You’re sitting by yourself in the cafeteria, and your cell phone rings. It’s your dad.
You suck in your breath, and stare at the screen. You haven’t spoken to your family in weeks, ever since that fight you had over Christmas dinner.
It’s your first year in college. You’re broke, lonely, depressed, and you haven’t been eating much or going to class very often. Your grades are suffering and finals are next week, but you’re too overwhelmed to think about that. Against your better judgement, or maybe just because you want to hear someone’s voice, you pick up:
‘Your grandmother is dying. Come home.’
Click. What do you do?
About a week ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article through their Vitae platform entitled ‘Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before The Midterm …’.
This article, written by a Dr. Stacey Patton, is basically a long joke about students that make up lies about a death in the family in order to get out of midterms. In the introduction, it even draws hard data from a paper called The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome, which gives shocking graphs, such as the one on the left that proves that ‘students failing a class [are] 50 times as likely as others to lose a grandmother.’
Crazy, right? One issue, though:
That study, along with all of the data, is fake.
The original author has said very plainly that the article was just a jokey paper he wrote in 1990 (at the same institution where The Onion was founded in 1988, no less), and that he ‘made up all the numbers’. This fact seems to have escaped Dr. Patton.
But, never mind the facts. Dr. Patton uses the hoax data as a lead-in to a sort of compilation of fantasy rants by jaded professors. The premise is simple:
‘Let’s say you get a note from a student who you’re pretty sure is making up a story about a dead grandmother. How would you write back?’
She sent the above prompt to nine professors, and the rest of the article consists of their emails back to her. ‘You might get some useful ideas here,’ she promises, ‘but you’ll definitely get to see some high-quality venting.’
But what follows could hardly be called ‘high-quality’ anything, unless you are interested in a jumbled stream of passive-aggressive, angry rants from professors that think belittling students that just might be going through a crisis is the apex of comedy.
For example, here’s this snarky opener from an adjunct:
And this gem from someone that is not easily impressed:
And this threat to shame the student while they are away at the funeral:
There’s more, but it’s basically all like this. Save for one, all of the responses are childish, petty, and just downright mean.
Reading this stuff is weird.
It makes me wonder why these people are in this profession, at all.
Because a long time ago, I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. Because I wanted to see the look on students’ faces when they finally ‘got’ a concept. Not because I wanted to sit in a dusty library.
Because I wanted to learn along with my students. Not because I enjoy the power trip that comes with holding a modicum of control over a student’s GPA – like this professor, who seems positively ecstatic to hand over an F:
Why is this necessary? Do these people not realize that one of their students — maybe not one whose grandparent is dying, but one who just needs a mentor — might Google them, and accidentally discover how cruel they are?
Callousness with a Cause?
I’ve watched my friends agonize over this stuff. I’ve even been warned to dress professionally and speak softly at conferences so as to mitigate my unfortunate blackness — not that that’s protected me from all sorts of bizarre racist interactions, like panel moderators introducing me as ‘angry’ to a packed lecture room in Chicago, or elite scholars trying to touch my hair at Harvard.
So, I understand that those at a disadvantage — specifically, scholars that are women, minorities, young, or any combination of the above — may feel a need to overcompensate by projecting an air of over-professionalism. In other words, some people are extremely strict, to the point of being cold, because it is professionally safest to do so.
Women in particular may worry that kindness may be perceived as weakness. I get that.
But that’s precisely why I was so disappointed to see that all of these cruel emails were from women, minorities, and people teaching in Ethnic Studies departments.
One would think that they would remember feeling confused and rejected as new students. One would think that the memory of entering a campus where Women’s History or Black History was an elective, but the history of Dead White Dudes was taught in every required core class would inspire them to at least refrain from publicly belittling younger versions of themselves that might one day need their help.
This isn’t about the rare student that has a grandmother die before a midterm. This is about the very common student that is lonely, and needs a mentor, and will be heartbroken to discover via a Google search that their new professor views students as customers to be ridiculed. After all, these ‘younger versions’ of these professors are the students that are most at risk for feeling rejected and isolated.
That’s not an idle statement, by the way. Here are some hard numbers from Cornell University, where I study and teach:
I made this graph based on data from a 2013 Cornell student survey. Despite the fact that the pretty, interactive graphs featured on Cornell’s site only let you sort by school year and major and view questions about academic satisfaction, Cornell actually does collect data on racial inclusion and mental health. But they don’t announce it.
To find this data, I had to dig through a 113-page, badly formatted PDF, hidden away in a difficult-to-find page on Cornell’s server. Kudos to them for releasing it, I guess.
But looking at the data, it’s clear that minorities are particularly vulnerable here. About thirty percent of Asian and Hispanic students say that they have two or less people they trust in times of need, and a full ten percent of black students say that they have absolutely nobody to talk to when they are depressed.
Here are some more bleak statistics from the ‘institution where any person can find instruction in any study’:
First, check that left side. Minorities are more likely than white students to be completely non-functional for a week or more, due to anxiety or depression.
But look at the right side of the graph — at those who answered ‘five times or more’. One in ten Hispanic students is so overwhelmed by depression or anxiety that they cannot function for at least 5 weeks, out of a school year that is only 30 weeks long in total. Black students aren’t doing much better — and really, I’m worried about the white students as well, because anything over zero percent is too high.
Some of this is a function of Cornell’s inability (well, refusal) to take inclusion and mental health seriously. (We have a mandatory swimming test required for graduation, but no mandatory course on diversity.) I’ve never met so many depressed black and brown kids in my life. So maybe the places these professors work at are happier. And I also understand that teachers aren’t completely to blame for poor student mental health.
But those eight professors in that article are certainly not helping any.
And look, I understand gallows humor.
I understand being frustrated with students that lie to you. But what I don’t understand is the thought process that allows one to think that broadcasting to the world that you have no heart is a good idea. Really, this reminds me of back when anonymous police officers started posting racist messages about Michael Brown and Eric Garner on law enforcement forums — except now, we have names to attach to the callousness.
But hey, as long as it’s getting clicks, right?
When I first read this article, I tweeted about it, calling it ‘boring, insensitive, unoriginal’ — an evaluation I stand by today.
Four days later, Dr Stacey Patton herself started tweeting at me. And at the end of a rather bizarre exchange in which she tried to shame me for not having memorized The Last of the Mohicans, she attempted to prove the usefulness of these childish rants by telling me just how popular her article has been:
This is what terrifies me the most. Why is this ‘resonating’? Is this what we do now for entertainment?
Has higher education become an industry in which a caste of people who made terrible life decisions are only able to derive joy from ridiculing and abusing younger versions of themselves?
I hope not — but if it has, I want out. Now.
Yeah, it sucks to be taken advantage of.
I’m teaching a class right now called ‘hey guys let’s talk about cool stuff #swag’ (yes that is the real title) that I’ve been working really hard on. I even write about it sometimes. And yeah, maybe a student will come up with a silly excuse to get out of turning in an essay. That would make me a little sad.
But I won’t play mindreader or dish out moralizing punishment, because that’s not my flavor, nor is it my place. My stipend is pretty good as graduate student pay goes, but quite frankly, they don’t pay me enough to get worked up over a fib or a grade. My students are all adults, and it’s not my job to teach them any ‘life lessons’ on anything that isn’t on my syllabus–especially if that ‘lesson’ is just an excuse for me to get an ego boost by lording my power over someone weaker than me.
I know that not all professors are like this. In fact, most (I hope) aren’t. I’m certainly not. And at the very least, I’m confident that the dozen or so great teachers and professors to whom I owe my academic career would never stoop so low as to publish a tasteless rant on a silly industry blog.
Even so, I think a lot of reflection needs to be done here.
On the part of the professors, for agreeing to publish such petty and heartless snark on a public website.
On the part of Dr. Stacey Patton, for writing the professorial equivalent of a Buzzfeed listicle composed of angsty Livejournal entries, except without the humor and cat gifs.
And on the part of The Chronicle of Higher Education itself, for giving the green light to an article that not only shows the ugliest side of the higher education industry, but actively celebrates and promotes it.
And maybe on my part as well, for getting so upset about all this. I’m still a graduate student, I don’t have a ‘real’ job yet, and I’m easily a decade or more younger than most of the contributing professors. So check in with me when I’m 40 or 45 — maybe I’ll also be a jaded, sad person that gets his kicks from making fun of kids that are going through life-shattering experiences. Maybe that’s part of the tenure process.
But if that happens, someone please show me this article again, and encourage me to find another job.
get at me: @dexdigi