I've been teaching for a long time. One of my jobs was at a large urban university, albeit R1, that had relatively large numbers of older women (ie in their late 20s to early 30s) going back to school. I taught classes that were good for people who wanted a health sciences career of some sort. Many times (more than 3) I had people show up to class, kid in tow, saying "I have a day care problem". My standard response was "fine, until the moment class is disrupted". That never, as far as I remember, happened.
Now comes an article titled "5 Ways Professors Can Help Single Moms Stay In School". I must say I have lots of mixed feelings about this article. So, here are thoughts, although in a slightly different order.
3. Help me to network with others like me. When assigning group projects, devise a way for students with children to work together. If I have to meet with these strangers for periods of time outside of the classroom, I will be much more engaged and able to learn if my colleagues are willing to put Powerpoints together at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of the library.
First of all, I hate group projects. They either reflect the best or worst person in the group. But that is irrelevant here. According to my Uni, I cannot ask you about your personal life. In fact, whether your age, religion, sexual preference, race, gender, etc is your business and not mine. It is illegal to ask about marital status and parental status on an interview for damn good reasons. Imagine what would happen if on the first day of class I asked "I'd like all the single parents in this room to self-identify so that I can make sure you guys are working together". I'd be censured within five minutes of the end of class.
This concern also applies to #5:
5. Reach out to me and find out who I am. I know you have hundreds of students and it’s impossible to connect personally with each and every one of us. Even so, it’s likely that I’ll never tell you I’m a single mom, because I’m afraid you will think I am less committed to my studies. I’m not. Most of us are more committed than other students. The women who have gone before me are more likely to have persisted if they had personal connections with their professors, and your recognition of me as a student facing overwhelming obstacles to be in your classroom means I will likely stay around longer—and eventually graduate.
I'm sorry, I can't just say, "hey all the single ladies...". In fact, I'd love to connect with each and every one of you. Of course I can see who is a little older and who is not. Roughly. But I cannot act on it. If you come up to me and say "I'd like to talk with you, Prof. Theron", great, I'll invite you to my office, or suggest making an appointment (right then and there). But what you say in #5 here is true of many many sub-groups of people. It is true of people of color in a largely white university. It is true of the physically challenged, the ones who have an obvious issue that I can see (think crutches) and the ones who don't (think heart condition). It is true of Islamic women in headscarves, and people who look white and aren't and people with gender dysphoria and people who are gay and people who don't have enough money to "do college right". Which brings us to #4 on the list:
4. Consider that I’m financially strapped. I understand we need to have books in order to learn, but please don’t force me to make a choice between giving my daughter a new My Little Pony for her birthday or an expensive supplemental style guide. She is going to win. Every time. I’ll look the style guide up online or borrow it from another student.
I understand your daughter is going to win. But are you more or less cash strapped than the kid I had who was supporting his disabled father and working a 50 hr a week job while trying to stay in school? Or the first kid in the family to go to college, except that the family doesn't see the value and the kid is on their own? I am sure there are profs who do not understand what being working class means. But there are likely people with less money than you in this class. I do my best to balance the knowledge that some kids don't have enough money, that I don't want to favor the rich, with what I think is going to best for you to succeed in what I have to teach.
Let's get the next one out of the way.
2. Rethink your phone rules. When you make the rule that cell phones must be turned off in class, consider that I need to be available if my child is running a fever or gets trampled by a herd of elephants while I am listening to your lecture, and that will take precedence over your wisdom. I’ll put it on vibrate, but it’s got to stay on.
What do you think working mothers (in fact, those working class mothers) did 20 years ago before cell phones? Those single parents who had jobs that did not include having a phone on your desk, or even a phone at the head desk? What do you think parents who were teaching did? Do you think that they worried? Of course they did. Did they have access to a phone every hour of every day? No. They didn't. They managed to figure out how to do what they had to do to put food on the table (#4) without being able to be constantly reached. I'd ask that you reconsider this one. There's a reason for a no phone rule in class. You ask that I take you seriously, well, if you are going to be running out of class frequently, I am not going think you take it seriously.
1. Acknowledge I exist in your syllabus. I am making enormous efforts and sacrifices to be in your course—if I am running late or miss a homework deadline because my child was ill or needed to have a green bean extracted from his ear, I’ll find a way to make it up to you. Please put it in writing that you will make provisions for this possibility by stating explicitly that students with family responsibilities should contact you by email regarding missed or late work.
I know you exist. I can see the exhaustion in your face. I know you are working three jobs: school, parent and the one that puts money in the bank to make the first two possible. It's a tough, tough road. I want to see you succeed. My course is not a sorting mechanism for the rich and privileged. My course is trying to help you learn something, master something, so that you can go and do something more after my course.
But, family responsibilities are only one thing that gets in the way of getting stuff done. In my syllabus is a statement about getting help if you need it. If you are having trouble with deadlines, come talk to me. You are not the only one with challenges, and as a teacher, I need to help all my students. If you know there is a problem ahead, come tell me. But for me, I want to, I have to, treat my students equally. In my experience, everyone has a problem, a handicap and a need for special consideration.
But what about the extra benefits you get from being a parent? Or having lived a little longer than some 19 year old? There are advantages you have, and should I accommodate the people who do not have your advantages? I am not just being snide here. This is a real problem: where do we draw the line on helping and accommodating? Someone who is blind should have someone to read the exam to them. I know single parents believe they should have more time. But what about someone who is disorganized?
In the end, this class is a little thing. A bagatelle in life. What are you going to do with a real job in the real world? There are accommodations for parents, but probably not as many as you want or think you need. Right now, you see the need for parental help because you are a parent. Only recently has the working world acknowledged that elder care can be as time consuming and far more emotionally draining than childcare (there is none of the joy of raising children, and huge enormous swathes of sadness). I'd ask that you take a step back and thing of someone else, someone with different challenges than yours. What do you want to do to help them? And go hug your child, because your challenge is not the challenges that others have.
Followup from the tweets:
Just overheard 2 UGs: "backin the day when phones didn't have internet, how did students cheat?!" <_<
— DrElizabeth Sargent (@esargent184) September 1, 2015