Miss Manners on College Deadlines

A few days ago, Miss Manners (Judith Martin, Nicholas Martin, and Jacobina Martin) fielded an AITA-style question from a reader who teaches college. It was a doozy.

The reader complained đź•›:

First, the students have been unmotivated, coming to class unprepared (if at all). … What really gets me, however, is their constant stream of emails: ‘I wasn’t feeling it, so I didn’t come to class today, sorry.’ ‘I needed a mental health day so I skipped our discussion.’ ‘I was too hung over, so I slept in this morning instead of coming to class.’

Finally there was this one: ‘I’ve been in a funk all weekend so I didn’t manage to do the assignment on time, but can I still turn it in?’ This email is the subject of my second issue.

This student has known about this short assignment since the first day of class, 14 weeks ago, thanks to the syllabus. She was not doing well in class even before this incident. But when I complained about this email, some of my fellow instructors pushed back and said I should have offered her information about counseling services. (That information is also in the syllabus, and available through many other means around campus.)

I suggested that it was assuming too much on my part, and that a ‘funk’ is not a serious condition—it sounds to me like a pity party being held by a freshman experiencing her first finals week. …

What I found rude was my colleagues’ pushing so hard against me. I’ve spent an entire semester with this student, and I’ve already made many accommodations for her, despite my displeasure at the excuse-making.

Miss Manners was not having it—neither the criticism from the instructor’s colleagues nor the poor email etiquette of the students.

“And what has [your flexibility] taught them?” she asked, rhetorically. “Your concern,” she continued, “should not be whether your students come to class but whether they master the material and fulfill the assignments. Unless they are exhibiting bizarre behavior that should be reported to mental health experts, the rest of their lives are not your business.”

She complained, though, that “sadly, you may not have the support of the university in grading students according to their achievements or failures to perform.”

As you might imagine, I have thoughts.

But my thoughts are complicated.

For background, let me say that I was both a very diligent college student and a very anxious and sometimes moderately depressed college student. There was at least one crucial moment in college when I needed a lot of grace from an instructor. So I don’t easily dismiss undergraduate “funks” as experiences that aren’t “serious,” and that comment from the instructor made me bristle.

However, I’m also an adjunct working at multiple institutions, which means I appreciate the limits of what an instructor can reasonably do to help students on campus. And I’m tired—really tired—of seeing people with more secure employment take to social media to demand open-ended commitments of work on my part in the name of being flexible, understanding, or kind. That kind of moralism, when universalized, is just another expression of the myth that education shouldn’t be paying work at all, but something we do for love.

Then again, I really don’t like the letter-writer’s tone, and I wonder whether it’s a warning sign about the rest of their teaching approach.

Here’s one bottom line: I don’t know whether the student should have been allowed to submit that particular assignment late. I simply don’t. And I don’t think you—or Miss Manners—knows that, either.

It depends on a lot of contextual factors that can’t easily be conveyed in a letter. The course structure, the nature and weight of the assignment, the formal late policy expressed in the syllabus, the scholarly discipline being taught, the student’s reasonable ability (not least) to trust the instructor with detailed information about what the “funk” is really about, and many other considerations may affect the proper answer.

I also don’t know whether the letter-writer’s fellow teachers are moralizing busybodies or are just wearily asking a toxic colleague to quit disparaging students already.

Beyond that bottom line, something else makes the correct response to the letter more complicated than Miss Manners thinks. But about this factor, Miss Manners probably isn’t entirely wrong.

College is a liminal and paradoxical space in a learner’s development. The student is a legally responsible adult—this is absolutely fundamental to what “higher” education is—yet they are still becoming an adult in at least an intellectual (and thus presumably also an emotional) sense.

In college, in other words, adult students are forming themselves. That means flexibility on the instructor’s part is important, and sink-or-swim measures of “performance” reflect a misunderstanding of the process of education. But it also means there is a limit—no matter how heartbreaking that fact is—to what can be done for a thoroughly disengaged student, even in a mass disengagement event like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fundamentally, college students have to be required to exhibit responsible learning behaviors, which means they have to be given the freedom to fail. This isn’t optional. There’s no other way to learn those responsible behaviors or to own one’s success as an adult.

But how to design and implement a course that gives adult students—including students with mental health concerns—both the freedom to fail and the resources to succeed, in the context of the instructor’s reasonable workload, is a question that requires pragmatic wisdom.

I have one more major concern. This one means Miss Manners may be correct, but in spite of herself.

I’ve become convinced that some instructors and some college parents have unintentionally promoted avoidance as the exclusive coping strategy for students in emotional distress. And I think the always-on nature of contemporary social media has exacerbated this tendency by making small, graduated, healthy doses of distressing stimuli harder for some young people to learn from.

I used the word some a lot in that paragraph, and there’s a reason for that. Educators are having a very big and very necessary public conversation about mental health, and that’s a good thing. But I am saying that if college students’ mental-health needs are reduced to a universalized need for unlimited flexibility in course design and deadlines, that reduction is likely to encourage avoidance coping. It may indeed get students through a specific course, but it’s likely to prevent the development of better coping skills in the long run. And over time, that will tend to worsen educationally destructive anxiety and depression, not alleviate them.

I do see some indications in the letter that the complainer’s students may be engaging in avoidance coping, and that they want the instructor to validate that self-defeating behavior. If I’m right—and I may be wrong!—then Miss Manners’s hardline approach may well be necessary in the long run. Not because Miss Manners is correct to say student distress is none of the instructor’s business—she’s not—but because a course that imposes manageable but inescapable burdens on students is actually the right thing, in general, in the long run, for student mental health.

Unfortunately, “it’s complicated” is not a viable response to a question about workplace etiquette. But it may be the most realistic response to an unanswerable question about how to be a good college teacher in the present environment.


Image: Line art illustration of “coping,” published by Pearson Scott Foresman (public domain)

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