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The Time of Dead Grandmothers

The Time of Dead Grandmothers

March 14, 2006

It's that time again. Sometimes it's about the next class. Sometimes it's about the last class. There are semesters when you are told in person. There are semesters when you are informed through email. You can be sure only that it will happen in virtually every undergraduate class -- the larger the first or second-year student population, the more certain: grandmothers will begin to die.

Last week my first succumbed, around the usual time, just past the semester's midpoint. Her grandson informed me in an e-mail, which contained only one problem: the date of the class meeting for which he would have to be absent was mistakenly given to be two days earlier than in fact the class meets. Was this in fact the day of the funeral?
Is the student so overcome with grief that he can't even get his dates straight?

Or was there no funeral? Maybe there's not even any grandmother! What should I do? Insist upon a death certificate? (I've heard of some teachers who have.) At least seek clarification about whether the excuse has to do exclusively with the day of the funeral or else with some longer shadow of either family obligation or mortality itself?

You never know with student excuses, especially the most common ones. "There are 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war," protests a character in Catch-22. "Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." In the world of student excuses, there are a lot more than 50 or 60. They're all worth missing class for.

I wish at least there could somehow be a moratorium on dead grandmothers. (Why normally only them? Don't grandfathers die, too?)

"Oh, no," I exclaimed several years ago, when a student in a composition class stepped out afterwards to explain that she had been absent because her grandmother had died. "Another dead grandmother!"

The girl immediately burst into tears.

Of course I wished I was dead. The student's grandmother really had died. Or else her granddaughter was a good actress. But you want to try to avoid being too cynical about excuses, especially those involving death. Question these particular excuses and you may as well be questioning respect for the dead or the suffering of those left behind.

Indeed, death-driven excuses are the best ones because the mere mention of death is commonly uttered with the unspoken understanding that no more need be said; a teacher is expected to believe the excuse as a function of honoring the deceased. Objecting to one is like objecting to the other -- and of course each is ratified by the sheer fact of death itself, whose utter seriousness demands its own recognition and brooks no skepticism.

And yet after awhile it's simply impossible not to be skeptical about student excuses -- all of them. Not only does any one fit into some classification, having to do, say, with such things as technology (especially popular since the dawn of computers), health, or law. Worse, it becomes positively garish to hear them from students who speak as if their particular excuse has never been given before.

This can lead to a sort of paradox: the most exceptional the excuse, the more believable. Who would not be likely to credit a student who stepped up to disclose that his family feared he might be kidnapped by the Mexican Mafia, and so he would be absent the next two weeks? This excuse was given to a colleague of mine last semester. Early one afternoon, she also heard from a student who couldn't make it to class because the roof had just collapsed at the apartment house to which she had just moved.

To be fair, the colleague apparently knew each of these students, and already trusted them. In these circumstances, all credulous bets are usually off. Although many teachers would not like to admit it, the whole problem of student excuses in fact applies only to students whom one either does not know or cannot know.

Granted, this means most students. Part of the reason everybody is so uncomfortable about excuses is because excuses register education in terms of its sheer numbers as well as its inescapable routines and necessary rules. We're all happier when education is instead manifest as a more intimate, flexible affair.

Insisting, as many teachers do, that excuses will only be acceptable, if at all, when given beforehand, is really a way of trying to establish another model of education entirely. Too bad the shadow of dead grandmothers, like mortality itself, has to fall over this model. "Students recur," quoth a celebrated Oxford don. So do their excuses.
They know not their recurrence. But we do.

Finally, what to do? The solution the profession seems to have settled on, if only by default, is this: treat student excuses under the sign of comedy. There is of course some justice in this (as a hundred Web sites attest). So many students are utterly naive; how is a teacher not to laugh upon being told that "my best friend's father died?" Also, the very situation of having to give an excuse is so solemn that a comic rhythm is not easily refused.

In a way, the best solution to the situation is one I heard from a former colleague. He fondly remembered an early afternoon undergraduate class where the teacher told the students that if they missed class, they had to explain why during the next class. The whole class would judge whether they believed the explanation. This led, it seemed, to riotous fun, with each student trying to outdo the last in creativity and inventiveness....

In effect, what the teacher had done was to transform the deadly serious matter of absences into something wholly ludic. Yet was such a thing only possible in the late 1940s, in what must have been a small upper-division class,  among a group of largely men, most World War II veterans? My colleague usually brought up his experience when the students we were given to teach, in largely service courses, seemed bent only on manipulating or outwitting us. A class such as the one he remembered seemed inconceivable then.

It still does. I love outrageous excuses as much as the next person -- and the general aspect of student follies of various kinds still delights me. Sometimes, bracing myself for a student who is going to step up with an excuse about some past or future absence, I try to project an aura that suggests: "All right, since we know what's going to happen, let's see if we can get through this with some wit and intelligence as well as sympathy."

But it seems to me we seldom do. Usually it's another dead grandmother, or some uninteresting variants. Frank McCourt describes one encounter in his recent memoir, Teacher Man. Bored with patently false student excuses in his high school classes, he had students write out better excuses. It was fun until the assignment evolved into
writing excuses for such people as Hitler's mistress and then the administration got wind of it.

I admire this solution. But only from afar. Were there no students who stepped up to McCourt with, er, dead serious dead grandmothers, despite all? And would such play be possible in today's no-nonsense, grade-driven college atmosphere? Always, regarding absences, the teacher is in the inescapable position of someone-supposed-to-accept (a
grimmer version of Jacques Lacan's celebrated formulation of the teacher as "someone-supposed-to-know"). I can only haplessly try to transpose the terms of the acceptance into a cooler emotional register.

It's not satisfactory, though, and it's not satisfying. Finally, I believe no response on my part is. The excuses are amusing to read about on Web sites. The howlers may be wonderful to recount to friends and colleagues. But nothing really changes back in the classroom. The site of excuse-making is static, timeless. Classes to attend and tests
to take we have always with us, and therefore students who are, alas, absent, but with good reason. In a pinch, any reason will do, despite the fact that some are more plausible or more urgent than others, or that still others appear so true that they may as well be judged artless, and therefore become false.

As teachers,  it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It's as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. Myself, I'm probably incoherent by now, since, although I write about the whole question of excuses like a cynic, in practice I actually shrug over almost all of them like a fool.

In fact, it's worse. Each excuse-laden student who appears recalls to me a remark by Mary McCarthy, at the end of a chapter in The Stones of Florence. She quotes a Florentine who has recently remarked "that the pictures in the Uffizi had grown ugly from looking at the people who looked at them." By now I simply feel ugly from staring at so many lies. How rightly to regard a student  who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.

Bio

Terry Caesar's last column was about the image of violence in the classroom.

 

 

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