A couple of weeks ago, I had a familiar experience. A student of mine missed several days of my intermediate composition course in a row. He emailed me to explain. Seeing the email in my inbox--its subject: "missed classes"--I released a sigh before I even opened it. I braced myself for the familiar litany: repeated car trouble, death in the family, sick (so sick that there's even a doctor's note!), family emergency, sick--OH SO SICK. I thought back briefly to another term's student who had offered to send me pictures that "proved" she was sick with the stomach flu. As I hesitantly clicked the message, I prepared myself to analyze this student's story, to try and read between the lines and discern if he was to be believed.
What was contained in the email seemed simply nonsensical. A family emergency contradicted with a university-approved absence that I had known about in advance plus the anticipation of missing more classes for which he'd have a doctor's note (but he did not mention that he was ill). This combination of classic and familiar excuses here collected in one confusing email tried to explain what he'd already missed and attempted to make me aware that he'd continue to miss. I was indignant. I was confused. I was irritated that I'd have to write back, asking for clarification and reminding this student of my clear attendance and late work policies. I began my reply, "Perhaps I'm missing something here..." I felt I was being overly generous because what I wanted to type in that moment was, "Yeah, right! Just come to my class already!"
In the meantime, I turned to Facebook. I typed out a summary of my student's email and ended by saying, "looking forward to the email explaining that at least three grandmothers have passed away, causing excused absences due to religious holiday." All my teacher friends liked it. We exchanged comments about "kids these days" and the "average morality rate of grandmothers" going up this term. We constructed ourselves as teachers--knowing, wise, heard-it-all teachers. Teachers dealing with the same ole student behavior. My student may as well have written that his dog ate his homework, his alarm clock, and ability to attend my course.
We see this kind of in-group, humor catharsis all over the internet for teachers. Videos of teachers yelling at students for cell-phones, lists of terrible opening sentences from student essays, horribly written emails from students to teachers, reproduced and circulated for an audience of teachers who nod and laugh. We see shadows of our own students. Our individual students blur into one big Student. We sit around in our offices and talk about "my students..." or "when I was in college, I never..." or "why do freshman students always..." The Student-with-a-capital-S is always lazy or doesn't try, tries to pull one over on you, uses poor grammar or writes you too familiarly, can't read the syllabus, doesn't have a clue.
The Student-with-a-capital-S is useful. It lets teachers release tension and frustrations about those students whom we worry over or feel compelled to spend more time with, students who need more help or seem helpless. It lets teachers laugh and share the difficult emotions that come with teaching. It can let teachers feel like teachers.
But it can also be shorthand.
Often when a student speaks, we hear the Student-with-a-capital-S. We hear all the other times students have sounded like this student in front of us, or in email. We've heard their story before. And only sometimes does that story prove to legit.
To my "Perhaps I'm missing something..." email, my student responded with more details from his story, details that made the original email make sense. Details that made me glad that I left open the possibility that he was missing the class for a legitimate reason. He was missing for a legitimate reason. A sad reason, a private reason, that I'd accidentally made him share because I wrote back in defense of my policies.
This experience reminds me of an old friend of mine that teaches at another university. His teaching philosophy is founded on the idea that students are humans. Human beings, just like teachers. Human-being-ness indeed collides with the idea of student as Student.
Dr. Hannah J. Rule
Hannah J. Rule, Ph.D | University of South Carolina
Department of English Language and Literature | 1620 College Street | Columbia, SC 29208