Yesterday, an article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education which I am NOT going to link to, because I am saddened that it was given a voice in the first place and will not be party to giving it a further voice. Since then, there has been quite a bit of backlash on my twitter feed in response to the article -- thankfully -- and I tried to articulate my own feelings in 140 character capsules. I didn't succeed, so here's a blog post instead.
The crux of my feelings are summed up in the title of this post. These are not my words, but the words of someone who COULD articulate in 140 characters:
Absolutely right. Thank you for saying this. And grief should never ever ever be met with suspicion.— Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) June 19, 2017
These words are worth saying again: Grief should never ever be met with suspicion.
Two further points:
- The assumption that a student is lying should NEVER EVER be the default.
- If students are lying about things like this we should instead be asking ourselves what's gone wrong that they end up in such a position.
Ad (1). The entire student-teacher relationship is predicated on trust. My students trust me to give them the information they need -- to learn the course material, to do the exercises, to pass the exam. In return, I must trust that they are coming willing to learn and willing to work. Our relationship must be collaborative, not combative. We are not antagonists here. If I approach my interactions with my students from the assumption that they are lying to me or trying to pull one over me, the foundation for my entire relationship with them is destroyed. It isn't just a matter of whether or not family members die at inconvenient times. I don't assume that students are cheating until proven otherwise. Why would I assume that they are lying to me about something as important as a death in the family?
Ad (2). Suppose it is a lie. Suppose that no grandmother has died. Shouldn't that be far less a concern than understanding how a student could end up in a position where it seemed like the best thing to do was to lie?
Sometimes your student is going to say "death in the family" to avoid having to explain that they were assaulted to a near stranger.— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) June 19, 2017
So maybe they are lying. Drawing from that the conclusion that they are lying out of laziness or lack of organisation is, in my opinion, near the height of hubris. I do not know what my students' lives are like -- and I don't need to. I make an explicit point of telling students this, that they do NOT need to divulge more details than they are comfortable with, once I have fulfilled my duty of care and ensured that no one is in danger. On a principle of epistemic humility alone, I should not assume the least charitable explanation. I guess this is what bothers me the most about the original post -- that it should seem so difficult for the author to imagine that the situation is far more complex than the mere death of a relative at an inconvenient time.
Further, the fact that students can end up in a position where it seems like their best option is to lie happens points to structural problems in academia. I don't know how to address them, but I do know I don't want to participate in them any more than I have to.
Suppose it is a lie. Suppose I develop a reputation as the gullible bleeding-heart professor who is willing to be generous and lenient. You know what? I'm actually good with that. If my students can't come to me about a death in the family, why on earth would they ever come to me about anything more serious? And if I -- a responsible adult in a secure situation -- am not someone they can go to when they are in difficulties and need help, then, really, what good am I? There is no amount of logic that I can teach my students that would ever make up for me standing by the side and doing nothing when instead I could help someone.
Grief should never, ever be met with suspicion. That our students are lying to us should never, ever be our default position.