Syllabi and Sympathy

Would it be inappropriate for me to add to my syllabi that, if a student informs me of the death of a relative, hoping that this excuse will justify an absence to attend the funeral, I will excuse them, but will also send a card to their family offering my condolences?

If you are an educator, have you found better ways of walking the fine line between being compassionate without being gullible, when it comes to students excuses?


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  • Ian

    It would be inappropriate to add it to the syllabus, but not inappropriate to do it, and thereby gain a reputation for doing it!

  • Might be a bit different at school, but I just say that I will have to let their Form Tutor/Head of House etc. know about it. I figure that nobody who genuine reason could object to that.

  • Norm Englund

    Considering your motivations, it’s a horrible idea. It shows fake sympathy as a means to check up on the veracity of somebody’s pain. Don’t insult them by pretending to care, just ask for a copy of the obituary or death certificate and have done with it. It shouldn’t be your problem anyway. The necessary proofs that Grandma had a heart attack and died should be set at a school level, not an individual professor’s.

    As you might guess from the bitterness of the above paragraph, I had a family member die right before a test. The head of the physics department was a major ass about it. (But at least he didn’t doubt me. He just thought I should be unaffected.)

    • First, let me express my condolences for your loss. Second, let me indicate that this idea was shared mainly for amusement – I have never penalized a student who had what seemed to me a legitimate and plausible excuse, and have only asked for evidence in the case of an extended period of absence. But third, and finally, I think that if I decided to actually implement this, it would do the opposite of what you claim. Rather than me checking up on them, I would offer genuine sympathy to their families and them. I would never know if they had been dishonest, although their families at home would.

      • Norm Englund

        Your words “hoping that this excuse will justify an absence” and “being compassionate without being gullible” makes your disclaimer ring hollow.

        Of course, I’m not an educator. I’m just expressing how painful it could be to a student who suspects your sympathy is hiding a clumsy fishing expedition.

        I was sincere that it should be a university, not individual instructor’s, policy.

        • I am sure they sound that way to you, as someone who had a genuine tragic occurrence while a student. From my perspective as an educator, the problem is with those students who treat the death of a grandparent as equivalent to “the dog ate my homework.” I would say that it is those who cheapen the significance of the loss of a family member by pretending that it has occurred who ought to be the object of your ire, not those who are happy to excuse students for that reason, and simply want to discourage dishonesty and the cheapening of death in this way.

          • Norm Englund

            “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.” The innocent people that suffer aren’t going to blame the guilty. They’ll blame the immediate cause of their suffering.

            Perhaps, rather than asking commenters on this blog, you should ask some morticians (that you know are genuinely compassionate for the grieving) what they think of this idea.

            By the way, my wife, who is a compassionate mortician, thinks that your idea is fair warning.

            [edit – 30 min later] I disagree with both of you. If I’m that student, I’m telling my family: “McGrath doesn’t mean it. It’s just a tool of his to make sure I don’t skip class.”

          • I still do not understand why you think that the family of a student would be offended to get a sympathy card from a professor.

          • Norm Englund

            I don’t think the family would be offended.

            I think the student would be offended because it isn’t just sympathy. It’s saying to the student, “At this time of your grief, you have my deepest sympathy. Also, I don’t trust you.”

            If the university has a problem with students who’ve now had seven grandparents die, let the university solve the problem the way the airlines did.

            Then, your sympathy card can be just a sympathy card.

            Also, you commented earlier about my “ire”. My experience happened 25 years ago and my ire is a thing of the past. I was trying to express the kind of anger you can dredge up when you mess around with someone who is grieving. It’s seems I was semi-successful at that.

            One more try: have you seen Paul Newman’s movie, “The Verdict”? He plays a lawyer and, near the beginning of the movie, he attends a visitation. He expresses his condolences to the widow (good) and tries to slip her his business card with the suggestion that she might use his services regarding her husband’s death (bad). A sympathy card from you shows sympathy (good). If it is meant to do anything else, it’s bad.

          • What if I genuinely want to express sympathy to grieving families, but my practice of doing so also has the effect of discouraging students who are not grieving from pretending they are, unless they want to explain to their families why they received my condolences? It doesn’t seem like an either/or situation.

          • Norm Englund

            We’re clearly at an impasse. Thanks for hearing me out. I hope it works out as you intend.

          • I appreciate your input. I will give this serious thought, realizing that how I proceed might cause significant offense. I appreciate your taking the time to help me see this from a different perspective!

  • Chris

    From my (brief) experience teaching at the college level, I think the most important thing for instructors to do is to constantly remind themselves that their students are people, and deserving of all the respect that we give other people in our life — friends, family, coworkers, the stranger on the bus, etc. Skepticism is not our default emotional setting when we deal with our colleagues; why should it be with our students?

    On a practical note, some of this can be avoided by a flexible syllabus. For example, my general chemistry students know that they’re expected to write three long, formal lab reports for specific experiments during the semester. I found it very helpful to tell them at the start of the semester that I understand the drain on their time that this presents, and to offer them a one-week extension on the lab report of their choice, no questions asked. Many of the unexpected emergencies — real or fabricated — became much easier to deal with once I could remind students that they could take this extra time.

    And last, I have a personal story similar to Norm’s that is very important to me. My grandfather passed away about 2/3 of the way through the spring semester of my freshman year. His funeral was on a Friday, and I had to miss two classes to attend it. I contacted both of the professors and received two different responses. One class was small (about 15 people) and offered lots of faculty-student interaction. If there was a professor of mine that semester who had an opportunity to know me and assess my character, it was the one who taught this class. He told me that my absence would not be excused, and that (due to a strict attendance policy) it may well have consequences for my grade. The other class was my organic chemistry lecture, with around 75 students. I usually came to that class late, sat in the back, and failed to make eye contact. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to the professor. Yet that professor did more than just excuse me from class — she allowed me to make up a missed quiz when I returned, without a hint of suspicion that I may have used this opportunity to cheat. When I met her in her office to take it, she offered real, heartfelt condolences to me.

    Now that the roles have switched and I’m the teacher, I always ask myself: which professor showed Christ’s love to me? And which one do I want to emulate?

  • Angela

    This is an interesting idea, and one that I think brings up an important topic to discuss. As someone who experienced a very traumatic death in my family my first year of college, I really appreciated when one of my professors asked me if she could send flowers to the funeral service on behalf of the class. So if a student is truly suffering a loss (and I have a hard time imagining someone lying about that, although I’m sure some might) they would probably appreciate a card from the professor. I have also had the *very* bad experience of being in a class where a professor expected a student to give “proof” of a death in his family, and they were very cold towards this student when asking for this proof. If any professor did that to me when I was in mourning I would never have forgiven them, so this is an interesting idea for me to keep in mind if/when I teach myself. However, the professor who asked this question, whether it was a serious suggestion or light hearted, should always give genuine and sincere condolences when sending a card to a student. People who are really grieving can see right through insincerity. But if a student did lie about a family death, then maybe the card would shame them into feeling guilty about being dishonest about such a serious thing. I’m not sue if I would put this in a syllabus, as it basically tells the students that you are suspicious of anyone who claims to have a death in the family, but as a previous poster suggested, one could just make it a habit to send condolence letters and gain a reputation for it. I think that would probably be the better thing to do here.

  • V. Lee

    Instructors have legitimate reason to suspect that every class has someone who will lie and cheat for advantage, because we often catch at least one student in each class. Thus, we have general policies to try to discourage and punish cheating. If a professor is simply applying a stated policy, the student should not take it personally.
    However, I do think that the original poster is conflating sympathy, however genuine, with an honesty test. If you want evidence, then simply have a policy that says you require evidence of cause in order to excuse an absence, The idea that this should be handled at a university (or department) level is impractical and simply not done at some large schools. It would be nice, though. One-stop-shopping would be easier on the student and increase fairness of treatment.

  • V. Lee

    I have a general policy that I require some documentation before I will excuse an absence and allow make-up work. In a case like a family death or serious illness, when the student might be distressed, I may choose to take their word for it for the time being, but I will still want some documentation later. In the adult world, we still have to perform some duties when we are not at our best, such as showing up for work. There is no pool of substitute teachers at the university level.

  • Lance Drager

    At my University, the Dean of Student’s office is responsible for checking such

  • Jack Collins

    I killed a lot of grandmas my first semester as a TA.

    I prefer to assume that if a kid makes something like that up, it’s because they’ve got SOME kind of problem they need to deal with. I nearly went off the rails my first year of grad school when my cat died just as all my papers came due. If somebody had asked for proof (or questioned whether that was a legitimate reason for an extension), I probably would have walked out and never come back.

    I do, however, endorse “I reserve the right to…” clauses in syllabi. Mine is: “If I catch you using electronic communication devices during class, I reserve the right to confiscate the device and post embarrassing things in your name.” Wouldn’t ever do it, but it gets the point across.

    (I have invoked the “If you eat in class, you have to give me some” rule. Because funnel cake.)

    • I used to say that I would excuse lateness because you were stuck in the line for coffee, as long as you bring me some.

  • Marta L.

    James, I can come at this from two angles. As an undergrad, I had a cousin I was very close to die unexpectedly, during what was supposed to be my final semester. My profs were all lenient in the immediate aftermath but I ended up failing one of my courses because I completely forgot that a major program was due (I was a theoretical maths major; this was a CS course, so not exactly my forte) about three weeks after the death. The professor was a bit old school and did not know me well, and so he thought I was just irresponsible and trying to milk a personal tragedy. Of course traumatic grief can make you into a bit of a bad student in many subtle ways.

    I ended up graduating a semester late because it was a required course, Which really stunk, of course, but is far from the hardest thing from that time period. I think most students with genuine personal tragedies will feel the same. If you told me I would fail an assignment or even a course at that point in time, I would have dealt with it. And if you told me to provide certain documentation I could probably also deal with that. But if there was any whiff that I had to “prove” myself, if it was personal, I would probably have overreacted. If I thought the condolences weren’t genuine I would have been truly offended I think. And if my own emotional state was any indication, I’d probably be quick to see insult or insincerity. 🙂

    Of course, as a fellow educator I’m very aware of the stupid student tricks, that for every genuinely in crisis student there’s someone else who’s trying to use the death of their neighbor’s nephew’s poodle to get a bit of leniency. I’m lucky that my school sets pretty objective guidelines: if a student wants an absence excused for this reason, they must in every case provide either a newspaper obituary or a letter from their parent. That paired with my own policy on late work (cannot be made up or submitted late except in the case of excused absences or the kind of situation that would excuse an absence) means I have a pretty well-defined framework to be able to say: if you want the absence excused or you want to turn in the paper late, you must show me the absence is excused, which means you have to get me one of these things the uni says excuses an absence. If I taught at a school that didn’t have that policy, I’d probably put a statement on my syllabus saying that absences can only be excused if students provide documentation and give some examples of accepted documentation. If you make it matter of fact and routine I’ve found that students don’t feel singled out and alo the fakers are less inclined to bother.

  • Marta L.

    Reading some of the other comments, it strikes me that professors *can* express sympathy, informally and unobtrusively. I’ve done this myself. Usually a student will email me to say they’ll be missing class due to a death, and in my reply back I’ll say how sorry I am for their loss. I’ll remind them of my policy but I’ll also emphasize that this isn’t something we need to handle right away, that they can get it to me within a week or so of returning to class, etc. I also usually remind them I have office hours for this very purpose, and if they need help getting caught up with the course I’m there to help. My point is there’s a way to express sympathy to the student (who would be the one to appreciate the gesture, I think).

    I suspect each instructor has a different philosophy, but for me I view the syllabus as the toolbox of policies I will use to handle problem cases. So if I were the student, I don’t think I’d respond well to a threat of sympathy. It would seem rote in the best case, like a test in the worst. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer sympathy, but framing it in the context of verifying attendance seems risky to me.

  • Michael

    Don’t add it to the syllabus, just do it. If they had a death, you are a good caring instructor. If they did not, then the family gets to ask them awkward questions.