December, 22, 2015
Ah, yes, the end of the semester…the time when we rush to catch up on grading, students repeatedly ask what they can do to make up their poor performance the previous 13 weeks of the semester and grandmothers start dropping like flies. This time of semester, I can’t help but be reminded of the classic M*A*S*H* skit where Klinger “receives a letter from home” informing him that his mother is dying and he needs an emergency leave. We next learn of all the previous like letters he has received over time, ending with “an oldie but a goodie – half the family pregnant, the other half dying.” While we joke about the depths to which students will stoop, hopefully just short of murder, to get out of final exams or to wrangle last minute extensions, we still have to consider the broader context. Life does happen to our students. Life happens to us. I was intimately reminded of this about two weeks before the end of the 2013 fall semester. On a Friday night, I was in a car accident. While I walked away with only a few bruises, aches and a mild concussion, it still threw me for a loop. Not feeling capable of teaching on Monday, I cancelled my classes and suggested to my students that they use the time to prepare for the final review in the next class. I was lucky, on a number of levels. First, I was not seriously injured; the same cannot be said for my car and I had to deal with replacing it. Second, I had some flexibility in my schedule and I was able to easily fold in Monday’s material to the next class and still have room for the exam review. Finally, I had support (and an order) from my chair and program director to rest and take care of myself. I also had no classes on Tuesdays so I had ample time to recuperate. While naturally caught up in my own drama I was quickly reminded that my students go through the same things as we do.
I consider that weekend the beginning of the never-ending winter. Over the next few days, the temperature dropped leaving icy roads. The following Thursday, I saw the consequences. Allison (all names are pseudonyms) came to me asking for an extension on her last paper. She, too, had totaled her car and her laptop was still in it. Allison was a good student and I had not informed my students as to the reason for my cancellation of class other than to state that I was “unwell.” I do not believe she was playing on my empathy. Karen emailed me to let me know that she would be missing class on Friday because she had been in a car accident and her parents wanted her to see their family doctor at home. Upon arriving at my classroom in the afternoon, Joanne was waiting for me outside, tears streaming down her face. She had just learned that her best friend from high school had been killed in a car accident that morning. My first concern was that someone was coming to get her and that she would not be driving in that state.
All of these accidents have caused me to reflect on how we deal with students when life happens to them. What lessons do we teach – either anthropologically or not – when we treat our students with respect and trust? Are we too soft if we do? Are we giving them the dignity they deserve? I have been involved in higher education for almost twenty years. I spent eight years as an academic affairs professional before earning my doctorate and entering the professorate side of the field. I have heard all sorts of excuses for academic failure, many of them last grasps at straws but many of them legitimate. All of this comes back to why I am an educator and why I returned to anthropology.
I have joked that we can save the world through anthropology. We teach respect for others, different or otherwise. We teach the value in humanity (period!). Shouldn’t we approach our relationships with students with the same respect and dignity that we approach our research participants? I follow John Dewey’s philosophy that the role of (higher) education is to produce citizens…We teach our students to respect themselves (to call themselves men and women not boys and girls) and to respect others (ethnocentrism bad, cultural relativity good!). Shouldn’t we model how that operates in the “real world” through classroom interaction?
Now how does this relate to missed classes at the end of a semester? Life happens. How we deal with students when it does teaches them just as much as lecturing them on Geertz’s approach to thick description or discussing the global care chain. While we often become desensitized to the trials and excuses that our students bring us, how we treat them in those cases, real or otherwise, will carry forward into their later lives and how they treat others. We put anthropology into action with every interaction. Let’s remember the humanity on which we build our studies in those interactions as well.