Saturday, December 12, 2009

Teaching and "dead grandmother" jokes

A lot of people I know who teach at the college or university level--adjunct instructors, TA's, professors--point out sardonically the tendency of students to request either time off or extensions on assignments because a relative, usually a grandmother, allegedly passed away. Some of these teachers claim to know of instances where a single student made multiple claims in multiple semesters about the same person dying. As a general rule,these teachers make up ironic stories about how dangerous it is for people to have their grandchildren go to school, since it seems to increase their (the grandparents') chances of dying expnentially.

I have laughed at some of these stories and other jokes that poke fun at the phenomenon of allegedly spurious claims of deaths in the family, but ultimately I think these jokes are disrespectful of the students and should be avoided.

People do die, and death is serious, and we simply don't know in any given individual case that the student is simply making it all up. Most "traditional" college students are at the age when their grandparents start dying. (One of my grandmothers passed away when I was a junior in college. My other grandmother passed away at a time when my oldest brother was of "traditional" college age, even though he chose not to go to college.)

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I'm willing to stipulate that 9 out of 10 claims that a relative has passed away are false. I remember one situation in which I had my own private doubts that the student was making the whole story up. (I, of course, didn't challenge my student to produce "evidence," but something in they way she told me what happened suggested to me she was lying. I should add, however, that I have no idea--other than a "hunch," and unlike others who are so confident in their intution, my hunches are wrong at least 50% of the time--whether she was lying.) Even granted this, I think such jokes are inappropriate.

Still, I think the jokes are inappropriate. They encourage a disrespect for the students and almost an expectation that students will be immature.

I will say that in practice, my teacher friends take students claims seriously and respectfully when they're presented with an individual case. They give the time off or extensions as needed.


Anonymous said...

I admit. I have been guilty not of making the jokes, but of thinking that students were not being truthful. You are right. My grandmother died when I was in college, but I handled it very well. I think that often there is a cultural context to people dying that we overlook. In some cultures, the grandmother is the matriarch and the head of the family. Depending on a culture's concept of family, they view death as debilitating to the entire family and often can't even finish the semester. It is something to think about. I really like this entry. As always, it makes me think about the seriousness of my own thinking patterns. Thanks for writing it! :)

lindsay said...

I've only heard a dead grandma joke once in my postgraduate career. I guess every place and community is different. I do tend to ask about documentation from trips to funerals, which often helps me connect with the student (I can say what an amazing life their grandparent had, having read their obit) and in one case I called the hospital where a student's grandfather was dying, just to (anonymously) get a sense of what was happening so I could better help that student complete the course.

But your post is about more than this particular joke--I think often students have very serious situations in their lives and feel unable to discuss how those situations might impact their coursework, especially if they see their teachers make light of (or never discuss at all) topics like family and health. I think dead grandma jokes are a symptom of a larger problem. We as educators somehow fail to model compassionate care for the self in the classroom. And this extends to academic hiring practices, the scarcity of "partner hires," the inability to write about one's life and context in the dissertation & even after the dissertation, and, most interestingly for me, a tendency for women in academic contexts to choose not to birth or adopt children. Motherhood, for many, seems incompatible with academic life. Dead grandma jokes are the tip of the iceberg, I think...I really like this entry too.

theolderepublicke said...

Hi cousin!

My advisor has written on this subject a little; he's into discussing the "pathologies" of academia. I can email you the cite if you'd like and if I can find it. (I can't disclose it here because I am pseudonymous, although almost all the people who read this blog probably know who I am anyway.)

It's interesting what you said about "partner hires" because, if I understand correctly what they are--agreeing to hire one's spouse or domestic partner along with the the "one" who is being hired--they seem more common at the institutions I've been at. This is merely an anecdotal impression. I do think "partner hires" create some problems, at least in the super-aggressive and hyper-competitive culture of academe, because--again, in my anecdotal experience--the "main" person who is hired is usually very prominent in his (and it's usually "his" in my department, with only one exception that I know of) field and his partner is less prominent and leads to side references about her qualifications. Having said that, in every case I know of, the partner was a very competent, very well respected person and often did a lot of the thankless tasks that need to get done but that nobody wants to do because they are so thankless.

(If I misunderstood what "partner hire" meant, feel free to disregard my remark :) )

I agree with what you say about "the inability to write about one's life and context in the dissertation & even after the dissertation." I'm reminded of a graduate seminar where we read William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis and one of the smartest persons in the class slammed the extended prologue and epilogue because Cronon talked so much about his childhood. I was very surprise that what I thought was an entertaining and interesting way to weave his experiences with his topic garnered so much acrimony.

However, I am probably a bit more resistant than you seem to be (from what you just wrote, from our conversations and from what little I know of what you study) from explaining my own life context in my academic work. ("What work?" my adviser might ask :)) I do consider myself quite, perhaps overly, introspective, but I think I owe my reticence in part to my natural temperament and to my cowardice-disguised-as-modesty and and to my sense of what an academic work ought to do. (Having said that, the only monograph that I can say actually changed my life in any meaningful way was an introspective psycho-history by Caroline Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman)

I, myself, would probably be inclined not to be as involved with my students' own experiences--e.g., by inquiring for documentation or checking on the hospital. Again, part of the reason for this is temperamental and maybe a mark of my own discomfort with interpersonal issues--especially death and dying. But I also fear that what I do might lead to more harm than good. There have been times when I have assumed a more personal role in my students' life--when the student appeared to suffer from some sort of depression or had health issues-- and I was not always sure that I handled such situations appropriately.

It's nice to hear from you, and sorry I missed you all at Thanksgiving. Have a great Christmas!

lindsay said...

hi back, cousin!

Re partner hires, yes, we're in agreement on what they are, i think, but I guess what I was really trying to say was more vague, and has to do with how academic jobs often break people up. And again, this is totally anecdotal, but I see a lot of people (women especially) compelled to choose between their families and their jobs. And there are spectacular successes in that arena as well, with people managing to both get tenure at the same university.

I think that the approach we take with our lives in our work and the approach we take with students need not be but often are interrelated. I am someone who, for whatever reason, students tend to feel comfortable crying at or sharing stuff, etc., and it took a while to find the right balance there. When you say "But I also fear that what I do might lead to more harm than good," I really know what you mean. When I was a TA, I started carrying around a stack of bookmarks that our psychological services office produces, listing crisis lines and open counseling hours. At first I felt silly doing this, but it's helped so much I don't feel silly any more! Usually what brought a questionable student encounter into equilibrium was me saying something very blunt along the lines of "I am not qualified to help you with the topics we're discussing right now, but, I know where there are people who are qualified." As faculty, I find it much easier to avoid that situation entirely, as students seem to find it much more difficult to overshare with a professor than with a TA.

I'm excited to know more about your advisor's consideration of the passion/dispassion question. Historians seem to consider these topics often and thoughtfully.

& sorry, I'm probably messing everything up since my blogger identity is so transparent, but, I think your blog is thoughtful and respectful enough of everyone that you could easily be yourself, with your name here. On that note, I imagine many of your students would be very inspired to know that you are (to the best of my knowledge) a first-generation Ph.D student in your immediate family.

Keep on rocking that dissertation! I've found that I feel more free to put more of myself into my work now that the diss is done.

& happy holidays! hope i see you soon.