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An overwhelmed woman sits at a table in front of a laptop, her head in one hand; in the other she holds a sign that reads “HELP!” The sign fully obscures her face.

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Just the other week in my world literature survey class, four students didn’t show up, two of them at the edge of the “six absences equals failure” policy. Three others hadn’t done the reading, though I’d told them in advance that we’d have an in-class written response. Other students looked exhausted, so I called on people with easy questions to further discussion. I didn’t ask anything of two students who’d submitted Disability Resource Center forms requesting that they not speak in class. Later that morning, I contacted two at-risk students by using Navigate, one of the monitoring systems the university has in place for tracking student progress. The two students in question hadn’t submitted an essay due two weeks ago. I worried about the situation for a while, but then had to move on to other classes with other, similar worries.

The week was typical, and I fear it’s only going to get worse. Everyone knows about the malaise affecting students across the country: classes where absences at times outnumber attendances, an apathy about completing coursework and a depressive anxiety enough to send some to the hospital. Colleges are trying to accommodate students by relaxing the rules and encouraging a therapeutic environment. Less talked about is the toll it’s taking on faculty members pressed into service as therapists and counselors. Though many colleges have provided mental health resources that students can access, the burden of getting students from one class to the next still falls on us, the educators.

The extra workload is substantial. A while back, faculty at my institution were required to view training sessions about how to be more empathetic, sensitive and attuned to student needs. Most recently, our administration exhorted everyone to take an eight-hour course called Mental Health First Aid: “how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.”

I do want to help my students and always have, but this level of involvement bothers me. I am not a therapist or even a guidance counselor. I am not an ethicist weighing how much suffering a student must endure to justify missing half a semester. I am a teacher educating a classroom of students, which is what I was trained to do. I am also, to be crass, not paid for all this extra work. Yet to criticize this effort risks accusations of heartlessness.

Most of my colleagues have stories about the times our accommodating reached its limit. One student last year who’d missed more than a dozen classes was furious when I told him he couldn’t pass the course. “What do you expect me to do?” I asked him. “We’ve had this conversation about absences three times.”

“I expected you to work with me.”

I sometimes offer a course withdrawal, given what they say they’re going through, but they usually don’t want that. They see it as their right to pass the class whether they attend or not. Besides the usual requests for extra time on tests, some of the latest Disability Resource Center forms ask for greater flexibility in the attendance policy. That last point is difficult. Mine isn’t a lecture course but one in which the students are expected to contribute. Class performance matters, and if they’re not there, they can’t participate.

A few faculty inform me that they’ve solved the problem by dropping attendance requirements, giving students rest periods in the middle of class, letting them make up any assignment for whatever reason, or allowing continuous access to their cell phones, not to mention extra extra credit and As for everyone. But giving in isn’t the same as accommodation.

In my worst moments, I feel as if the students and the administration are taking too much advantage of me. Some days I seem to spend more time taking care of students’ needs outside class than in. It’s affecting my mental health, giving me invidious thoughts. To recast an old Latin saying: Who will accommodate the accommodators? I’m honestly not sure what to do, but if the situation won’t change, the university structure needs to.

David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University.

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