The Chronicle Review

What If Her Grandmother Really Did Die?

Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review

June 19, 2011

There was nothing eventful about my workout in the gym that afternoon. After lifting, I chatted with Dan, the locker-room attendant. A young woman appeared after a post-workout shower, her hair still wet. She had gone about her business in the college fitness center essentially unnoticed. It appeared to be the end of an average day. Yet when Dan asked her, "Are you OK?" she began to cry, and she said, "I don't want to go home." She continued to walk down the hallway, as if resigned to confronting some horrible fate.

As she vanished around the corner, Dan told me that her mother had been killed in a head-on car crash early that morning. The young woman had chosen to stick with the security of her daily routine.

For the past four years, I've shared this story when discussing the anger-management technique known as "excuses and empathy" in classes such as "Death and Dying" and "Substance Use and Abuse." The technique involves making up a story about someone who has upset you that, if it were true, would prevent you from becoming upset. Many students and colleagues say my story about the woman in the gym has helped them to become more patient and understanding, thus improving their relationships. It could also transform how you think about your students and the excuses they might provide for, say, not handing in assignments on time.

If someone can appear to be in the middle of an average day less than 10 hours after she learned that her mother had just been killed in a violent car accident, then maybe we should more readily excuse our students and colleagues for what we perceive as their shortcomings.

We make assumptions about the lives of our students and colleagues with scant evidence to back up our point of view. If people, including those who work and study on college campuses, are rude, thoughtless, or angry, we might think they deserve our unfiltered response. In reality, people are coping with loss, mental and physical illness, abuse, shame, fear, and uncertainty.

Do you feel frustrated when a capable student begins turning work in late? Would it matter if that person, like a student I met with just days before writing this article, had lost her mother to suicide three weeks earlier? Following her mother's death, this student became responsible for her two much younger siblings (their dad is involved in the war effort in Afghanistan), and she is dealing with the aftermath of an abusive romantic relationship that left her with broken bones and shaken self-worth.

After she turned in a second paper late, I sent her an e-mail that read, "Excellent paper. I cannot resist stating the obvious—you would be doing much better if you turned in your papers on time. Will you do this for the next assignment?" She replied, "Thanks! You made me laugh with that comment, so the answer is I will finally get it together and start handing stuff in on time!" Yet she didn't tell me about her mother until a week later, and never asked for, or expected, any accommodation. It was an important reminder of the challenges students confront that we are unaware of.

Why should professors excuse their students? Actually, we should excuse everyone we encounter. The excuser is the true beneficiary. It's natural to fight that suggestion. We tend to think, "'Yeah, right'—shorthand for, 'The odds are that this person is not struggling with some life-or-death issue.'" Faculty usually assume that students are being lazy and irresponsible. However, by ignoring opportunities to make excuses for their students, faculty members are missing out on a legitimate anger-management technique and its ability to transform them into the kind of compassionate professors students gravitate toward.

In contrast to the complaints professors make about fictional deaths and other unsubstantiated excuses, my experience has been one of students dealing with monumental losses, their pain going unnoticed by peers and faculty members alike. This semester, for example, a first-year student was devastated when her best friend, a talented athlete, died of an embolism following knee surgery; a gay male struggled with fitting in; two female students were actively involved in helping their mothers fight cancer; and one student lost her mom to suicide. Their classmates had no idea.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons why students struggle with deadlines and the demands of college. Twenty-four percent of college students take psychiatric medication, according to some reports. In the United States, about 80 million adults (one in three) have cardiovascular disease, 12 million are currently battling invasive cancer, and more than 2.4 million deaths occur annually—nearly 1 percent of the population. Since the illness and death of a person affects many lives, isn't it probable that during the course of an academic year, several of our students will be affected?

Then there are those students who are wrestling with issues related to their sexuality, struggling with the dissolution of a romantic relationship, or attempting to recover from sexual trauma. Sexual assault affects as many as one in five female college students. And recent statistics reveal that about 50 percent of sexually active Americans will contract a sexually transmitted infection by the age of 25. A recent experience highlights the centrality of those statistics in students' lives. During a first-day lecture, while attempting to explain the value of formal education versus reliance on real-life experience, I made what I thought was an innocuous comment: "You don't have to experience herpes to learn about herpes." After class, a student asked, "Will we be talking about herpes much? I've recently become infected, and become very anxious whenever it's brought up." Despite inviting her to talk and reassuring her that all would be well, she dropped the class.

Rather than being suspicious when a relatively small number of students present excuses, professors might be more concerned by the paucity of excuses they receive. No news might indicate a perceived lack of approachability, not the absence of real problems.

However, excusing and empathizing with students does not mean excusing absences or assignments. A student-athlete does not learn about biology when dribbling on the hardwood, nor does one learn about literature while attending a funeral.

Nor should professors request or expect explanations or documentation for absences or missed assignments. Doing so invades students' privacy, rewards those who are willing to comply, and unfairly penalizes those who are more guarded. Life happens, and not everyone wants to share the details. Instead of prying, professors can imagine a host of excuses for their students, feel empathy for whatever students might be dealing with, and be more accommodating and flexible.

Rather than saying it is OK to miss a class, for example, professors can adopt strategies of distance learning and independent study to provide alternative assignments that are rigorous and enable students to acquire the requisite knowledge. Such options might be more challenging than the missed class or assignment, thus providing a disincentive to miss class without legitimate, if unexplained, reasons.

Acknowledging that college students undergo painful experiences just like the rest of us is the beginning of a more compassionate approach to interacting with them. Regardless of whether they give you excuses, excuse them, and, when possible, guide them to a valuable learning experience, even if it is different than what you had originally planned.

Christopher A. Hirschler is an assistant professor of health studies at Monmouth University.