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When Real Life Meets Higher Education

Since the start of this new year I have been caught in a wave of interconnected issues that have pulled social systems and problems into my little corner of academia. I have been observing, watching, and listening to my students for some time now, realizing that familial, cultural, and societal pressures can often interfere with their learning. But this week a lot of it all came to a head. And it is making me think, and it is making me wonder if my role as an educator is shifting. Should it shift?

I helped four students this past week who were academically dismissed because of their GPA and credits earned. It's a formulation. The people who made the decision were following the guidelines. And that is why there is an appeal process: the student and I can provide context for the reasons that the GPAs dip. And the reasons are all over the map.

Depression. Family health issues that required the student to commute home and balance school priorities. Undiagnosed ADHD. Being in the wrong major. Twice. And those are just some of the reasons.

I am happy that all four of these students asked for my help, and let me help them. Because through that process I am learning a lot. I had to find out a little about their plans to pay for college. That led me to read, yesterday, in one sitting, Sara Goldrick-Rab's Paying the Price, published by the University of Chicago Press.  This book chronicles the story of several students that were tracked in the Wisconsin system of public higher education. I teach at a private school. Nevertheless, it was a gripping read, and it was sad to see how many students did not make it to a degree.

This was the same time that I saw tweets from the same author about the idea of putting a statement on syllabi about scarcity, to let students know there is help. The statement that Goldrick-Rab tweets about is this:

"Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess."

Part of me can't believe that this would be necessary. And yet I see it with my students. Students tell me that they can't afford the book for a class that is over $300. Or the code for online homework that is nearly $200. I don't know how many, but we do have students on our campus who are homeless. Students struggle to pay their tuition bills, often knowing that they can't register with their colleagues because of a bursar hold, and having to hope that the classes that they need will still be open when they finally scrape up enough money to get through another semester.

Some of my colleagues scoff, and say that these students "find the money for beer." But I am not so sure that these students are doing this. They have too much riding on the line. They are have at least one part-time job. They are trying to make headway with their GPAs and grades. They are trying to find a way to do an internship that will still allow them to stay at their part-time job that they need have in order to pay the bills.

With all of this staring me in the face, I can't turn a blind eye to it. My role as an educator needs to shift. But what do I do? How does that role shift?

I open this up to discussion, especially among my faculty colleagues. What do you feel your role is when you see inequities or needs among your students? Do you do anything? If so, what? Do you feel like it is none of your business?

Students - what do you need - or not need - from faculty when you face difficult social or personal situations? Maybe you want us to back off?

I hope to start a conversation about all of this in the comments.

4 thoughts on “When Real Life Meets Higher Education

  1. Erin Mills

    I'm a graduate student, and I definitely don't want professors to back off, primarily because I think those who are sensitive to this issue are a minority. It's helpful for those few to be vocal. I think Dr. Goldrick-Rab's approach, of putting a statement in her syllabi, is great because it acknowledges the issue without putting anyone on the spot. Her students know she's an ally.

    It's also just helpful not to assume everyone in the room has abundant financial resources, and act accordingly. I've had negative experiences at my Ivy League institution because professors here are often completely clueless, even in the School of Social Work, where I'm doing one of my degrees.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Thank you so much for commenting, Erin. Sorry to hear about the cluelessness of some from whom you are learning. I am learning a lot because of my mentoring of student athletes who are on our football team (Division 3). I wish you every success!

  2. Caitlin

    I try to follow Sara Goldrick-Rab's lead on this and will be adding that statement to my syllabi this semester - thank for the reminder! I think we should be held accountable for considering textbook price when choosing course materials. It could easily be incentive driven.

    I never want to hear my students say, "I didn't know I could get help," so I try to think of new and different ways to tell them that on a regular, consistent basis.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I am pretty sure I am going to add that to my two F2F class syllabi. I am teaching one course online, and so it might not work so well in that context, especially as I have some students from other campuses. Let me know if it garners any additional students connecting with you.


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