Hard-luck students and the professors who save them

It’s often in the earliest days of the semester that students share some of their greatest tales of woe with professors. Some want to add an already full class and so labor to persuade us of their dire plight. Others, pre-worried about their grades, aim to sock away some sympathy credit for a rainy day. I’ve always found such personal revelations — coming, as they do, from relative strangers — to be jarring. This is, perhaps, partly because I am not inclined to share so quickly, even when it may be in my practical self-interest to do so. But I also think this all-too-common practice of individual student pleading, and ad hoc professorial granting reinforces an unhealthy dynamic.

I appreciate and love that my students are whole people. They’ve got jobs, families and endearing quirks, as well as bad memories, financial trouble, and, often, mental health diagnoses. Perhaps it is not even accurate to identify them as students. They are, rather, richly textured individuals who have temporarily taken on this student role for complicated reasons unique to them. Partly because institutions’ one-size-fits all prescriptions and policies don’t address particularity very well, the power of dispensation and indulgence often falls on instructors and front-line staff colleagues. We surely must, then, take seriously the personal experiences of our students. But how can we do it in a way that routinely avoids the pitfalls of ad hoc favoritism? And how can we keep from being condescending, and ultimately undermining to the very students we seek to help?

For example, in a recent introductory level class, I assigned three small paperbacks to supplement material available online, which, all together, cost about twenty dollars. And, as is typical, I was approached by a student with a list of heart-tugging reasons why she couldn’t afford college text books. I reminded her that there were electronic copies of two of them available through the library and made sure she knew how to access the library website. She left unhappy, though, because, as she explained, “most of my other professors just loan me a copy.” I didn’t want to be insensitive to her life challenges — I have no reason to doubt her account of personal hardship — but nor did I want to support this, for me, increasingly icky, shadow economy in which students with the extroversion and eloquence to share experiences of suffering exchange it for textbooks and other favors.

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This common practice of professors hearing and then reacting to individual students’ accounts of suffering reinforces precisely the very hierarchical power relation that many of us claim we want to challenge. It also risks letting our institutions off the hook at the very moment they should be bending over backwards to address the structural inequities that impact students’ lives. When I feel compelled to pick and choose students to whom I will grant special favors, I am “being responsive” — so far so good — but I am also singling them out for special treatment. This is not at all what compassionate instructors intend when they provide extra advantages — extra time, extra credit, free books, etc. — to a vocally hard luck student. But it seems to be only the students with the wherewithal and skill to recount their personal tribulations (to a virtual stranger, mind you) who receive such favors. It’s a bargain that strikes me as, well, a little creepy, as if instructors are rewarding students for performances of suffering.

With this in mind, I guess I still think the best plan is to focus on providing advance structure to our courses (and our universities) that makes reasonable room for the reality of human suffering and serendipity without routinely resorting to practices that are arbitrary and personal. This is, of course, a goal of offices such as disability services. If we really want to help, we must actively seek structural, systematic solutions to the structural, systematic problems that unfairly limit our students’ lives as individuals. With respect to the textbook example, we can, when possible, assign books with lower prices, put copies on library reserve, petition for lower prices from publishers, and advocate for a university-wide fund to assist needy students.

As so many professors now do, we can, when possible, build in extra time for assignments for all students to avoid having to make a special dispensation in response to a particular personal tragedy. Other mundane practices, such as having students drop their lowest quiz grades, also show respect for the fickle exigencies of everyday life. But given the ubiquity of such pedagogical flexibility these days, instructors may need to explicitly explain to students that these are, effectively, advance accommodations. We need to help sensitize students to the fact that these measures are meant to attend to their individual needs, but in a way that preserves equity.

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Of course, the habit of seeking personal favor and dispensation runs deep so we should not be surprised when students and, perhaps, some colleagues and administrators, resist. Higher education has, quite simply, evolved into an environment in which students have been encouraged to plead and professors have been primed to grant or withhold, often in lieu of the institution meeting its responsibility to address systematic disparities. Perhaps the dirtiest (open) secret is that some instructors enjoy the high of riding in on a white horse to rescue this or that student from the jaws of an otherwise unfeeling, impersonal, elitist institution. Certainly, I know instructors who are proud of being “responsive” to just about any request for dispensation. For them, no “favor” is too great and I get it.

In a university environment in which many professors feel angry and impotent on behalf of both our students and ourselves, it can be satisfying to be the socially conscious, compassionate professor who is “student centered” and pulls strings to advantage those we perceive as disadvantaged. And before professors will be willing to rethink our approach to hard luck students, we will need to tell the truth about this. That being able to ease the pain of individual students feels good, that it’s a rare reminder of our own power and status, regardless of its long-term consequences or viability with respect to our students and universities.

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