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“On Deadlines and Dead Grandmothers”

11 May 2011

A colleague many years ago told me he always accepted the student’s report of a death. And then always sent a sympathy card to the family. If the death really happened, he often received a kind than-you note. If there was no death, well… One student’s parents were so mad at their child that they pulled him out of school. Win-win for the instructor.

That is a comment on a recent Chronicle of Higher Education blog post, “On Deadlines and Dead Grandmothers.” Like the author, those of you who teach have probably noticed the incredible uptick in deaths of grandparents at the close of each semester:

So—as I bide my time at the Minneapolis airport—it seems almost providential that my e-mail contains two unanswered messages from students who—amazingly—have just experienced the tragic death of their grandmothers, just as the semester is ending.

Both need extensions, and, most likely, special arrangements for their final exams next week. Neither has offered any proof, and I can’t recall that a student has ever volunteered to provide it in similar circumstances. Nor can I remember that a student has ever sought leniency in this way face to face; it always seems to be done by e-mail.

I think the commenter’s colleague’s approach is a great idea that I will employ in the future. I’ve struggled to come up with some plan of action that doesn’t have me second-guessing the veracity of the claim and my own cynicism. The Chronicle blogger put it best:

Maybe if I were a more open and approachable professor, with a longer history of generosity and kindness, fewer grandmothers would have to die.

What do you do?

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 May 2011 1:08 pm

    I had a girl come to me at the end of a tutorial about a week before the paper for the class was due. She had been looking rather maudlin that session and burst into tears the minute we started talking. It appears that her grandmother had passed away and that she needed to go home to help her mother cope with the situation. Of course this situation is destined to arouse suspicion but I was amazed that, in the circumstances, she had even come to class. Honestly, it does not surprise me one bit that most of these notifications come by email given the sad and often traumatic nature of this news to family members. I automatically granted her the extension and gave her the next week of tutorials so that she could go home.

    On the other hand, many of my professors in college were very clear about needing an email from a responsible family member, should someone pass away. This situation seems hard to judge: on one hand, anyone taking time off school should have no trouble procuring such a note from their parents; and on the other hand, it seems insensitive to even ask. Probably the best policy is to put that kind of thing in the syllabus because it discourages casual last-minute lies along these lines. Anyone who comes forward to say that their grandparent has died then is probably telling the truth or is a very determined and amoral liar.

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