Hello, colleagues, this is my first posting, and I'm honored to have been invited to join. I wish that my first subject were less grim, but it's related to John Alexander's post last month about treating students as people, so it seemed appropriate to discuss it here.
Last semester, I taught a small seminar (an upper-level Philosophy course with only seven students). One afternoon somewhat late in the semester, twenty minutes before class, I received a quasi-automated email from the campus Registrar’s office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has been withdrawn from your course”. I thought back to a frustrating conversation with that student at the end of the previous week’s class, about some persistent problems in his essays that he had not, despite my several entreaties, addressed. I didn’t lose my temper or speak disrespectfully, but I was impatient and annoyed and I let him know that. “Maybe he decided to drop the course”, I thought, wondering whether I had been wrong to express my annoyance and feeling some guilt about that possibility.
Barely a minute later, I got another email from a staff colleague in a different campus office, with the Subject line: “[Your Student] has died”. The body of the email was brief, stating only that the student had died late the previous week – in fact, the day after he and I had last spoken.
Of course, I was stunned. [Without getting into details of this particular student’s death, I can say that it was nonviolent, very sudden, and couldn’t easily have been anticipated.] And in about fifteen minutes, I was going to have to go into the seminar and tell the six other students something that I was still having trouble “processing” myself. In slightly more than ten years of teaching, I had not had a student who was enrolled in one of my courses die during the term, and I was almost as unprepared for that as I could be. I was unprepared to hear the news, and I was certainly unprepared to convey it to the other students in the seminar.
Class that day was quite brief. I conveyed the news – such as I knew it – to the students who were there. One student immediately ran, red-faced, out of the room. We sat silently and disconsolately for a few minutes. I told the students that I was at a loss for what to do. I reminded them that we have an excellent counseling center (we do) and that they should please, please consider making an appointment to talk to one of the counselors there. I told them that the Philosophy department would hold some sort of memorial gathering and that I would give them the details as soon as I had them. Then we left.
Given the particular circumstances, and that I was operating mostly on whatever instincts were relevant, I think that I responded about as well as I could have done. Since then, of course, I’ve talked with a handful of colleagues (including one of the counselors) about how instructors can help students when one of their classmates dies. But few of them had faced that situation, and so another important question – how to help the instructor – remained largely open. In thinking about that question, I found it invaluable to talk to that student’s other instructors. We were all dealing with his death, and for most of us (and our students) it was a new experience.
I wish that I had acknowledged, much sooner than I ever did, that some of my students might die during the term. While I knew that it was statistically possible that at some point during my teaching career, one of my students would die, I had not really thought about that as anything more than an abstract possibility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with abstract possibilities, of course.)
I wondered a lot about how I could continue to meet my responsibilities to teach and challenge the remaining students in the remaining weeks of the semester, while also behaving decently in memory of the student who had died (i.e., not acting as if nothing had occurred that might have an effect on the mood of the seminar). There was no question in my mind that the class should continue to meet, but how much class time, if any, should I devote to talking about (exchanging stories about, etc.) the student who had died? Should I keep the same reading assignments, the same writing assignments, the same deadlines, the same classroom? Of course, the circumstances of this student’s life, not just those of his death, affect the way I answered some of those questions. This particular student, though respected by his classmates, wasn’t particularly well liked by them. I knew that, and they knew that I knew it, and so I considered it entirely possible that some of them didn’t feel any need to talk to a counselor at all. Yet I also knew that we all react to death in ways that we can’t always (correctly) anticipate. So, I mentioned the counseling center only one or two other times and then stopped. And I announced the department’s memorial gathering and stressed that attending it was completely optional.
While there wasn’t an obvious link between the subject of the seminar and the topic or experience of (facing) death, part of me feels that I may have missed an important chance to talk with the students about death, dying, and meaning. It’s a bit of a cliché to bemoan the airless, sterile environment of the classroom or of academic philosophy, and I don’t want to be clichéd. But I wonder whether I was guilty of contributing to that kind of environment. Confronted with a very sobering and inevitable part of the so-called “real world”, maybe I should have made the time to talk with the students – in class, not just outside of class – about those Big Topics that are, after all, what drew at least some of them to Philosophy in the first place.
I’m curious to know, from other instructors who have had one (or more) of their students die during the middle of a term, what suggestions they’d give to their colleagues about what to do when that happens.