Two years ago, I reactivated my long-dormant twitter account. It consumes more of my time than it should, but the thoughts of other faculty and students have fueled a re-evaluation of my teaching practices and my role as an educator. Most significantly, I have changed my thinking and teaching practice with regard to compassion and empathy for my students.
Compassion and Empathy
I had a relatively easy time as an undergraduate. My parents and siblings were all college graduates, so I had sources for advice. I never had any personal crises or traumatic experiences, significant physical or mental illness, nor did I face food insecurity or anxiety over how to pay rent or tuition. I was also confident in speaking to my professors and asking for assistance when I needed it. Because of this, I was initially ignorant of many challenges students might be facing outside of class. Though I was conscious that my experience was not representative, this first really struck me several years ago when listening to the episode ‘Three Miles’ of This American Life, which focused on the experiences of first-generation minority university students. I was really affected by the story of Jonathan, an African American man from the Bronx who was attending Wheaton College on scholarship. Jonathan was unable to afford his textbooks, so he did not buy them, and did not tell anyone he could not afford them. In the episode, Jonathan recounted his experience:
I didn’t do the homework… And I’m the only black kid in some of these classes…So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22 because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class and doesn’t do the work on top of that, you know? But for me, it was– I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?
That last part really got me. This probably could have been solved by Jonathan talking to his professors or an advisor, but he didn’t, and he failed out of Wheaton. Because I was comfortable asking for help when I needed it, it is hard to internalize that many of my students are not.
Back to Twitter. More recently, an educator (whom I will refrain from shaming) made a joke about the number of students whose grandparents ‘die’ around exam time. Many others replied with snarky comments about lazy, entitled students. The key response though, was from Jesse Stommel:
Students with dead grandparents is not a funny joke. Stop making it. Stop laughing at it. Stop punching Down.
Students feel they have to lie to teachers, because teachers turn the complexity of their lives into a punchline. To encourage honesty, approach students with empathy.
— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) May 6, 2018
Many replies to Jesse’s tweet were enlightening:
I’m sure some students lie about relatives’ death.
I will always still assume that they’re telling the truth.
Because I would rather give undeserved leniency to 100 liars than deepen the grief of even *one* grieving student.
And every professor should do the same.
— Jessica Langer, PhD (@DrJessicaLanger) May 6, 2018
My students struggle with depression, anxiety, economic insecurity, food insecurity, and any number of physical disabilities. I never want to add to their pain. I’d rather be lied to than wrongly accuse a student of lying.
— Politics In Pink (@PinkPolitical) May 6, 2018
I still remember walking into class late and having a professor say, “I don’t care if your grandmother died, you need to be on time!” I was late because my grandmother died. It gutted me.
— Carol Thompson (@abbysmami) May 7, 2018
So yes, some students may be lying about a dead relative. Maybe they are lying because they spent the weekend playing video games. But maybe they are lying because it is easier than disclosing that they were sexually assaulted, or experiencing mental illness, or otherwise unable to keep up due to difficult personal circumstances. Others on Twitter recounted the indignity of being required to produce an obituary as evidence of the death of a relative. Several spoke of how the kindness, compassion, and trust of their professors helped them get through particularly difficult times. I think about these things when, for example, I walk past the AMS Food Bank at UBC. I know I am unaware of many of my students’ circumstances, and if I am teaching 250+ students in a semester, the odds are that several of them are facing significant challenges outside of my class.
Obviously there will always be students who undeservedly take advantage of an instructor’s leniency and compassion. However, like @DrJessicaLanger and @PinkPolitical, I have decided that I would rather let many students get away with lying rather than have a student in crisis feel unsupported by me.
In light of my evolving views, I have changed my classroom polices. I no longer require documentation for excused absences. If a student misses a lab because they are ill, it is silly to make them see a doctor just to get a note, and I do not want them coming to class and getting the rest of us sick. I am also willing to make exceptions to my policies when circumstances warrant. I am now aware that some students simply do not feel comfortable approaching a professor to seek assistance or accommodation. On twitter, many faculty who were first-generation or visible minority students noted that it did not even occur to them that they could ask a professor for an extension on an assignment. To make my views clear to all students, I added the following text to my syllabus:
Your Well-Being. In light of the policies above, please know that your physical and mental health is important to me. Family emergencies, physical or mental illness, personal crises, or childcare issues can significantly impact your academic performance or ability to meet deadlines. If academic or personal issues are severely affecting your ability to engage in this course, please contact me (by e-mail, phone, or in person) and we’ll work on a fair resolution. I don’t need all the details of your situation, and you may also speak to someone in student services who will work with me to determine adequate accommodations without revealing sensitive information to me.
Reaching Out to Students
During the first course I taught at UBC, several students bombed the midterm and were not attending lecture, lab, etc. I sent a few e-mails along the lines of, “If you want to succeed in this course, you need to come to class and do the work!” How idiotic of me. (1) If a student was blowing off my course because they did not care, this was not going to motivate them, and (2) if someone was struggling with the course material or unable to engage due to academic or personal circumstances outside of my course, this e-mail was only going to increase their anxiety, not reduce it.
I just gave my first midterm this semester. In a class of 170 students, a handful failed. Some had been engaged in lecture and lab, and some not. I just sent e-mails to those students, but this is what I wrote this time:
I see that you received a low score on the midterm, [and you’re missing quite a few clicker and checkup quiz points as well] OR [though I’m glad to see that you’ve been doing well on clicker points and checkup quizzes]. I really want you to have the support you need to succeed in this course. Please come to my office hours so we can check in and talk about some ideas. I have regular hours Mon 2-3, Thurs 10-11, and Fri 2-3, but I can be available other times as well (especially Thurs). What time would work for you?
I realize many faculty will read this and think it is cheesy (it is) or say that our students are adults and this is not our responsibility. I disagree. This is certainly creating more work for me, but I really hope a little intervention on my part can redirect a student who is on a bad path and may feel anonymous in my course. Perhaps over time, I will become jaded and cynical about these issues, but I am not there yet.
Update 06/23/2019: Now that the semester is over, I have reflected on how these ideas worked in practice.