for some people. My life has turned into an extended episode of CSI but without the competent professionals who actually care about the case. I hit the ground running when I came back to work Monday. I communicated promptly with my students, set up a grading schedule, and am already on schedule with my work as if I had not been absent at all. While I do care about my students and my teaching, at this point it is enough for me to say I will make it through the rest of this eight-week term and get my work done.

Right now I don't give a crap about self-improvement, meeting extra-special snowflake needs, or student evaluation numbers. All I really want is my brother back, but since that can't happen, my main concern is getting justice for him and making it through my own grief process while doing a competent job on the other things in my life that pay the bills. I am the equivalent of the C student at work right now, and that's going to have to be good enough. I accept that and am willing to take whatever consequences that result. I feel as if I should feel guilty for having this attitude, but I just can't. If students can make everything all about themselves, then I should be allowed to put my own needs first for a little while. I figure at this point, I'm operating on a slightly higher level than some of the silverbacks who've been phoning it in for years. I'm not proud of it, but that's the way it's going to be for the next few weeks. Just leave me alone, let me get through this, and give me my damned C. At least I'll put forth the effort to earn it.


  1. My heart sends peace to yours, EnglishDoc.

  2. Sorry to hear about that terrible loss, EnglishDoc. I cannot imagine the feelings of you and your family. Grace.

  3. Really sorry about your loss, EnglishDoc. Be completely content with whatever modicum of effort you can give them right now. And keep in mind that the whiny snowflakes are probably the very same ones that expect you to play them a funeral dirge when their goldfish is sick and they miss your deadlines.

  4. EnglishDoc, you're absolutely magnificent, just for being able to write that schedule, much less stick to it.

    I am so sorry for your loss. May your brother's memory be a blessing to you and yours.

  5. I'm so sorry for your loss, EnglishDoc, and for the hellish accompanying circumstances. It sounds like you're taking exactly the right approach (and are probably functioning at a much higher level than you think, especially in comparison to colleagues who phone it in).

    It's not worth your energy (to write the initial message or to deal with the fallout), but somebody really should explain to the snowflakes described above just how inappropriate their behavior is, and how badly it will go over if they ever try it on a boss or colleague. To the extent possible, I'd suggest ignoring them, or maybe creating some sort of boilerplate reply that says something along the lines of "as you know, I recently lost some work time due to a death in the family. I'm doing my best to catch up as quickly as possible, and am tending to matters that affect the whole class, and to individual questions that relate to assignments that are due in the future, before I answer messages that have to do with past assignments or other individual matters. I will answer according to these priorities, and appreciate your patience until then."

    But I realize that practical solutions can't make the situation better. I'm sorry.

  6. How awful. May you have more of the supportive sort of student and fewer of the awful sort as you grieve.

  7. I am so sorry for your loss.

    Don't worry about work, at all. I'm sure you are doing fine re: work. Cut yourself all the slack there is. Do not feel guilty, and do not feel guilty for not feeling guilty.

    And re: moron students, they don't deserve a reply. Cut and paste CC's boilerplate - it looks good to me - or just delete. I'd just delete, myself.

  8. I truly hope that justice is served for your brother; may it come swiftly, surely, and thoroughly.

    Considering the circumstances, being on schedule with work as if you weren't gone at all is truly amazing. I can tell you, with 100% certainty, that I would be a nervous fucking wreck. My tolerance for everything - especially for Super Spayshul Susan - would be nil.

    I'll go further and say that, based on the fact that you have even a smidgeon of care for student suggestions, complaints, and the folderol of the rest of the crap that goes along with having to deal with these extra spayshul snowflakes, you are NOT equivalent to your C students. You are going above and beyond in my book. You seem like a conscientious, if not hurting, individual.

    Heal well.

  9. I signed up for this site just so I could comment on this post. I am so deeply sorry for your loss. My mother's funeral was right before this semester started (at a new job where I know no one, and I was the one who had to clean out her apartment before flying back here), and I have been a mess. It sucks and it will always be a part of you, even when things are good. I try to tell myself this is a hole in my life that I will get used to, and that whatever memories I was able to give her, that there were enough good ones. Maybe that helps, maybe it doesn't.

    I can't tell you how helpful reading the comments on this post have been, because all I feel is inadequate, guilty, and messed up. I don't want to jack this posting, but I just wanted you to know that there is someone else going through something similar with students, supervisor, and basically everyone I meet in my new job. Because I am just "random new person" and am not allowed to look sad, challenged, or anything other than competent and in control.

  10. I'm sorry, but I cannot comment on your post unless you give me adequate documentation about your loss. And because I suspect you are lying, I am personally offended by your every word.

  11. @AM: I get your point, but one of the nice things about this blog is we get to turn off (or at least down) our bs filters, and react to situations as described, since it really doesn't matter if they're exactly true or not. In the classroom, where we're trying to be fair to other students, and ourselves, and future employers, and, last but not least, the student who's advancing the excuse (who won't be served well in the long run by fabricating emergencies or getting overinvolved in others' dramas when deadlines loom), it's not so easy.

    @elfinger: I'm sorry to hear about your loss, too, and about the circumstances in which you have to deal with it. I suspect you, too, are managing better than you realize, but feel free to come back and tell us how it's going.

  12. I'm so sorry for your loss, EnglishDoc. I can't imagine how horrible what you're going through is. Whatever you can do will be more than enough for your students and for those that complain, there's always the delete button.

  13. EnglishDoc, I am so sorry for your loss, and so sad that your students are anything but kind and supportive. Your brother will be in my thoughts.

    elfinger, my condolences to you, too. My mother died in early January and I feel that hole, every day. We are here for you, virtually, OK?

    These students: some day they will feel real pain, and they will know the difference between it and stupid drama. I don't wish it on them, but it does happen.

  14. @EnglishDoc - I am so, so sorry, and I hope that you and your family find peace and healing.

    @Academic Monkey - You know what the difference between English Doc's situation and the BS stories concocted by snowflakes to get out of exams is? English Doc covered the bases. Before she went to take care of HERSELF, she put forward the effort to meet her other obligations - her work obligations, and her obligations to her students. She could have just run out of town and left someone else to deal with the mess. But she didn't - she made the effort herself and not make her burden someone else's.

    Last night, the first paper in my Intro to Basketweaving course was due. You know how many "family emergencies" happened that night? Eight. Out of a twenty person class. You can bet your ass I want documentation for seven of those.

    The eighth? I don't need any. The student handed in their work as best they could, told me they would get notes from a classmate, and went to deal with the emergency. They're not asking for an exception, they're not demanding special treatment.

    The documentation that professors ask for isn't some kind of power trip, it's not a lack of compassion. It is an acknowledgment that there are a lot of immature asshats who like to take advantage of human decency. And those asshats are the problem.

  15. Hey, don't get your feathers ruffled -- I was merely responding as bloggers on this very site have recommended I respond to such tales of woe.

    Now had this been any person in real life, I would be OF COURSE sympathetic. I'd beat those snowflakes off with a stick, cover a lecture or two, or re-administer a missed exam.

    It's just that I seem to be in the minority on this site.

  16. @monkey

    But EnglishDoc has no reason to create a story like this. Students lie and exaggerate to get things over on professors.

    EnglishDoc shared something personal because this is a community who has done that in the past.

    If I were the writer of the post and saw a comment like yours, I'd likely not return.

    I'm horrified to think that anyone who comes here thinks a comment like yours is appropriate.

  17. Horrified? Really.

    There are plenty of students whose grandparents ACTUALLY DIE during semester. It's the cycle of life: grandparents die in your 20s. During my first semester teaching, I had twin students whose grandparents (who had raised them) were found violated and murdered in their garage approximately 10 days after they had been killed. Gruesome, awful things happen, and I 100% sympathize with people like them, like EnglishDoc, and like myself who have lost loved ones during a semester.

    I'm just saying, people on this site tend to be all hard asses, and they shock me at their inability to show sympathy. Even in a case, like this one, when it's so completely obviously real.

    My deepest sympathies to English Doc.

  18. @Academic Monkey - so in order to demonstrate how you have more compassion than other people, you made a terribly insensitive response? Interesting tactic.

  19. @Academic: for whatever it's worth, both of my grandmothers died while I was in graduate school (of natural causes, at extremely advanced ages). One died during the term, and I informed a professor 24 hours or so before a seminar in which I was scheduled to do a presentation (nothing fancy; I was just the person who was supposed to come up with some starting questions based on the week's reading, which the professor had chosen) that I wouldn't be there because I needed to go with my father to the funeral home to make arrangements. I'm not sure how I got the message to her, since it was pre-email, probably voicemail or a written note in her mailbox; I don't think it was in person. I'd worked fairly closely with the professor, and she was, in retrospect, distinctly cool to me for the rest of the term, and eventually declined to write a letter of recommendation for me (on the basis that she didn't know my work well enough -- probably true, since she left the temporary post she had held at my university for a better job soon after).

    It took me years to put two and two together, and realize that the coolness and reluctance to write a recommendation might have had something to do with my short-notice absence from the seminar, and the reason I gave for it. I had never heard of anyone using the "grandmother excuse," and would have been shocked at the possibility. I also had no need to duck out of the presentation with 24 hours' notice, since I could have easily pulled it together in less time had I not been prepared (I was, or at least well on my way to being so; the real issue was when my father, who was executor of the grandmother's will and so responsible for arranging payment, could make it to a city where neither of us lived). It also didn't occur to me to give the professor a bit more background about my life, which included the facts that this grandmother had helped to raise me, that my siblings and I were her only living descendants (my father was her son-in-law, or, technically, former son-in-law; my mother was dead), and that I had been taking care of her -- not on a day-to-day basis, but by paying bills from a joint checking account fed by her income, and by helping to arrange paid caregivers -- for several years prior.

    In retrospect, I was very mature in some ways, and incredibly naive in others (which pretty well sums up my entire approach to my graduate school experience, but never mind). I don't really blame the professor for her reaction, nor do I entirely blame my young self for not explaining my rather unusual reality a bit more thoroughly. The situation might actually have been improved if the professor had asked for documentation, since I would have given her more information (on the other hand, she might have had to wait for a death certificate, or I would have had to get a letter from someone -- my father? the funeral home? her pastor? -- since we didn't put an obituary in the paper for fear of attracting thieves to a house that would sit empty for a while -- in fact, until after I passed generals and had a week to spend there clearing it out). Also, this was not a class where there was anything resembling an explicit grade breakdown; as in all of the graduate seminars I took, there was a single large paper at the end, and the grade on that usually equaled the grade in the class. Presentations weren't so much a graded assignment as a community duty that all shared in turn.
    (continued below)

  20. I'm not sure what all of the above is meant to illustrate, other than that I know both ordinary and tragic deaths do happen, and students sometimes have real family responsibilities. My combined experiences (which also include my mother's illness and quite early death) may make me a bit less tolerant of students who seem to me to be making dramatic mountains out of molehills. They lead me to both respect the situations of students who have more responsibility than normal for siblings, grandparents, and the like, and, sometimes, to gently press the question of whether someone else in the family might take more responsibility so that they have time for the education they're often paying for themselves.

    I've never actually asked for documentation of an event described in an excuse (partly because I don't give exams, and so am usually dealing with paper extensions, which don't require makeups), but that seems like a reasonable request to me, and students who really are dealing with family or health emergencies often offer documentation without being asked. I have suggested to students who have fallen behind for a variety of legitimate and less-legitimate reasons that they drop my class (which is easily retaken) and try again another semester. I've also accepted and graded -- and, when necessary, filed honor charges in conjunction with -- very late work from students who insisted on trying to finish, usually because they hoped to graduate that semester. If someone came to me with either a grandmother's-funeral or a sister-in-accident excuse, I'd probably offer a sympathetic sentence or two, followed by a briskly practical description of what needed to be done to make up any missed work. I don't think that makes me unsympathetic. Maybe it makes me a "hard ass"; all I can say is that what I expect from my students is no more than what I expect from myself, which is basically to reel from life's blows, but also to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going (which includes taking responsibility for anything they missed while reeling). EnglishDoc, elfinger, and Frog and Toad all describe doing just that. Their actions earn them both my respect and my sympathy, which I, like others, expressed above (except that I haven't yet said that I'm sorry to hear of Frog and Toad's recent loss, so I'll say it here).

  21. Englishdoc, elfinger, and Frog and Toad, I am really sorry to hear about all of your losses. I can't imagine trying to slog through work in these situations. Take care and be gentle with yourselves.

  22. I'm sorry to hear about your loss. There should be a special circle in hell for any snowflake who tries to take advantage of it, quite a bit deeper than the circle for anyone giving Yaro a hard time.

    And nevertheless, I still ask for documentation from students. When asking, I include the preample, "Now I don't want to seem hard or mean, but so many students in the past have tried to mislead me about this kind of thing, that I do need to ask..."

  23. elfinger, you are so right about the hole never filling up. When my father died I was still weeping occasionally -- not in public, Gott sei dank -- for at least a year afterward. And his death we saw coming for months. I can't imagine what EnglishDoc is going through. My most heartfelt condolences go out to ED, and may justice be swift.

    That said, my class schedule was fairly easy to deal with. Dad had the consideration to die right before Spring Break, so there was minimal interruption; and I'm a bit OCD: I have a lesson plan for the whole semester, with readings and problems laid out for the students, so I could go on autopilot for a while. My colleagues and students were simply marvelous.

    As to ED's academic troubles, I think your two idiots need a dose of the <strikeout>Strelnikov</strikeout> Kalashnikov. Or at least Contingent Cassandra's boilerplate: use that.

  24. EDoc, EFinger, F&T,

    For now, do not listen to anyone who doesn't love you. Please accept my very deepest sympathy at your inconceivable sorrow.

  25. Like EnglishDoc, I had contingency plans when my mother became terminally ill: lessons prepared a quarter ahead of time, a colleague on standby in case Mom died during the quarter, all of my grad students on notice that I would be indisposed for the final few weeks of her life and they should switch committee members if that was going to seriously inconvenience them, all colleagues in the profession counting on me for deadlines and things told what was happening and given a chance to find substitutes for me. Asking for documentation from those who fail to do anything responsible is appropriate; from those who have done all they can is inappropriate.

    So AcademicMonkey's second comment was just a joke that fell flat. Hot tip: sarcasm and satire are inappropriate modes for the newly bereaved. We tend to lack a sense of humor, for a little while.

  26. While I didn't appreciate Academic Monkey's using my situation to make a point about other posters on this site, I also realize that when I put myself out there on the Internet, I open myself up to whatever people want to say. I genuinely appreciate all the kind words and expressions of sympathy. This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and this community has been very supportive of other members in the past who've had difficult situations.

    What I see AM doing here is a logical error I see students make all the time: equivocating faculty with students. Faculty are employees. Full-timers have benefits, including leave. As long as we follow college procedures and ensure our classes are covered, we uphold our end of the contract with students. Classes (and hopefully learning) continue to take place, which is what the students/parents/scholarships/taxpayers paid for. We can be flexible with students to some degree, but if students don't attend and participate, they can't get what they are coming for.

    I think part of the problem goes back to my earlier post about "super students." They think they can have it all and don't want to deal with the consequences when one of the many balls they are juggling drops. I know this is a profound loss that's affecting my ability to teach as well as I can. I'm willing to accept that I'm not in the running for Proffie of the Year this term. I will do the best I can in this situation. When I was an undergrad student, one term I was seriously ill and missed three weeks of class. I had to drop one course (the only course I ever dropped), take an incomplete in another and made a C in a third (the only C grade I have ever made in an English course my entire life). I wasn't happy about my performance, but I deserved what I got because it was what I earned. Some students will also take that attitude. Others will use any and every excuse for special treatment and expect that everything will come out just as well as if something hadn't gone wrong. That sense of entitlement and expectation, as well as the sheer number of times excuses turn out to be lies, creates suspicion.

    I've already seen firsthand how this affects people in the real world. I learned that bereavement fares are pretty much a thing of the past because so many people abused the system. Our trips were much more expensive as a result.

    Oh, and for the record and Academic Monkey's satisfaction, my college does require documentation for bereavement leave. I sent my chairperson a link to the obituary and also kept in touch by email the whole time with weather reports so she knew what was going on. If one goes beyond what HR has deemed "appropriate" bereavement, one also needs a doctor's note stating that more recovery time is required. I don't find this to be unreasonable.

  27. Please accept my sincerest condolence for your lost. I recommend cutting and pasting CC's recommended boilerplate response for the next several weeks, if not the rest of the semester, and give yourself permission to be the "C Student" this semester.

  28. Well said, EnglishDoc. And I offer my sympathies as well.

    Leslie K

  29. EnglishDoc, my condolences. Grieving while being part of the academy is one of the weirdest things. Colleagues are often awesome, students often are not. Do take care, and add my voice to the chorus saying take care of yourself, focus on doing what you can, and use CC's boiler plate.

    I created this person for RYS when my mother died. I appreciated having it as an outlet and received some very kind responses. I didn't tell my students that she had died, though I did tell them I would be traveling due to a family emergency. (No students asked what my family emergency was, though one said, "I hope everything is okay.") Due to the nature of the online schools, I kept working while dealing with funeral stuff, and I bitterly resented my students for their late work and excuses, especially the one who did not turn in the work due to shoveling snow!

    That was 2 years ago last month.

  30. Many thanks to all of you for your kind comments. It is comforting, if sad, to know that there are others who have experienced similar losses and managed to move forward. As hard as it has been, the ability to be in the classroom can offer me a temporary distraction that I appreciate.

    Tony Harrison makes me sad, but he is also very comforting.

  31. EnglishDoc, I'm so sorry about the death of your younger sibling. How awful. You know you're to be commended for having enough of a presence of mind to make arrangements for your students--and I'm glad that the majority of them responded appropriately.

    As for the narcissists? Fuck 'em.

    Frog and Toad, elfinger, I'm sorry for your losses, too.


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