On sickness and teaching and respect


This is my ninth day of being sick. I think it was a flu. (Yes, I had this year’s flu shot.) It caught everybody in my home.

I’ve been back at work for a couple days, though I’m still coughing regularly, and my brain remains foggy. I’ve dropped so many balls. Fortunately, none of them are glass, though there are enough of them bouncing that I can’t quite keep up. There are a few things I am waaaaaay too late on.

I didn’t revise the writing assignments for teaching, like I said I would within a week. I haven’t revised the manuscript that just needs a light revision and I’m sure my coauthors are silently fed up. I have some editorial duties that involve substantial decisions.  I have to do a bunch of admin stuff to launch a new program, this is long long overdue. And I need to nail down a new seminar I’m taking on the road. (And heads up, if you’re you at UCR or UCI, by the way). Nine days ago, I didn’t plan on having been sick for nine days.

If I had to take a test at this moment, I imagine I would bomb it.

I’m not pointing this out to solicit some digital sympathy. (Though I won’t argue with any.) My point here is to show how everybody around me has adjusted to my illness rather well. Our carpool partners have picked up the slack to get our kid to school. My students are okay getting stuff back later. My coauthors are the best. The folks on University Senate know my health comes first. The editor that’s been waiting for an essay from me remains patient.

It appears that a lot of the forbearance that I’ve received is because of my status that I’ve attained, as a result of the time I’ve put into gaining this position. If I were to not do something because I’m sick, then people around me pretty much have no choice to accept that anyway. I’m not bringing it up as a matter of negotiation. I suppose if I failed to deliver all the time because of claiming sickness (but not a disability), then this wouldn’t have much credence. Nonetheless, it just seems that I can claim “SICK!” and people not only believe me, but also give me all the slack that I need to focus on getting better.

It makes me absolutely furious that students enrolled in our classes don’t get the same level of respect.

I barely made it in to teach class on Tuesday night. One of the students emailed me in advance, saying she was sick, and couldn’t make it. Another student told me she had a family emergency down in Orange County and couldn’t make it back up here in time. I let them know that that was fine, that they could get caught up on what we did in class, and hoped they’d get better soon and that family situations would be as good as possible.

One of these students just emailed me a doctor’s note. Just to confirm that they were sick. Which I totally did not need or expect. After being laid up for several days, my spouse and I called up the nurse line to talk about our symptoms to see if was worth going in. They said (I paraphrase), “no, you’re sick, but it sounds like you’ll muddle through and coming in won’t help unless you get worse.” So we didn’t go in. Not everybody has this kind of healthcare, though, and I wouldn’t want someone to have to go get a doctor’s note which can be costly not just in terms of money, but also time and effort when you’re sick. (I had to do this once when I was really sick in college, and I’m still mad about this decades later.)

If we’re going to teach effectively, we need to have mutual respect with our students. Asking them to provide evidence that they’re not lying to us is not consistent with a respectful relationship. I agree with the principle of “Trust, but verify,” but if the verification involves any kind of additional difficulty for the other party, then perhaps we should be defaulting to trust?

Of course, if we simply allow students to lie to us all the time with no consequences, that’s not respectful for all of the honest students, who don’t get the accommodations when they are not lying. How can you respect everybody? How about we run our classes so that a student with a family emergency or a sudden illness don’t have to beg for forbearance? That everybody just gets a certain amount of forbearance? This earlier well-read post has a few suggestions, and more are in the comments.

Please. Be kind to our students, and respect our students. Believe them when they say they’re having problems, and more importantly, develop course policies so that they aren’t required to get your permission to get sick.

4 thoughts on “On sickness and teaching and respect

  1. I agree. I would rather let a few jerks take advantage of me than make life harder for most who are doing their best. A couple of times I’ve been told I was the only one of their profs cutting them any slack. Made me sad.

  2. I put a lot of thought into this this semester (in part because a seminar read-and-discuss class does sorta critically depend on presence in class, and can’t be meaningfully made up).

    I went with:
    There’s 22 read-and-discuss class days.
    For an A, you need to make 20 of those. B, 18; C, 15; D, 11.
    If you miss more classes than the grade you’re trying to achieve, there are “tokens” that can be spent for flexibility (extra time on assignments or freebie class days).
    This has largely felt “fair” in terms of giving students enough room to have life stuff, although it still means that a student whose life goes really pear-shaped may lose a letter grade because time is just finite.

  3. I agree and build in some flexibility in all of my classes. It looks different depending on the class. In my big class (over 100 students with little to no in-class TA support) where we do a lot of active learning, keeping track of make-ups for this, that, or the other was too time consuming. And, as Abby notes, sometimes the make-up isn’t meaningful. So there’s no make-ups for those sorts of things, barring truly exceptional circumstances, but there are “extra” quizzes, graded activities, etc. so that you could get full credit even if you miss a few days of class or just bomb a quiz or two. In my smaller classes, I tend to use a no-explanation-needed extension policy for most assignments. Ask ahead of time and get the assignment in within a week of the due-date, and it’s fine.

  4. Yeah it would be nice if my institution showed the same respect. Classes may not be cancelled under ANY circumstances, and any absences must be “covered”, since faculty are inter-changeable widgets. So I don’t feel that I can ever take a sick day, but the administration will fall all over itself if a student ever feels like they weren’t sufficiently coddled when they had a runny nose.

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