Life Ate My Homework

When students’ complex lives are filled with real crises, real teaching means flexibility and understanding.
By Susan L. Cook and Karen Krupar

The economic chaos of the last two years has presented major challenges for college students. As professors at a large public university, we are accustomed to monitoring the broader social and economic climate for students so that we can swiftly identify “teachable moments” and seize those moments to improve learning. But what is a teachable moment in these trying times? What is the lesson of the moment? And who learns the lesson?

Some students today are losing their homes and jobs in the course of a semester. While struggling to manage two small children without the anchor of a job, one young mother wrote last term and asked what she could do to make up points she lost in her courses while she was coping with the loss of her home. What does this context contribute to the possibility of a teachable moment, if anything? Another student battled unexplained illnesses throughout the semester. Finally, we encouraged him to take “incompletes” and try to finish the graded course materials between semesters. Was he likely to encounter improved learning conditions during that short, six-week period?

In our stressful environment, serious medical problems seem to have become more common. One of our students recently faced the deaths of her mother and a beloved cousin and the certain imminent death of a stepfather who had contracted hepatitis C as a result of a hospital’s negligence. This student had the ability and desire to pursue graduate education but confronted nearly insurmountable personal barriers. Under the circumstances, what could we do to encourage her without adding to her unfathomable stress? Even incredibly bright students graduating near the top of their classes have dropped by seeking guidance. One particularly promising student had been hospitalized for bipolar episodes following serious drinking when her food-service job ended and she couldn’t find enough work to support herself. She had been selling paper supplies office to office, netting only $150 in six weeks. What advice, let alone learning, could either of us offer this student?

When we started teaching years ago, we used to chuckle at the excuses students gave for missing class or producing less-than stellar work. One student explained in a brief e-mail why he missed class: “I just didn’t feel like walking across campus today in the rain.” As the years have progressed, the climate has changed, and the laughter has died in our throats. Nothing is funny about the life circumstances of our students now. The environment does not seem to be conducive to learning, though the numbers of students flocking back to campus have increased significantly in each term that we’ve been members of the faculty. The returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan surely must carry silent challenges that preclude teachable moments. Perhaps their experiences open doors to learning, but how are we as faculty members going to know which life events are affecting their learning? Post-traumatic stress disorder haunts a number of returning veterans. Is that why the Marine just back from three tours in Iraq dropped a fall class, or did other factors prompt his action?

As the semester drew to a close, we struggled to complete grading and provide feedback to these weary students, fearing that we had failed to help them seize any teachable moments to their best advantage. Throughout the semester, we both had listened, consoled, comforted, suggested, prodded, chastised, and encouraged students, awed at the hardships they were enduring. And, over the last few weeks, we have searched and examined the residue from this semester’s trials, looking for teachable moments and learning possibilities for the next semester.

The lessons we have learned have been multiple but focused on a single concept—the need for endurance no matter the circumstance. We have learned to keep moving and endure. Teachable moments have somehow been replaced by learning in the moment—a term we have coined as each class period, each student, and each course presented new opportunities for learning outside the proverbial box. Learning in the moment has prompted us to seize the challenges each student has brought to us. We’ve found new ways for students to demonstrate learning without adding work for them or us. We’ve offered students ways to make up assignments and boost their grades by sharing what they already know from the workplace with students who lack employment experience. We’ve helped students gain confidence and self-esteem (and improve their grades) by having them facilitate discussions, both in face-to-face classes and online, that let them share life experiences related to course content. More than anything else, we’ve listened and offered confirmation that even in the midst of extraordinary personal struggles, learning occurs for all of us.

We have all learned lessons this past semester—our students, our colleagues, and the two of us. We have learned from one another by keeping our hearts, minds, and ears open for the lessons that tumbled around us unchecked and uncensored. We have shared at such depth and intensity that the idea of a different, less interdependent environment seems barren by comparison. The overarching lesson of these times is that we are all in this together. We will solve the problems we encounter because we are both the definition of the problem and its best possible solution.

Susan L. Cook is associate professor in the Department of Technical Communication and Media Production at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She teaches courses in technical communication, communication law, environmental writing, and organizational communication. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Karen Krupar is professor of communication arts and sciences at Metropolitan State College. She has taught organizational communications at numerous research and comprehensive universities and consulted with corporations and nonprofits for more than four decades.