When You Are Too Sick to Teach

November 16, 2013, 10:55 am


Be considerate of yourself and others: stay home.

This article in today’s New York Times about doctors going to work ill struck a nerve as we enter the college sick season. Danielle Ofri’s account of tending to patients until she was completely felled with the barfing flu (otherwise known as the super-communicable norovirus) suggests that doctors forge on because they define themselves as the not-sick. ”As much as we empathize with our patients,” she writes, “part of protecting our inner core may require drawing an unconscious demarcation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” Next to the grisly research about deadly infections being transmitted on physicians’ neckties, the idea of a doctor keeping an appointment with me when she has a vile illness is next on the list. I actually left a family practice years ago and found another doctor because it made no sense to me to go to a “wellness” exam when the waiting room was filled with disease-ridden toddlers.

So what about professors teaching when they are ill? Is this an “us” and “them” thing too? Why don’t we think it’s ok to cancel class? Do we define ourselves as the “always present” as one of the ways we maintain our authority in relation to students and colleagues?

I wrote about this back in 2007. This was also the year that I decided to ignore the FDA warning about flu shots for people with egg allergies (fyi: as it turns out, I tolerate them perfectly well, and now there is a non-egg vaccine in nasal spray form.) It had been drummed into me in graduate school, by inference only, that canceling class was the first step toward complete loss of control. Students and colleagues, though they would never say it in so many words, would think I was a slacker. To this day, I have colleagues who boast of never having cancelled a class, as if teaching while falling-down sick was the apex of professionalism. Even after I changed my policy on this, the ideology had a grip on me: “while I know it is perfectly ok for [students] to miss a class, I still have this nagging feeling that it is not ok for *me* to miss a class,” I wrote.

It is ok. I know that now. I actually think it is wrong to not give students or colleagues a choice about whether they will be exposed to your florid cold or intestinal flu.

Those of us who teach in a city, and who use public transportation, have a fair chance of getting sick at any time, but my years at a residential college taught me that the time when illness begins to rage through the campus is about a week after any vacation: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving, winter holidays, or spring break. In other words, all the students and some of the faculty are in motion, the vast majority of them on trains and airplanes.

So without further ado, here are a few things you might want to consider as you plan your spring classes.

  • Give your students permission to not attend class if they are ill. If you have an attendance policy, as I do, you may want to accompany this advice with a warning that skipping class for other reasons means that they put themselves in jeopardy should they become sick. Tell them that if you are sick, you will not be there either, and that this is perfectly acceptable adult behavior.
  • Don’t cram so much reading and lecturing into a class that you can’t re-do the syllabus and collapse two classes into one if you have to miss a week. It is a common rookie error to stuff a course with readings and dense lectures that an inexperienced prof truly believes they course cannot be taught without. But even experienced faculty can put so much in a course that they believe missing a day will be catastrophic. It isn’t. Students delight in unexpected time off.
  • Schedule a phantom class. Giving yourself one class of flex — hell, call it TBA if you like – is not a sin. If you don’t need the class, you can do something fun on that day: serve popcorn and show a movie, workshop term papers, take a walk to a local site. If you do need to shuffle the syllabus, you have that class — and for my money, I would schedule it after Thanksgiving or after spring break.
  • Have a secret movie in your pocket that can be shown with or without you. This isn’t just an illness thing: we seem to be living a moment in history when calamity occurs every few weeks — a bombing, a shooting, a building collapse. So prepare. Last year, when the bomb went off at the Boston Marathon an hour before my class, there was no way that students were capable of listening to a lecture as emergency vehicles scrambled all over New York. So I showed a movie instead. Why not?
  • In my experience, women exhibit more guilt and shame about missing class, but men are more likely to teach sick and pretend there is absolutely nothing wrong. I initially assumed that Dr. Ofri was a man, and then went back to look. I realized that women might have more at stake than men in toughing it out when sick, both in medicine and on campus. Mothers acknowledge that childcare takes them away from campus at inconvenient times and causes resentment, and fathers too often assume that they will be applauded for participating in child care and owe no one an explanation for bagging on a responsibility that the child-free must attend to whether they want to or not. They think this because it is true: women and men are perceived differently when it comes to child care, and, I suspect, illness. I also suspect that because women tend to end up with more childcare, eldercare and household responsibilities, they are used to cramming things in regardless of how they feel. (Note to colleagues of all genders: I would usually rather pick up your child and spend the afternoon with her than go to that meeting we are both supposed to attend. Ask me. Phone lines are open.)
  • If you really feel the class must go on, buddy up with a colleague who can step in for you. We always do this for each other for deaths in the family — does it really have to be that serious for a person to miss class? If you feel it is an imposition, then offer to step in as a guest lecturer for your colleague next semester

Readers? How do you feel about missing class?

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