Sunday, October 30, 2011

When Life Intrudes.

Gloria is a student with problems.

She's anemic. She's had the flu twice already this term. Her roommate tried to get her kicked out of the dorms because of some disagreement over cooking smells. Gloria's dad and mom are getting divorced, and Gloria's brother was arrested for distributing drugs up in Seattle over the summer and he has a trial that is running in fits and starts.

And Gloria is the best student in my sophomore literature class. When she's there.

I see Gloria in office hours once a week or so, usually after she misses one of my classes. She's at the very limit of absences that my college allows. (It's not an actual policy, but a guideline. When I started teaching here this term I was told by longtimers that nobody ever uses the policy, that students never need an attendance policy.) Gloria has done all the major work; she's never missed an exam or a paper, but she's missed enough class that other students are aware of it.

I saw Gloria on a stretcher in front of the cafeteria two days ago. She smiled and waved at me. "I just passed out," she said. "I'm okay, though. Sorry I missed class."

She's funny, smart, works well with others, and could probably pass the class without attending the lectures or discussions at all.

But should she? Isn't part of the class the attending, the taking part?

One student asked me last week, "Do you let Gloria have excused absences? What if the rest of us only came on our good days?"

When Gloria sits in my office, we talk about class. I don't redo the lectures, but we have discussions about what we've read. She usually just tells me what she thinks about the work, its value. She's always forceful and clear, and the book she holds up to make her point is full of notes and scribbles.

I worry about her. I worry life will get in the way and she'll never be what she might.


Note from CM: This is day # 493 since the blog started, 
and this is post #2000


  1. Oh, Darla. Is it possible you're being scammed?

    I know Gloria sounds like a great student in some ways, and she certainly has your attention - all those private office visits - but think of all of your other students who trudge to class EVERY day.

    Is it fair to them that you think Gloria is your best student?

    You have a soft part in your heart for her, but don't let that cloud your judgment.

  2. Gloria needs to withdraw from college until she gets herself together enough to give it her full attention.

    Many of my online students are in similar situations. When I gently suggest that this particular 8-week stretch might not be an ideal time to take a college class, given the chaos in other aspects of their lives, I'm usually met with some angry, cliched response about how they NEED to graduate by a particular date, how "failure is not an option", or that nothing will stop them from "pursuing their dreams."

    I can't tell you how many women have enrolled in my class during the eighth month of their pregnancies, matter-of-factly informing me on day one that they will be missing a huge chunk of class when their due date arrives. Their attitude is that their pregnancy is way more important than my class, so they can't be expected to complete the course requirements. Well, um, I agree that their pregnancy and child care IS way more important than a class, so WHY DO THEY ENROLL?

  3. @ Surly ... AMEN!

    It never ceases to amaze me -- for all of the benefit online delivery of classes has -- how it also has eviscerated the work ethic required to be successful.

    One of the big online schools began with the slogan "Online education built around you" (emphasis added).

    To their credit, they quickly dropped it when it became sharply apparent that true education could not be arranged infinitely around other life events.

    Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo.

  4. I understand the comments above, but I empathize with Darla 100%. I want students to have the chance to achieve in their own way, and I'm pulling for Gloria to keep it together. I have her, too, you see.

  5. If there's no actual policy, and she's passing, who cares? Tell the little pissers she doesn't get anything they don't get and don't worry about it.

  6. If I'm remembering correctly, Darla is new to the SLAC scene. And she is being scammed. I taught at SLACs long enough to know that they contain a fair percentage of very bright, well-prepared students who have not needed to work very hard to get by in their lives, and therefore ... don't. They are chronic underachievers, banking on the fact that you'll identify enough with their genius to give them high grades despite their not having fulfilled the basic contract of a seminar (which is doing the reading, showing up, and crucially, contributing -- unlike a lecture class, where the contract is to learn the material and demonstrate mastery and attending lecture is only one way to do it).

    Meanwhile the other students who are fulfilling this contract are understandably demoralized. Life is not about being brilliant but unreliable, achieving "in your own way" at the expense of people depending on you. It's about showing up and doing the best you can to contribute your small part to a whole that needs everyone. Students need that affirmed.

  7. "If there's no actual policy, and she's passing, who cares? Tell the little pissers she doesn't get anything they don't get and don't worry about it."

    Hear, hear.

    If attendance and/or class contribution is a material part of the course, then make it a material part of the grade. And dock her those points.

  8. Sounds like Gloria might have a drug problem herself. Do you know for a fact she's anemic, had the flu, got kicked out of her dorm for "cooking smells" or is this just what Gloria has reported to you? Students that want you to give them slack usually have a laundry list of "good" reasons why, which are often never the real reason and also often lies.

    Also, if the rest of the class thinks you're being unfair, and playing favorites, you're going to be slammed in your evaluations. Students that have the power to suck it up and deal deeply resent teachers that seem to give one "fragile" student more allowances than everyone else.

    If Gloria has an accommodations plan, then accommodate her. If not, you can't give her special treatment which you obviously are if other students are actually NOTICING.

    There are plenty of good reasons to miss school, but in the end it doesn't matter why the student missed. It just matters that they weren't there. That's what you have to keep in mind.

  9. I was Gloria in my previous life, and unlike Stella's kids my laundry list of good reasons was true. I still deserved to fail. As I've told freshmen before, smart kids fail out of college all the time.

    Having sympathy doesn't mean being a doormat.

  10. "When Gloria sits in my office, we talk about class. I don't redo the lectures, but we have discussions about what we've read. She usually just tells me what she thinks about the work, its value."

    I know that most SLACs have a commitment to teaching, and that students at such institutions can expect to get a good amount of one-on-one time with their professors, but it sounds like you're essentially giving this student private tutoring so that she can attend "class" whenever she feels like it.

    If you don't have an official attendance policy, that's fine; you don't have to penalize Gloria for the classes that she misses, and I agree with Wombat that the other students can just be told that your attendance policy is the same for everyone.

    My main concern here is that you're basically giving a private, one-on-one class to one of your students because you like her. If you want to spend hours doing that, well, that's obviously your choice, but while working at a SLAC comes with certain expectations regarding professor availability, I'm pretty sure you're not really expected use office hours as a substitute for actually attending.

    I sometimes get emails from students that say "I missed class this week. Can we meet during your office hours so we can go over what I missed?" I tell those students that I am happy to meet with them, and to answer any questions that they might have, but that I am not going to go over the whole lesson again, and I'm not going to have an extended discussion about the reading with them just because they couldn't make it to class.

    Their first responsibility, when they miss a meeting, is to get notes from a classmate and make sure that they've done all assigned reading. I'm happy to answer specific questions in order to clarify things they don't understand or fill in some blanks, but I'm not going to go over the whole lesson in detail just because they couldn't get to class. I'm paid to teach it once, not six times.

  11. So I teach at two schools -- Public Ivy State and Second String State. The students at PIS act like Gloria (some of them). They want lots of accommodations (sp), they want individual meetings, and they don't want to explain what the f*ck is going on. In contrast, the students at SSS don't miss class, and when they do, they bring me scads of documentation about why they missed class...I've seen ER records, obituaries, funeral home calling cards, court summons, you name it.

    I attribute this difference to different cultures -- entitled shits versus terrified worker-bees. (Lemme just lay that gross generalization on you for a second.)

    Some of my best and smartest friends in college did not have an easy go of it and so I'm a point. Here's what I'd suggest.

    1. Administer mid-semester course evaluations. This lets the students give you their feedback about the Gloria problem in writing. (I learned about these from someone on CM, thanks, they work great!)

    2. Explain to Gloria that you are really concerned about her. If you are at a SLAC, you're supposed to be concerned. (At Big State, we're just supposed to make sure they don't go on shooting rampages.) Suggest that you had hoped things would get better over the course of the semester and they're not.

    3. Refer Gloria to any and all available student services. She needs to be in touch with (at the very least it sounds like) your school's psych services, their health center, and possibly their learning needs division. You could couch this in the language of "I had hoped you'd get better and clearly you hoped you'd get better but that's not happening."

    4. Explain to Gloria that you believe she needs help beyond what you can give. You're sympathetic, but she has bigger problems than missing your class.

    5. Also explain to Gloria that going forward, you're going to need written documentation of her ailments. You could say something vague about university policy -- I use that as an excuse for all kinds of things. You can say that you WANT to help, but you need institutional support and these documents are how you get it.

    6. Once the students make their complaints about Gloria official, you can talk to the class generally about their feedback. "I really appreciate you sharing your concerns with me. I want you to know that all of you receive the same accommodations, and if you feel you need additional accommodations please do come and see me." Then you can lay the university policy stuff on those who do show up.

    It's honestly none of their business what is going on with Gloria. You're not permitted to discuss one student's situation with other students. That's what FERPA is for (among other things.)

    Lately the most valuable set of statements in my student interaction world has been something like this: I really want to help you, but I'm trained to teach you basic yeti fur classification. The best person to help you is (clinic, disability services, etc.)

    It's working really well so far -- the students access the services and they actually THANK me. At the most, I might go with the student to the service...I've done that a few times with suicidal students. It's usually not necessary.

    I actually think the referal process is the best thing we can do for students -- we're not (at least I'm not) an expert in medicine, counseling, etc. So I pass them on to someone who is.

    (Sorry for the long response...I feel kind of strongly about this and have been through it several times in recent semesters.)

  12. In my undergrad, I was a Gloria.
    My particular circumstances were different, but my challenges were myriad, compound, significant...and all-too real.
    I'm sure that some of the profs thought I was scamming them, or making stuff up.
    I wasn't.
    One of my profs (was that you, Frog and Toad?) flat out told me that brilliant but unreliable was not an acceptable operating mode.
    Then, I thought she was a bitch for not understanding. Now, I understand where she was coming from...but now I'm not a teenager alone and in crisis.
    Looking back, I don't disagree that university wasn't the place for me at that time. The problem was it was the only place I had.
    I had no family to fall back on, no hope of finding work that paid above minimum wage, and no ability to repay the loans that would come due as soon as I left school for any reason.
    In the absence of any real alternatives, I managed to stick it out and graduate.
    When I went back, years later, school was a completely different experience, because I was at a place in my life where I could focus on learning.
    Gloria will get it together...or not. All you can do is explain the rules, encourage her to think about both the accommodations she needs and whether or not school is the place she should be right now, ensure she has access to the phone numbers and email addresses of the campus services there to provide support...and tell her you're pulling for her.
    Good luck to you both.

  13. "Gloria, when you're there, you're the best student in my sophomore literature class. And the other students appreciate you being there."

    That's the honest thing to say... or to type in a brief email to her. Yes, it's ok to put it in writing.

    Maybe she's agoraphobic. Maybe she's this. Maybe she's that. Maybe she's pulling your leg. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.... {{{yawn}}}

  14. "If there's no actual policy, and she's passing, who cares? Tell the little pissers she doesn't get anything they don't get and don't worry about it."

    I, too, incline strongly to this view, especially the MYOB response to the classmates. But I'd be getting a bit tired of the office visits by now (and would feel guilty about feeling that way).

    All of the above may be yet more evidence that I would be fit in best at an R1 or R2 (preferably in a job where I actually get time for and evaluated on research as well as teaching), not a SLAC.

    Oh, and chalk me up as another student who actually dealt with some of the situations students use as excuses (but no idea they *were* used as excuses): when my grandmother died while I was in grad school, I actually was her oldest living blood relative (my mother -- her daughter and only child -- had been dead for over a decade), had been partially responsible for her care, and needed to take time away from classes to arrange her burial, etc. It never occurred to me that someone might find that situation implausible; it was simply my reality.

  15. Darla,

    Please, please please pass this student.

    I suffered anemia too. But that was subsumed by the problems caused by my having seizures all over campus.

    I couldn't stop the seizures from happening. And when they happened, I could not go to class. I could barely stand and coordinate my arms for about 16 hours. I slept it off.

    But the next day, returned to my full strength, I would reread the material, write practice essays about it, talk to my professors, meet with students.

    I worked three times as hard as anyone doodling on their notes in class, because I had to. And because of that, I knew the material better than any other student.

    I know the mantra of this site can often be broken down to the words of Homer Simpson: "Look at me, I'm a professor! Get out of my way!" But there are times when life's draw of accidents and conditions is too great. She's doing all she can to make up for what prevents her from coming to class.

    Please give her the benefit of the doubt here. If she performs well, let her pass.

  16. Two more things:

    1) Midnight Choir, returning to school later for me was also a crazy different experience. Straight As, benefiting from skills I developed while having seizures applied to a period when my seizures were under more (though not total) control.

    2) When I was in school having seizures, my GPA was a 2.8. All As and Fs. No in between. Why? Because some professors saw that I didn't go to the ER for each and every seizure, so they docked me points. Even though I aced their exams, ran outside of class study groups, got 100 and 96 percents on my essays. The other professors gave me the benefit of the doubt and I won awards for the work I was doing.

    Let her pass.

  17. Now we know that the Monkey is Gloria in disguise. For that alone, I hope she gets an A+.

    "Look at me, I'm a professor! Get out of my way!"



  18. "One of my profs (was that you, Frog and Toad?) flat out told me that brilliant but unreliable was not an acceptable operating mode."

    If it had been, would that have been so terrible? I would have followed it up with resources, sure, and I never said it to anyone who was having a health crisis. But divorcing parents? Roommate disagreements? Siblings in trouble? Plenty of people with these problems come to class and contribute. It's the "best student, but..." I don't like. Darla's smartest student she may be, but that's immaterial if she is not pulling her weight.

    Meanwhile, what I didn't like about working at a SLAC was that the kids were so privileged, so entitled, so certain that their problems were special and they deserving of accommodations. They had no sense that the class was a contract with me and others, or that they had the obligation not to waste their college education. I miss their brilliance and verve, sure, but I don't miss that silver spoon in their mouths.

    I'm betting that in 5 years Darla will feel the same way.

  19. Next term have a more detailed policy about giving excused absences. I'm sure she has a note for being on that stretcher, for example, which would be an excused absence in most peoples' classes.

    I'll be glad to excuse absences for many things providing students are honest and get their work done on time. The people who disappear for weeks at a time with no excuse and then want extra time to do assignments can, however, bite me. I wish I could write that in as my "official" policy.

  20. I've had this problem, too, and my solution is to make 10-20% of the grade come from reading quizzes, activities, attendance, and participation points. (The quizzes are the biggest portion of the score.) I factor in extra points (the assumption being that everyone will miss a day or two) so that a couple of absences won't hurt anybody, but a pattern of absences is detrimental. Usually, there is a high rate of similarity between people's grades in this category and grades on exams, but sometimes people do well on tests and poorly on quizzes/activities. Other times, the quiz/activities score is a helpful bump for someone who comes all the time but struggles on the tests. So, in my class, Gloria would probably end up with a B-range grade even if she had A-range exam scores because it's likely that her quiz/activity score will be in the D- or F-range.

  21. I agree with the commenters who have been supportive of Gloria. As an undergraduate student I went through some very personal nightmares that often made going to class quite difficult due to health and other issues. Even as a Graduate student I occasionally missed classes because of health reasons. I accepted the demerits for attendance and I worked hard in other ways to make up for it. Being in school saved my life--it gave me the motivation and support to keep trudging through the nightmare that was my life as an undergraduate. I worry that with some students, being urged to withdraw until they are in a better position is like a death sentence. Without the routine, positive support, and clear goals, some people drift off and you never hear from them again. If I had not stayed in school I would not be where I am now: I completed my undergraduate degree in 4 years even though I switched my major in year 3 and had to work two jobs, etc . . . and I graduated with honors. I completed my Masters degree and now work as a Research Assistant on a National Research Committee funded project, and have faculty who positively anticipate working with me as a Doctoral student.

    I was a Gloria and because there were professors who believed in me I managed to survive and overcome all obstacles to become a successful aspiring scholar. If the attendance policy is the same for everyone and you are not making exceptions for her then do not worry about the other students. It sounds like they have a case of entitlement-itis.

  22. Answer to whiny entitled student (why can she skip and I caaaaan't?) - "fuck off". Or more politely "the same standard applies to all students in this class." And also, fuck off.

    re: is showing up part of the class? Yes, of course. It's the part that's covered by the participation grade. If you don't have a participation grade for the course, have one starting next term. Gloria will get her usual As on the midterms and finals and papers and such, but if she isn't showing up, she will get much less for participation, which will give her a final grade of A- or something. But you can decline to dock her for any documented absence due to illness, of course.

    re: are you cutting her slack? Yes, probably. Just make sure you cut other kids in the same circumstances (health issues; issues that a counsellor can supply documentation for) the same slack.

  23. Re: Crazy Roommates
    Gloria sounds like she had to deal with the worst sort of college dorm-mate: the one who does not realize that this is a temporary situation. I had a couple both living on and off campus; they weren't worth the time and energy then, and I'm not going to write about them now. They're stumbling blocks and I wish that people like that would figure out what they are and rent an apartment off campus.

  24. Oh, about your last line: "I worry life will get in the way and she'll never be what she might."

    There is no point worrying. She won't. Or, alternatively, she will - but you have to accept that the numerous difficulties, health issues, problems dealing with other people and basic time management issues are part of who she is. Her brilliance is only one piece of her.

    Maybe she'll get past all the bad stuff, and maybe she won't. Either way, however, all her extra-academic issues are not your problem; they are her problem. It is up to her to figure out how to deal with life so that her real talents can shine. You're already doing everything you can.

    To quote the CM sage whose mantra I repeat every morning: "Don't care more about their educations than they do."

  25. The drug of choice at a couple of SLACs here in the great Pacific NW is heroin. One school has had a couple of heroin OD deaths in the past year.

    And Gloria can be brilliant and *gasp* not complete college in four years. Or not complete college at all.

    For your own sanity and teaching longevity, Darla, try not to anchor your heart to a sinking student.

  26. My parents split up 3 weeks into my freshman year at a SLAC in the Midwest.

    I got sick a lot that quarter, and subsequent quarters, and my roommate didn't like me.

    I still picked my ass up every morning and dragged it to class.

    Maybe I wasn't brilliant all the time, but I was there. When I was having trouble completing a paper (and freaking out about it) due to illness and worrying about whether or not I'd be able to afford to continue at the school I adored, I met with my prof to explain what was going on. To his credit, he helped me the ways that he could: he gave me a week's extension on the paper (which I turned in well before the week was up), and he put me in touch with the financial aid folks and told them that I was his best student, and that they needed to help me figure out how to keep attending.

    That was it. Tremendously helpful, but he did not take on all of my problems--he'd have gone nuts. And so will you, if you keep this up.

    So I'll echo Annie's last line: help Gloria, but don't get attached to her. Her problems are not your problems.


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