David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Grandmothers Galore

February 11, 2019

Faculty often do one thing that really drives me crazy: bitch about students having 5, 6, 7 grandparents, especially when they all die in the same semester. This is noticeable in a story (and subsequent comments) from today's Inside Higher Ed about a professor at Howard University openly mocking the multiple grandparent phenomena on a syllabus.

We have all been there, probably hanging out in the department lounge, sharing a cynical laugh as a colleague comes rushing in to say, "guess what, one of my students just had her 3 grandmother die this semester!"  We aren't laughing at the additional death (at least, I hope we aren't!); inevitably we are laughing at the absurdity of having 3 grandmothers.

I technically had 7 grandparents growing up, although some of them I never knew, and some of them I never would have called grandpa or grandma.  And several of them died within months of each other.

My mother's mother died when I was 2 or 3.  Her father remarried. His second wife, my Grandma Rita, is the grandmother I most knew on her side. I never would have thought of calling her a step-grandmother.

My father's mother snuck off in the middle of the night with her piano teacher when my father was 7 (see "Piano Center Stage" for poetic rendition of this family lore).  She ended up marrying her lover, and my grandfather remarried.  Said piano teacher, Sid, never became a grandfather in my eyes, but he was a part of my life.  My grandfather's second wife, Marie, is the one true grandmother I really knew on either side of the family. She is the only one who even lived to see me get married.

Count them: 3 grandfathers; 4 grandmothers.  And this is in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Many of my son's friends come from divorced families, sometimes multiple times.  Having more than 4 grandparents is a way of their life.  God forbid they reference these grandparents to their teachers, who would rather imply that they are liars than that they come from different (in many ways, heart-breaking) upbringings than they did.

I think about this specific example frequently as a microcosm of how educators frequently miss the boat in terms of understanding how their students are changing. We look at the Beloit College Mindset and we marvel that "kidz these days never knew Bill Clinton as anything other than Hillary's husband! Ohmygod!!"  However, we are missing the truly important aspects (or absences) of their lives. What is going on in their lives?  And how does that matter?

I can think of perhaps two of my more sobering or humbling moments as a teacher.  Both involved students who fell asleep in class.  At the time, I was mortified when they fell asleep.  I prided myself on keeping things lively and engaging in class. After all, I taught literature and humanities classes at a business/career college. If I couldn't prove to them every few minutes that "The Yellow Wallpaper" had relevance for their lives, especially their future lives, then I would go in every class session to face 24 sleeping students . . . or 0 students.

The first Rip Van Winkle was an older (older than me at the time) student in one of my night sections of Introduction to Literature.  For a couple of classes, I ignored her repeated naps, but on one particularly bad night, probably accentuated by a whole class that was less engaged than I wish, I walked by her desk, picked up her Intro to Literature book (all of us who have had such a class can imagine how big that was) and slammed it on her desk to wake her up.

Not too surprisingly, I was called to the Dean's Office the next day.  The student had filed a complaint.  The dean was surprisingly cool about it (to my credit it was the first and only time I ever got a student complaint), and requested that I meet with the student and talk to her (I was never told to actually apologize, which I appreciated in the moment). As it turns out, when I met with her, I learned she was working two minimum wage jobs and trying to sneak in two classes a week to get a business degree. Even without her prodding, I calculated that she probably was existing on 4 hours a sleep a night (at best).  By the end of the conversation, I had apologized, as it was the right thing to do it.

The second student came about a year later, and my memory of the literature student almost certainly led me to forgive this gentleman. The problem is that this time the student was in one of my distance education Western Civilization classes.  He was at one of the two campuses where the class was held (I alternated between teaching at each one, with the other getting a video feed of me).  Because I had the video feed in front of me of the other class, it seemed even more painful when he sat in the middle of the front row and fell asleep almost every day.  I decided to not say anything because, repeatedly, whenever I asked a question, he would pop up, raise his hand and answer the question, correctly, or at least interestingly, since so many questions in the best classrooms are not really meant to have pat answers, every time. And I mean every time. It became almost comical. All of the students awake and fervently taking notes sat there mute, while he kept the conversation going.  He cruised through the class with an "A," and I never called him out on it.  I didn't need to know his personal story; I was fine with the resolution of our collaborative story.

I know it is human nature for all of us, especially teachers, to lament the people we work with.  I have always said that maybe 5% of our students really don't deserve our energy, but we tend to often lump in another 20% who share the superficial characteristics of the ones who abuse the system.  It is easy to want to lump them as such.  The greatest moral imperative as a teacher is to give the benefit of the doubt and lump them with the other 75%.