Too Much Information

Rob Franciosi thought his students shared too much. Then he had something to share.

August 3, 2009

Too much information.

Those words cross my mind whenever students feel compelled to explain in too-intimate detail reasons for absences, for late or substandard work. I have certainly not heard it all, even after 30 years of college teaching, but what I have heard often makes me queasy. Just how much should I know about unfaithful boyfriends, sadistic football coaches, insane roommates? And should I really be entrusted with accounts of parental divorce, unexpected pregnancy, arrest, drug or alcohol abuse?

The weasel’s answer is “no and yes.” Freshmen often share a great deal, either on the page or in office conversations, and those of us who teach them, especially in composition classes, probably need annual orientations and debriefings from campus counselors. Some even argue against the common writing-course practice of requiring students to keep journals and to share personal narratives.

Patrick Allitt, an Emory University professor, goes further by declaring in I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student that any utterance of the word “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” during office hours provokes the following response from him: “I can’t talk about your personal relationships with you, and I can’t permit you to mention them. If you are too upset to discuss history you must leave now and come back when you are able to do so.”

Yes, I try to wrap myself in a pedagogical raincoat as protection against students’ often messy lives. I issue explanations about the classroom’s public nature and warnings against spilling dark secrets. Still they confide, and in the face of muted cries for help, seldom provoked by anything in the course requirements, my own professorial reticence must yield. And not wanting to seem like a character from a Monty Python skit, I don’t find much help in Professor Allitt’s approach. Hearing them out, empathizing, though, is as far as I like to go, viewing my job as sending -- even escorting -- students to the right places and people, to the trained professionals.

What happens, though, when the tables are turned? How much should a faculty member -- in fact, this faculty member -- share with students about his own personal crises? How much do they need to know? When does forthrightness slide into exhibitionism?

For me these questions became more than academic when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

I wasn’t shocked by the November pathology report, having undergone biopsies the year before, and plunging into oceans of information on prostate cancer pushed fear mostly beneath the surface. My first instinct was to hold off on surgery until the academic year was over. I could then use the summer for recovery. I even relished the thought of my contribution to the interminable How-I-Spent-My-Summer-Vacation agenda item at our opening department “retreat.” Alas, that sardonic delight carried little weight with my urologist and none with my wife.

Just three days into the term I met with a University of Michigan surgeon -- who looked as young as most of my students -- and decided upon a robotic prostatectomy. My surgeon seemed to have grown up with touch pads and joysticks, the perfect physician, I thought, to operate on me from a console across the room. Everything was soon set, at least on the medical side.

The million-dollar da Vinci robot, under his expert guidance, would remove my cancerous prostate on the Friday before spring break.

All along I’d hoped to start the term fresh, with as clean a slate as possible. Not only was I coming off a productive sabbatical, but several years of faculty senate leadership when I taught just a single course per term. Now, scanning the class lists, I recognized almost none of the names. Just when would I tell these strangers about my forthcoming absences? To make a beginning-of-the-term announcement, I thought, could provoke in them much anxiety and uncertainty.

Because my teaching credo has always centered on students embracing the course’s subject, not the professor who delivers it, I decided that these classes simply could not begin with a piercing spotlight aimed my way. No dramatic medical confessions delivered while they gripped still-warm syllabi, no “I’m Professor Franciosi and I have cancer.” Even the likely success of my treatment made me uneasy. While teaching a new course on Holocaust memoirs, did I want to be labeled a “survivor”?

My plan, then, was to make sure the courses were well-launched for a month or so before telling students about my forthcoming absence. What I offered in a too-reticent and, I now see, over-mysterious fashion was an announcement that a scheduled surgery would cause me to miss two or three weeks after spring break. I explained that my wife, Jo Ellyn, would take over for me, and I shared her academic credentials. During the week before my procedure she even attended the classes.

My vagueness, of course, left the dirty work to her. While I was home convalescing, she addressed matters head-on. No doubt they’d wondered about the unspoken cause for my absence, about this nameless “surgery” and its seriousness. She explained that I had had a prostatectomy to treat early-stage cancer, adding that all my pathology reports were excellent and I would certainly be returning in the near future.

Besides some cards and e-mail general good wishes from students, I heard from one whose father had been treated for prostate cancer. In preserving my privacy, I realized, I had deprived her of the kind of generous counsel that I’ve tried to model as a teacher/mentor. The loss was more than just my own. Even so, I knew my emotive limits, the boundaries in the student-faculty relationship that I simply would not, perhaps could not cross.

I was home recuperating when author Sandi Wisenberg visited our campus. Co-director of the MFA program in creative writing at Northwestern, she had caught my attention a few years ago with an essay collection, Holocaust Girls. Less than a week after my surgery I did an e-mail interview with a student reporter for a piece on Wisenberg’s appearance, commenting in detail on why the Holocaust still draws so much attention.

None of my comments were used; instead, the reporter focused on Wisenberg’s latest book, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, which I soon learned was based on her Cancer Bitch blog. The heading for that ongoing Web diary grabbed me by the sweatshirt collar: “One Feminist's Report on Her Breast Cancer, Beginning with Semi-Diagnosis and Continuing Beyond Chemo. You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, and you don't have to have cancer to read Cancer Bitch.”

In fact, that blurb doesn’t do justice to the wide-ranging, provocative, and courageous blog. Consider just one feature: a set of photographs runs along the page’s right side with images of breast-shaped food from Wisenberg’s “Farewell to My Left Breast Party.” They are interspersed with others in which her head is being shaved, an inevitable chemotherapy ritual, and then decorated with peace signs and the words “U.S. out of Iraq.”

Reading the intriguing blog’s revelations and information, though, scared me straight. I could never share so much with my students. Yet Wisenberg’s sense of humor, aptly compared to that of Fran Liebowitz, spoke to me as my return to teaching drew closer. I began imagining fantastic ways of pulling it off. One involved my wife pushing me on a wheelchair into the classroom. I’d be wrapped in a blanket and weary-looking, only to spring up from my seat, clad in a tuxedo and shouting like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, “Gotta dance! Gotta Dance!”

When the time finally came, my return to the classroom was, as T.S. Eliot once said, not with a bang, but a whimper. I eased back on a Friday, when the Holocaust memoirs course was my only class and my wife, Jo Ellyn, and I could share the teaching duties. Actually, I only covered the last 15 minutes. At the hour’s end I thanked the students for their thoughts and, most importantly, their willingness to carry on without me. Then I asked them to join me in thanking my more than able substitute.

After the applause died down, they shuffled out into the afternoon light of an early spring Friday. Jo Ellyn and I drove the 30 minutes back to Grand Rapids and lunched at a restaurant a few blocks from home. I had built up the drama of my return far more than necessary, just as I had over-thought what to share with my students, and when. Two minutes after walking through the front door at home, I was ready for a brief nap. They hadn’t laid an emotional glove on me, I thought.

Then I slept for almost four hours.


Rob Franciosi is professor of English at Grand Valley State University.


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