Like most college instructors, I'm often told much more about my students' personal lives than I have any desire to know. Over the past several years I've had students tell me about girlfriends with unplanned pregnancies, fiancés with PTSD and assault charges, siblings who committed suicide, and spouses caught molesting their own children.
Rarely do the more appalling stories seem intended as pleas for sympathy; they're mentioned matter-of-factly, by students apologizing for having missed a class, or they come out at the end of the semester as part of an awkward apology for not having done better in the course.
And I'm caught, always, between two impulses: first, immense compassion. But second, deep discomfort that I've been made a party to my students' very private private lives.
My standard response is a brief, tone-neutral expression of sympathy: "I'm sorry to hear about your loss" or "I understand it can be hard to do your best work when you're facing a personal crisis." And I sign off "best wishes." I will occasionally extend deadlines, but I don't grade more generously or change my policies. In the case of on-going crises, I'll add a boilerplate bit about how it's okay to choose to attend to one's personal life over one's schoolwork, and how sometimes that's the smartest decision--followed by advice about dropping the class or how easily-explained a single semester of low grades will be to a grad school or future employer.
I consider this, basically, my minimal obligation as a teacher and a human being. But more than half the time I'll get students who respond with a rush of gratitude for my kindness, telling me (for example) that I was the only one of their five professors to respond to their email about their grandmother's death. (I'll look back at my two-sentence email, and think, "this is kindness?")
Still, I understand where this kind of studently oversharing comes from: they're in crisis and they're not thinking about which details (like the blow-by-blow of their girlfriend's doctors appointments) might be better elided. I don't love being the recipient of those details, but I realize that in such cases I'm really only a bystander, getting splashed by the effluvia of my students' messy and complicated lives.
The kind of oversharing for which I have much less patience is the kind that imagines the student's personal hardship--however minor--as both inherently deserving of sympathy and something for which they need permission. I have students who catch me on the way into class, with 60 seconds before the start of the period, who want to tell me about how sick they're feeling and ask whether it's "okay" if they leave early or don't attend at all. Will it count as an absence? Will it affect their participation grade?
I tell them brusquely that if they're not feeling well, they should go home. But yes, it will be an absence.
Then they ask if it will be an absence if they stay for half the class, or if it's okay if they have to put their heads down for a while, because they haven't been getting enough sleep lately--and then they want to launch into some complicated backstory about their roommate, or their math exam, or how no one at the health center knows what's wrong with them.
I want to shake them and say, stop talking! do what you need to do! I don't control your life, and I don't need a note from your doctor or mother, your bank teller or barista.
It's exhausting, is what it is, managing all these personal lives in addition to my own.