Media, Technology, and Education
Integrated ClustersTeaching

Complex Lives, Tragedies, and Empathy

As the General Education Coordinator at PSU, I’ve been working on the First Year Seminar Poster Symposium since before the Fall semester started. Like everyone else involved in the event, I cleared my calendar for the evening of Wednesday, December 5 so that I could attend. That Wednesday was during the last week of actual classes for the semester and was followed by finals week. I looked forward to the event even though news about conflicts with other aspects of students’ lives increased as the date approached. Through it all, I asked that FYS instructors be empathetic about the complexities of our students’ lives and the stress that such complexities impose on the students.

My grandmother (my father’s mother) became a nursing home resident in March 2018, a month shy of her 100th birthday. Her health has been steadily declining since then. When I visited her on Saturday, December 1, she was very sick. She was up and dressed but feeling so horrible that she could hardly speak a sentence without gagging as though she were going to throw up. By the time of my visit on Tuesday, December 4, she was no longer able to get up and get dressed. Hospice told me that day that she had no more than 2 weeks to live, probably less. On Wednesday, December 5, I took the morning off of work and went to see her again, planning to return to Plymouth in time for the symposium. But when I got to the nursing home, it was clear that the end was very near. And so I made the decision to stay with her instead of going to the symposium. I understood the importance of the event and felt responsible for it but I made the choice to stay with my grandmother all day and late into the night. She died the next morning at 7:30 and I have no regrets about my decision.

While all this was going on with my grandmother, my family received word that my uncle (my mother’s brother) was very ill as well. He was in a hospital in Florida. We received many updates about his condition over the course of the next week. He died during finals week, on Thursday, December 13, exactly one week after my grandmother.

Why am I recounting this story? Imagine if I was a student. My colleagues were incredibly sympathetic to me, many of them telling me that I had indeed made the right choice to be with my grandmother on her last day of life. If I had had some major event like a final on December 12 or 13 and had chosen to go be with my uncle, I’m sure that colleagues also would have told me that I had made the right choice. I would hope that when a student tells us a story like this we respond as though the student was a human being first and a student second. It might seem unbelievable that the student has multiple relatives die during that last two weeks of class but it happens. And when it does, it’s awful. I’d rather let some students get away with lies than make a single student feel like I disbelieve them in one of the most difficult times of their life. I feel lucky that I have a job in which I make autonomous decisions about events like this and don’t have to worry about not getting paid or, worse, getting fired. That’s a sign of my privileges in life.

I write about this now because I think that as we ask our students to do more and more project work with extra events beyond the regular class time, we are going to bump up against the complexities of their lives. And the students who are going to be least able to juggle things so that they can participate in these “extra” events are the students who face the most challenges and are most at risk. It’s a sign of privilege to be able to juggle things easily. Let’s not forget that our students are people who just happen to be students. Yes, the classes they are taking with us are important but they are not the most important thing in their lives.

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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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