Please excuse this post that is not entirely about the death of another grandparent

Earlier this week, a little attempt at humor appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece by Shannon Reed called “To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s).” Over 300 comments later (as of this morning, at least), it’s a column that just keeps giving and giving, as a failure, a morphing rhetorical situation, and as a teachable moment. I wasn’t going to write or think about it any more (I actually have a blog post in progress about MOOC stuff!), but I’m having a hard time just away. So…

Told in the form of a satirical/humorous email or letter reply to a student asking for some sort of excuse because of the death yet another grandmother, this time during finals, Reed (or some persona of Reed) expresses sympathy and then offers a long and exhaustive list of things the student will need to do for Reed to “buy” the excuse. Terms of the deal include a videotape of the eulogy from the funeral, agreement that the student dress in black for a semester, and agreeing to remain chaste for a year.

Ha-ha.

Comment hijinks ensued. I didn’t read them all of course, but I did skim many. Almost immediately (and maybe this is the first comment?), there was “You’d think this was a lot less funny if your grandmother, with whom you were close, suddenly passed during finals week, as mine did my sophomore year.” There were many other references to personal experiences with deaths of loved ones while in college with no or little awareness that this was supposed to be a joke, as in “My mom died the Friday before finals, and all my teachers treated me with sympathy and kindness.This teacher, if this ever really happened, should be fired.” Then there were comments that seemed to go even further down the bureaucracy/procedure hole (again, as if this was real). There was this one in response to the previous comment, “Isn’t that pretty harsh? Would you like to be judged by the same standard?” and this bizarrely detailed comment on how FERPA plays into all this– though it is nice to see that this writer believes this was written as satire (though not very good satire). There were dozens and dozens of comments where the commenter thought this was a good moment to share their unique take on dealing with excuses like dead grandparents, dozens and dozens of comments about how Reed is an awful person, and even a few who tried to point out it was all a joke. Ha-ha.

Oh, and then there’s this blog response that for me walks that line between being completely legitimate and “holier than thou,” To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s).

First off, I think this is a fine example of how the medium alters the situation such that the rhetor completely loses control. The place where the audience takes all of this is far far away from the writer’s original intent. That’s not unique in web-based forums like this, but a) it remains for me one of the defining characteristics of “digital” rhetorics/immediate rhetorical situations, and b) this particular example seems pretty extreme.

Closely related is the fact that this is the audience disconnect with the genre. The Chronicle of Higher Education does not usually publish humor (or attempts at humor); rather, it usually publishes earnest pieces about the state of affairs in higher education. The subject matter here– venting about students and their “lame” excuses– is the sort of thing that usually comes packaged in CHE as some kind of commentary about the state of the “kids today” and/or advice for faculty. It is not McSweeney’s, which, if this had actually been funny, would have been a better venue. I think this explains why so many of the responses to Reed’s piece are so earnest.

Anyway, I think this article and the backlash around it is a good “teachable moment.” If I were still working with Graduate Assistants teaching for the first time, I might share this with them. In my view, it’s always bad form to complain about students in public (albeit online) places and publications. Oh sure, students can be incredibly frustrating and anyone who has been teaching for a while has all kinds of stories like this one. But those stories are the sort of thing that ought to stay in the office (or the bar) among fellow instructors. And especially never make fun of hypothetically dead grandmas.

As for what to do about these kinds of excuses, I’m not sure this is the best advice in the world but this is what I do:

I started teaching as a Graduate Assistant in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in those days, the university had a rule that basically said that if a student missed more than something like three weeks of class in a term, that student couldn’t get a passing grade regardless of the reason why the student missed that much class. At EMU, the institutional language for this is a lot more convoluted and squishy, but basically, it says a student can’t fail only because of a lack of attendance. So, in a sort of combination of my past practice and what’s going on now, I usually have an attendance policy that allows students to miss up to two weeks of a course for any reason, but then there’s a heavy penalty where students lose the participation part of the grade (which is usually worth at least 25% of the overall grade). So if they miss a lot of class for any reason, the student generally (see below) cannot pass.

In other words, there are no “excused absences” for anything because (as I usually say to students on the first day of class) I don’t want to be put into a position where I have to ask for and then speculate about the validity of a death certificate, and I don’t need to dig into the details about how close you were to your now dead uncle or grandmother or whoever. I lay this policy out in pretty strict and stark terms on the first day of the semester since it is always easier to lighten up on rules later on (and it is absolutely impossible as a teacher to start the semester with no rules for things like attendance and then impose them later on), and also because it’s fair warning to students about how things are going to go. I’ve had students who showed up the first day and, faced with an attendance policy where missing more than two weeks of a class means they probably can’t pass, have raised their hands and tell me that they have to be gone for two weeks (for work, for a family trip, for a sporting event, whatever) and if I think that is going to be a problem. Yes, I say, yes it is.

(For what it’s worth, I have a similar though more complicated “attendance” policy for online classes as well. I’ll spare the details for now, but students just “disappear” from online classes all the time).

I have lots of reasons for this approach, but the bottom line is if learning is going to be a social and interactive enterprise that requires participation and presence, then you can’t do these things if you’re gone. Students often think of these rules as being “unfair” and “restrictive” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is attendance policies are usually for students’ own good. Attendance policy or not, show me a student who has missed too many classes and I’ll show you a student who is likely to fail the class for missed work anyway.

Though as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is generally my attendance policy. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I do realize that students are indeed people and, like the rest of us, shit does sometimes happen. Plus after doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out the real and fake dead grandmas– at least I think I have. In any event, I’ve had good students over the years who missed more than two weeks of class because life/shit has clearly happened to them and we’re able to work it out pretty much on a case by case basis.

The more troubling cases for me are the students who have completely legitimate reasons for missing class who bend over backwards to not miss class. A completely made-up and extreme example: “My mother was shot in a drive-by shooting last night and I’m the oldest kid so I have to deal with all the details of the funeral and the house and everything. Is it okay if I miss class Wednesday? I promise I’ll be back Monday.” In those situations, I will often offer my sympathies, of course excuse them from class, and remind them that school is school and it is not necessarily life. You can take this class later, but you have to deal with all of the complexities of life as they happen.

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