I received another one of those emails today from a student. I get one or two each year, and I always have the same sinking response to the inevitably similar prose:
I hope you are well. I am not so I am politely pleading for your help. My advisor has just told me that my GPA is too low to move forward in my major. If I have a letter of support from a professor, though, I can convince people to give me a second chance. This is the only thing I have ever wanted so I hope you will help me. Your class was one of my favorites.
However irreverent I sound, I am not making light of these students’ situations. They are in a serious bind, and they know it. Within our major, students have to meet certain benchmarks each year to move forward: a given GPA, a specific assignment, a required form. If they don’t, there are differential consequences: repeating a class, probation, dismissal. None of this happens out of the blue, of course, but students often prefer to ignore the monster in the closet until it opens the door and pounces.
There are always mitigating circumstances. Students have real lives outside our classrooms and they are often messy and difficult and frustrating and demanding (as Flavia recently reminded us). Sometimes, I’m amazed at what my students manage in their out-of-class lives – and sometimes I’m amazed at what they don’t.
I’ve had students who have endured horrific events – rape, an unexpected pregnancy, the death of a parent, the diagnosis of an illness, the committal of a sister – and yet they’ve carried on with their academic work without much interruption. Often, I only know about these things because of university policy or the student’s willingness to explain an absence. (I suspect, in many cases, their studies have provided a respite, an escape, the one part of their lives over which they have even a modicum of control.)
I can’t help but contrast their situations with those of students who have been completely overwhelmed by the slightest difficulty. They end up in my office, explaining in full why they missed a deadline or skipped a class or need an extension: their car broke down, they had the stomach flu, their sister had a baby. Their reasons are just as real but, somehow, I’m not as sympathetic.
And I suppose that’s not fair. Most of my students are doing the best they can, navigating the waters to adulthood. Some of them have more guidance than others – from family, friends, mentors – and it shows; when they come up against the rocks, they either know how to escape or they know how to reach out for help. Too many of them are just floundering, though. They don’t know how to cope with the rocking boat and they won’t ask for help until they’re over the side.
My understanding doesn’t mitigate my exasperation, though, over what to do when I get the perennial email requests. The emails are never from the students who should be asking for help! They’re from the slightly clueless ones, the ones who let typical life events sidetrack them from their academic responsibilities, the ones who only realize how important something is to them when they face having it taken away.
So, back to my original issue. A former student needs a letter of support. I’m sympathetic but I’m not sure I’m supportive. Actions have consequences and, given my history with the student, the student had more than enough warning to take some different actions. The student can rightfully claim that difficult life circumstances played a role in the poor decision making but how much does that mitigate the responsibility of accepting the student’s actions created the current situation.
To add another wrinkle, another professor has taken an action that supports the student’s case. I don’t agree with the professor’s decision, in general, but it also puts more of the onus on me. If I decline to write a letter of support, I may be the one who effectively lets the student grind between the rocks.
People, I am on sabbatical! This is not what I should be worrying about right now! And yet, here I am, worrying, as I figure out whether to support a student’s third or fourth chance.