Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Oversharing, overcaring

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.


Anonymous said...

There's a TV commercial for something--I think some kind of insurance, maybe--running right now that comes to mind when I have to deal with the sort of students you describe at the end of the post (obviously the commercial isn't terribly great at selling what it's selling, since I can't remember what it is, but it's otherwise memorable).

It depicts a military drill instructor who has become a therapist, and he shouts at the teary client, basically telling him to shape up. He then ays, seemingly sympathetically, "Tissue?" Followed immediately by his chucking a Kleenex box across the room at the client. That's what I want to do--chuck the tissues at them.

What Now? said...

Back at St. Martyr's, I once had a student come to me in the first week of class to explain that she had significant hearing loss and to talk about how we could best accommodate that disability in class. She was very prepared -- handed me a typed sheet about her particular hearing loss and what it meant -- and she wasn't asking for any special favors, just wanted me to know about her issue. We talked for a few minutes about where would be the best spot for her to sit in class, how to handle small group work and whole class discussion, etc. And then, as she was leaving, she started crying and thanked me for having been so nice. This surprised me -- really, what had I done? -- but she told me that many of her professors assumed that she wanted special treatment and were brusque or worse with her. So apparently my being a basically polite, decent human being was something to write home about. I had the same thought you do -- This is kindness? Yeesh.

Dr. Virago said...

This is one of the reasons why I'm glad I won't be grad adviser when I come back from sabbatical. I got double and triple doses of oversharing because of my role, and it was, as you point out, utterly exhausting. And even non-traditional, adult grad students didn't grasp that the choices of how to deal with these things was in their hands and that they didn't need my permission or absolution or whatever. (I even had an exchange -- the kind in the 60 seconds before class -- with one of them that went like this: Stu: I'd like to leave early for X campus talk. Would that be OK? Me: Do what you have to do. The choice is yours, but you're still responsible for what you miss. Stu: Well, no, actually, the choice is *yours*. Me: No it's not. You're not my prisoner or a minor dependent. You don't need my permission.) And I even have an absence policy that says you get 3 freebies -- no excuses needed -- and everything counts after that, so use your freebies wisely.

DDB said...

I don't think I'll ever be able to listen to my students again discussing their personal lives without the phrase "splashed by the effluvia of my students' messy and complicated lives" flashing through my mind. That is one of the more evocative descriptions of the student-professor dynamic that I've heard.

Anonymous said...

You are really REQUIRED to report some of those things: A PARENT MOLESTING A CHILD? That confession didn't set off alarm bells?????? You are required by law to report something like that, and it sounds like a lot of these students need some professional counselling. Even though some of these confessions make for an awkward moment, you need to cope with your discomfort and start to solve some problems that are clearly beyond the coping powers of your students.

Anonymous said...

OVERCARING? When do you start caring? I don't see any caring whatsoever in this post.

Flavia said...

Anon 6.22:

Perhaps you would like to reread my post. I did not say that my student was the molester, or that I was the only recipient of the information. In fact, the student in question had reported the incident immediately, the spouse was in jail, and a divorce was pending.

I gave those examples as examples of the seriousness of the crises my students face, and that I'm informed of; you can't infer from the absence of information in my blog post what I have done or haven't done. I always make sure my students have sought out professional counselors when I hear of such events (but to date, they've all already availed themselves of the appropriate resources).

But thanks for your concern. You too, Anon. 6.25.