Maximizing the efficacy and accessibility of accommodation systems benefits both students and professors.
A philosophy professor at the University of Akron shared on Facebook his experience of a student sending him photos of a stillborn baby. The student received a call in the middle of class and immediately left. He later emailed the professor to explain his sister-in-law had delivered a stillborn baby and attached photos as proof.
This professor’s story illustrates two themes relevant to universities everywhere—the relationship between professors and students should be subject to professional boundaries, and students need to feel comfortable enough relying on their academic accommodations systems not to violate that dynamic.
While maintaining a certain level of empathy for students is ideal, professors and teaching assistants shouldn’t bear the heavy emotional labour of coaching students through personal obstacles imposed on them. This boundary is generally explained to teaching teams, but should be made equally clear to students to protect the wellbeing of professors and their teaching assistants.
Images of a stillborn baby are objectively sensitive and upsetting material, which can’t justifiably be shared in a professional environment. The student in this incident violated their professor by sharing the photo with him.
Requests for academic accommodation typically rely on students’ ability to provide supporting documentation. In this scenario, the student’s decision to send the photo was likely motivated by desperation to explain his exit from the lecture—a desperation many students can unfortunately relate to.
Undergoing personal trauma is difficult enough, and the added burden of worrying about absences, assignments, and accommodations simultaneously magnifies and disrupts the emotional processing of students’ trauma.
Thankfully, Queen’s academic consideration system allows students some time to provide supporting documentation, but having to collect the documents can be emotionally or logistically challenging at any stage.
Queen’s offers short and long-term consideration. Short-term consideration allows students three days’ grace, while long-term can last between four days and three months. To receive long-term accommodation for the passing of a loved one, students must provide a death certificate, which can be understandably upsetting to gather or feel inhumane of a university to request.
Long-term accommodation for mental illness could require a formal diagnosis as supporting documentation. Diagnoses are difficult to obtain quickly because finding and meeting with a physician who can provide one is often a lengthy, costly process. The barriers to diagnosis make accommodations less accessible to certain groups of students, particularly those without access to a family doctor or with limited financial resources.
Academic accommodation services should be mindful in making all types of accommodations equally accessible and balancing the need for documentation with empathy for students’ personal circumstances.
Making systems for academic accommodations accessible and non-threatening to students will make it easier for them to rely on formal channels rather than inundating professors and teaching assistants with accounts of personal trauma. Just as much as students deserve to feel cared for in their educational environments, teaching staff deserve to feel safe.
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