How student excuses are evolving

The post-secondary stakes are high, but that's not why more grandmothers die at exam time

Dog ate my homework

It was his first month teaching at Northern Illinois University, and the last thing Christopher Schneider expected to see in his classroom was a topless student.

A young woman had missed a class and, afterward, in front of a line of people waiting to talk to him, pulled out a picture, which showed one healthy breast and one covered with a bloody bandage. “She says, ‘I had a lump removed,’ ” recalls the sociology professor, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia. “I put my hands up over the image. I say, ‘This is entirely not necessary; a doctor’s note would have been just fine.’ ”

It’s a cringe-inducing tale, but it’s evidence of a truism: Student excuses are evolving. And if you miss a class, need an extension on a paper or have to rewrite an exam, you’d better have a good one. And some proof.

The days of “the dog ate my homework” are well behind us and, as tuition fees skyrocket and the job market tightens, the stakes have never been higher for busy students desperate to juggle looming deadlines. The digital age both gives and takes away: One website boasts it was “voted the Internet’s most reliable [source of] fake doctors’ excuse notes,” while instructors trying to ensure academic honesty are verifying car accidents and crimes, not to mention searching death notices and obituaries. It’s class warfare–and the professors appear to be winning.

“It’s a terrible era [in which] to lie to your professor, because so much of it can be double-checked,” said Marina Adshade, a professor of economics at UBC. One of her students wanted to skip an exam because his father was in the hospital. “So I said, ‘That’s fine, all you need to do is take a photograph of your father’s hospital bracelet, email it to me, and I’ll make the adjustments necessary for you.’ And, of course, I never hear from the student again.”

The death of a loved one has become such a facile excuse that the “dead-grandmother syndrome” is an inside joke for many instructors. In 1990, a satirical essay in the Connecticut Review suggested that exams were causing so many grandmothers to die that it was presaging the “downfall of American society,” and suggested the solution was for universities to accept only orphans. A 2002 follow-up from Rutgers University said its solution—the threat of a difficult makeup essay—“saved the lives of four out of every five grandmothers who would typically die during the week leading up to a major exam.”

McGill political science professor Rex Brynen has taught an estimated 17,000 students in his career, and no one has ever complained about being asked for a death notice. The documentation policy helps sift the scofflaws from the sufferers: Brynen remembers asking for proof a grandparent had died in the Middle East, but the student said his culture did not employ death notices. Unfortunately for the student, it happened to be a culture that Brynen has spent plenty of time studying and writing about. “I told him, ‘Not only do you have death notices, but you have really big death notices,’ ” he says. “He backed off the excuse and there was no further attempt. That relative never appeared again.”

While wariness is key, so, too, is empathy. Serious issues such as sexual assault and mental illness can cause students to clam up or be vague in their explanations, which can come across as deception. Brynen’s advice—to be a good and willing listener—is especially urgent. A 2013 survey of 30,000 students by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health found that, in the January to April semester, nearly 90 per cent of students reported feeling overwhelmed by their workloads. More than nine per cent had seriously considered suicide in the past year. “For every lame excuse I find, there are two or three actually really good excuses that we have to remain sensitive to,” said Brynen.

Frances Woolley, an economics professor at Carleton University, recently explored the so-called “dead-grandmother syndrome” and found that demographics could explain it.

According to Statistics Canada, an 80-year-old grandmother would have a 4.7 per cent chance of dying in any given year. But, Woolley noted, a class of 100 students can have as many as 400 grandparents. “The odds of all of the grandparents making it through are actually fairly low.” She also points out that students are more likely to report a loss when something is on the line. “People will typically only report what’s going on in their personal lives on a need-to-know basis.”

But changing demographics mean the dead-grandparent syndrome is morphing into the dead-parent syndrome, says UBC’s Adshade. When four students missed time last year because of their parents’ failing health, she looked at Statscan’s 2011 General Social Survey, which monitors changes in the living conditions and well-being of Canadians. It showed that 25 per cent of fathers and 12 per cent of mothers in Canada would be in their 60s by the time their children completed their undergraduate education, an increase from 16 and 6.5 per cent, respectively, last time the survey was done in 1990.

“That whole generation grew up, they postponed getting married, they postponed having children, they focused on their own education and their own careers,” she said. “Their kids are now dealing with older parents at earlier stages in their lives.” And parents are a much bigger responsibility than grandparents. “Let’s say your grandfather is having an operation; you wouldn’t expect all the grandchildren to turn up and sit at his bedside. But when it’s a parent, you do.”

Honesty is still always the best policy. In fact, extra time doesn’t often produce a significantly better result, Adshade says. But if you are going to sneak one by the prof? Well, even they will admit they’re only human.

“I’m a dog lover, and I know that, if something happened to my little guy, I’d be very cut up,” said Woolley. “That’s a hard one, whether or not it’s a legitimate one, because it does hurt. I’m a bit of a schmuck for it.”

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