The Dead Grandmother Business

Let me start by saying that by far the best take I have read on this now-notorious Chronicle piece (Shannon Reed’s fictional contract requiring a student whose grandmothers keep dying at exam time to perform various embarrassing tasks for the professor to agree to “buy” it) is this blog post by Acclimatrix at Tenure, She Wrote. Among other things, the author astutely points out what should be obvious: a dead grandmother does not have to be a dead grandmother to be a legitimate need for accommodation. But the part that nails it, for me, is this line: “I do not get the mentality of seeing your students as adversaries.”

One of the things that distinguishes college teaching from many other kinds is that one’s students are adults. Young adults, traditionally; immature, often; but adults just the same. In most respects this is a privilege, or a perk of the job. A seminar or a class discussion that goes well is a conversation among adults, one of whom has read and thought and perhaps written more about the subject in question than the others, but who is not fundamentally different from them in most other respects. (If you think I am underplaying the maturity of the professoriate vis-à-vis the student body, all I can say is that you haven’t seen me when the copier breaks down.)

With the privilege of teaching adults goes the responsibility of seeing them as adults. What bothers me most about the Chronicle piece is not what it is (it’s not especially funny, to me, but that’s not a crime) but rather what it echoes, which is an all-too-familiar regression into seeing students as naughty children to keep in line. I get that students lie, and cheat, and plagiarize; I’ve dealt with these things myself. I’ve also dealt with much the same, at various points, from colleagues and superiors. (I can hear the refrain: no doubt the latter were once the former. I’m not so sure, but studies are welcome.) But the attitude the article echoes really isn’t about such particular and obvious transgressions. Nor, really, is it about “cheating” in the sense of, say, stealing answers for an exam. What the piece is really about is character: specifically, the idea that students lack it, and that it is our job to supply it, as the price of our good grades and nice letters.

This assumption surfaces even in very different takes on the “grandmother” excuse. Here’s Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker), writing in the Chronicle in 2011:

What might I be doing to the character of those students, if they are not telling the truth, and I fail to call them on it? Perhaps some discomfort now could save one or two of them from a far more consequential misstep later?

But, as Benton goes on to point out:

If my students only knew how many times, in the decade since graduate school, I have been late for meetings or missed them entirely, and how I have failed to meet deadlines, begged for extensions, and how, in one particularly egregious case, I couldn’t deliver a book manuscript after a year’s worth of delays, they might feel that they could ask me for the time and assistance they need without worrying whether their reasons are good enough.

The idea that it is up to us to beat or scold maturity into our adult students through a program of rigorously infantilizing distrust not only radically mistakes the nature of our relationship to them but hilariously overplays our own achievements on this score. To put it another way: we are a lot like our students. The key difference, in practical terms, is that most of the people policing our deadlines are our peers, and have to treat us accordingly.

All of which said, some of the responses to Reed’s piece strike me as more than a little overblown. The tone (in some cases the literal content) of many was: “If that’s how you feel about students, you shouldn’t be teaching.” Well, maybe. I feel that way about some students, some of the time; I don’t think I know any professor who doesn’t, or hasn’t, expressed similar frustration with being lied to, or having a stolen paper submitted as coursework, etc. I didn’t name and shame them in the Chronicle, of course, but then neither did Reed. And it’s not as if professorial arrogance is the sole cause of adversarial relationships in the classroom. I’ve known colleagues who have been filmed or recorded without their permission by students acting on behalf of political groups, for instance, and of course many, many more who’ve been verbally abused by students in person (or, still more often, in evaluations). These things happen. They can be handled without being turned into maxims — or, as we might say, normalized. But is that what Reed’s piece implies?

There was also a curious strain of comment to the effect that because Reed is an adjunct professor, lacking the security of tenure, she should have been expected to show more compassion for her students — the line between her actual students and the fictional subject of the piece blurring here, if not vanishing entirely. I don’t know Reed, so I can’t say whether she treats her students the way her fictional alter-ego does; my guess would be no, though, because otherwise why write the piece this way? I do know a little, at least, about adjuncting, which brings all the responsibilities of teaching large numbers of students with none of the flexibility or security of a permanent position — flexibility that includes the capacity to grant extensions in the knowledge that one will be in the job six weeks (and six months) hence; security that makes deadlines a little less pressing and student evaluations massively less important to one’s immediate future. Perhaps the Chronicle is not the place to give vent to teaching’s frustrations; perhaps the piece was ill-judged. Still, attacking an adjunct for writing it doesn’t strike me as a particularly useful response.

I’d like to write more, but I’m a week behind on a manuscript review.

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3 thoughts on “The Dead Grandmother Business

  1. Pingback: Recommended reads #107 | Small Pond Science

  2. I like your point about how much alike we and our students are. When I began teaching, I was very concerned to have rigorous, legalistic standards. As I’ve gained experience, I find that letting my students know that I’m human as well helps a great deal. I am now open about the times when I can and can’t be flexible. For instance, when I have a firm deadline for getting grades in I cannot accept late work. When the work is to be reviewed by peers in class, it must be turned in on time. If arrangements are made before the test, I am much more flexible than afterwards.
    However, some of the people who write about being understanding of our students seem to view the situation as involving only them and the student. A colleague in student services visited our department to talk about the larger context. For instance, a student who asks for extra time in my class may have a learning difference that should be acted upon at a higher level, so the student will have that accommodation in every class. And my giving students individual accommodations can be problematic for tight-knit programs, leading to an impression of favoritism and unfairness in the program.
    Before faculty take the entire burden of making these decisions on ourselves, it might be wise to get advice from staff who have a wider perspective.

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    • Could not agree more; I have followed a similar trajectory. I think what’s really at the heart of a legitimate concern for deadlines (beyond logistical necessity) is respect. But a lot of discussions treat this as a unidirectional matter of the student’s respect for the instructor — and, by implication, for future employers. It has to run in both directions and sometimes to take the wider context of the relationship (the class, the program, etc) into account. The issue of fairness to other students is real, but I think that too is often very narrowly construed as a kind of zero-sum competition for class rank (future promotion/pay increase). I try to stay focused on the quality of the work each student does rather than the impeccability of the grade distribution.

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