Do you recognize this student?

Recently, my colleagues and I have been receiving several emails from students who are struggling in our classes, have missed multiple assignments, and are now asking for mercy.  At my institution, we are finishing up Week 12.  That means there are 3 weeks left.  We are getting emails like this:

Dear Professor,

Hi, I am in your Intro to Blah Blah class.  I have been having a difficult semester.  I wasn’t able to buy the book in time and therefore I scored poorly on the first quiz.  Then, my car was broken into and my backpack and laptop were stolen.  On top of all that, I was recently in a car crash.  I know right.  Amazing.  I missed the midterm [3 weeks ago] and have missed the other assignments, too.  I was hoping I could make up the midterm and some of the assignments so that I can pass the class.  I was talking to my advisor and s/he advised me to talk to you about how I can make up things I missed.


Does this sound familiar?  Familiar at all?  Here is what we, as faculty, think about this kind of post (in no particular order):  OH!  How awful!  Was s/he hurt in the car crash?  Which student is this?  Is the story true?

Then, we have to decide how to respond.  Typically we ask such a student to visit us in office hours immediately (if possible).  Then we are able to strategize together the next best path.  If someone has had devastating events happen during a semester, understanding the available options is a critical aspect of any contemplated next step.  For example, assuming the above circumstances are true, even if a student is not in the hospital, a traumatic event may warrant being able to withdraw from a semester.  Withdrawal means that you will lose the time and money invested this far in the semester.  But, it will also mean that you don’t have a super low GPA for missing so many assignments and exams; and, you may avoid academic probation and disqualification.  It is an option to weigh and consider.  Grades of Incomplete may also be appropriate; but these decisions are made in conjunction with the faculty who teach your courses.

Let me tell you what a student of my colleague did:  for two weeks the student did nothing.  No more emails; no office visit; no class attendance.  Nothing.

Finally, when the student did attend office hours, my colleague did a very wise thing:  My colleague said to the student:  you must understand that in the situation we are in right now, doing nothing IS a decision.

Read that again.  It is profound.  In situations like the above, doing nothing is akin to doing SOMETHING.  By just letting time tick by, even if you convince yourself you are “thinking about what do to”– your lack of action translates into action.  And in this case, zero action means you will fail the class; you will lose the money and energy you have put in thus far because you will have to repeat the units at some point.  “Just thinking” for a week to ten days constitutes  an action (an active decision) on your part.  You are still responsible.  You did the right thing by reaching out to the professor, and even to advisors, but then not acting on any of the suggestions, doing nothing, is also a course of action.  But it is rarely a good one.  Especially in these cases.

As you head into the final stretch of the semester, do so purposefully.  Even if you are not finishing all the units you originally signed up for; know that you are making decisions that are the best ones you can make right now given the situation and information you have.  Be confident; but don’t be inert.

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