February 27, 2009

Best Doctor's Note Ever

Much of my February "break" time has been spent marking papers. It's not my favorite part of my job, but it has its good moments. This batch, one bright spot was finding this note attached to a late assignment:
[This student] has been impaired above the neck for the past 2-3 weeks, and this has interfered with her school work.
I'm sure it has.


craig.monk said...

Does this not remind us of the professional sports teams that do not want to reveal their weaknesses to opponents, and so they report injuries as generically as possible?

I know this is not really the purpose of your post -- highlighting, again, the unintentional hilarity of some M.D.'s "professionaleeze" -- but I am troubled by how right to privacy intersects with what Kate Flint once called "jolly obfuscation."

Believe me, I have no interest in detailed descriptions of the aches and pains of adolescents who spent their time flexing -- and flexing each other -- but I find it increasingly difficult to determine from these sanitized notes whether Ms or Mr. So-and-So is likely to experience a relapse, something that might require a different accommodation.

R. T. Davis said...

At least your reading-and-grading experience included some comic relief. My long weekend included reading student papers that demonstrated that they obviously had read versions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream with which I am unfamiliar. Perhaps I read the wrong assignments. At any rate, I would have preferred some doctors' notes rather than the students' cockeyed attempts at analysis. Well, perhaps I'm being too cynical. However, isn't cynicism part of the job requirement for being an English professor? It certainly is part of my job description.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Craig, I agree that something of the sort may be the problem underlying this bit of unintentional humour--and I agree that notes of this sort (or notes of the generic "This student saw me in my office and reported being unwell" variety) do very little to winnow out those who really need our additional support and accommodation from those who are playing the system. I always tell students that they have a right to keep their medical details private but that if they are having recurring problems they should see our dean of students (or, as appopriate, our accessibility office) and bring someone into the full picture--who can then run interference with individual professors. If someone from one of these offices contacts me on behalf of a student, I don't ask any more questions, and then the information is more controlled. It seems to me that our other options are either not to enforce deadlines at all, or not to accept any excuses at all, or any late work.

R. T.: I do sometimes think (while grading) that cynicism or despair are our only options. But then a good paper comes along or a bright-eyed student comes charging in excited about something and I get some faith restored. Still, I often wonder (and I know I'm not alone in this) what the point is in trying to coach students who will never be literary critics into writing our particular kinds of essays. Should we be differentiating (but how can we?) between those who would be fine with taking notes on literary history and being led through some (hopefully stimulating) close reading--and then taking an exam--and those who need or want to learn to generate their own analysis?

R. T. Davis said...

When we are teaching literature courses to students who are not English majors, we have a special challenge. However, literary analysis and criticism are, I think, transferrable skills that students can use in other disciplines. For that reason alone, I think we need to continue challenging all of those students, including the most resistant and the least promising.
With respect to your experience with the "impaired" student, I had a colleague who collected students' excuses; he hoped to publish a collection of the most outlandish excuses. Another unforgiving colleague requires death certificates when students claim a death in the family.
As long as there are students and graded requirements (papers, exams, or attendance), students will come up with what they believe are original, valid, and persuasive excuses. I have given up making Solomon-like decisions on excuses. Students in my classes now are on notice: There are no excuses.

The English Teacher said...

"Should we be differentiating (but how can we?) between those who would be fine with taking notes on literary history and being led through some (hopefully stimulating) close reading--and then taking an exam--and those who need or want to learn to generate their own analysis?"

As a teacher of struggling high school readers, I've given some thought about how young people develop their reading skills. My experience is that when students are compelled to write about what they read, they learn to go deeper into a text. So, yes, I think it's valuable for students--any students--to do literary analysis. It can make them better readers.

Of course, the analysis they learn to do in college may lapse over time. I wonder. Does it come back to them in later life when, say, they join book groups and discuss what they're reading?

Rohan Maitzen said...

This is an interesting thread--not the one I expected! I would never doubt the value of having students write about their reading, but I do wonder about trying to get them to do micro-versions of the kind of criticism academics do. For several years I experimented with a letter-exchange assignment in my 19thC fiction class which I thought did a pretty good job mediating between academic-critical expectations and a somewhat more general approach to writing about literature. It was very popular with the students, and I regretted switching back to standard essays last year, though administratively the traditional assignment was much easier. I suppose the further step would be something more along the lines of a book report, or a research paper focusing on historical or authorial contexts rather than interpretive cruxes--but in some ways that does seem a step down.

The English Teacher said...

I'm also interested in alternatives to traditional lit-crit papers. The letter-exchange assignment sounds interesting. Many of the assignments I use in my classroom are probably not suitable for college classrooms. However, I do have a class blog and a class wikispace. I've heard that some college classes have blogs. Has anyone here experimented with a class blog or a class wikispace?

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think I'm going to move this discussion up into a proper post. I'd be happy to collect ideas from other people about writing assignments, and I can pass along a link to the Writing Across the Curriculum book that gave me the model for the letter exchange.