Students, please don't do this woman in. (Painting: Albert Anker.)
Every semester, on college campuses across America, there’s a rash of students who kill off their grandmothers right before a midterm paper or exam. Some are serial murderers who repeatedly send their grannies into that long, dark night.
No, students aren’t actually shanking their nanas over tea and wrapping the bodies in knitted afghans. But this crime, which veteran professors say has long been part of the folklore of teaching, is a real phenomenon. And there’s a name for it. It’s called the “Dead Grandmother Problem.”
Many years ago, Mike Adams, a biologist at Eastern Connecticut State University, studied the problem and proved that there’s definitely a correlation between grandparent deaths and exams. After collecting data for 20 years, Adams concluded that a student’s grandmother was far more likely to die before midterms than at any other time of the year. More specifically, his research showed that grandmothers are 10 times more likely to die before a midterm, and 19 times more likely to die before a final exam. Grannies of students who weren’t doing well in their classes were at even higher risk of meeting their maker: Students who were failing a class were 50 times as likely as others to lose a grandmother.
Some professors say they tend to assume the excuses are callow sympathy scams, and they don’t want to feel like a student is pulling a fast one on them. That said, no one wants to risk offending a student who’s actually grieving. It’s pretty heartless to request to see a death certificate. And besides, some professors have reported instances in which students submitted fake obituaries crafted on their computers.
“When it comes to death, I am firmly in the compassion zone,” says Lisa Guerrero, an associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University. Even though she has had her share of suspicious death excuses, Guerrero says, she’s seen plenty of real, unexpected deaths too. So she always accommodates students.
“Death is traumatic, and no one knows how to handle it perfectly, so maybe the student’s delivery of the excuse only sounds suspect because she’s traumatized and doing the best she can,” she says. “Even unengaged and failing students have family members who die. Do you really want to be that professor who asks for ‘proof’ of a death?”
But for many teaching graduate students, junior faculty, and even seasoned professors who aren’t quite so accommodating, responding appropriately to these student missives can be tricky. So I decided to ask a handful of professors to craft responses: Let’s say you get a note from a student who you’re pretty sure is making up a story about a dead grandmother. How would you write back?
Let’s just say it wasn’t hard getting responses. A few professors sent me samples of messages they’d sent to students in the past. But a bunch of them treated the request as a chance, finally, to compose the snarky messages that they’d long fantasized about sending. So read on. You might get some useful ideas here, but you’ll definitely get to see some high-quality venting.
Takiyah Nur Amin
assistant professor of dance
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
I hope all is well with you. Please note that, as articulated in my well-developed, color-coded syllabus, I am not here for make-up assignments, late work, or extra credit.
It's not personal. But when I am teaching almost 200 students a semester across three different kinds of courses at three different levels, I can't make allowances for those kinds of things. I know what you are thinking—I am trying to make your life difficult. But honestly, the course policies have been clear since Day One, and if you are still in my class after the drop/add period, that syllabus is our contract: It delineates what you can expect of me and certainly what I expect of you.
I only consider make-up work when illness or family crisis is documented via official letter from the Dean of Students office. Please do not show up with an obituary or a copy of the funeral program or have your mama call me and leave nasty voicemails about how I had better accommodate you because your granny has just died. Upon receipt of the required documentation, I will make an appropriate arrangement concerning the midterm for you. And I am sorry you had a death in the family. That truly sucks.
associate professor of film and media arts
Southern Methodist University
Thank you very much for the note.
I’m very sorry to hear of the loss in your family. Please know you are all in my thoughts in this difficult time. I understand the importance of family in times of grief, and I hope you can be a source of support for your parents in what is one of the most difficult life transitions we all must face as we get older. My professors in both college and grad school were very understanding of some of my setbacks in similar family circumstances.
I would very much like to send your [Mom or Dad] a card and a short note to let them know they are in my thoughts and to single you out for praise in being so proactive and forthright in speaking to me. Would you be kind enough to send along [his or her] snail mail address so I can get this in the mail in the next day or so?
Thank you so much, and please contact me when you get back into town so we can talk about a timetable for making up the work you missed.
Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts
adjunct professor of English and writing
Rosemont College, Philadelphia University, and the Community College of Philadelphia
So here’s the thing: Your granny is going to die. She’s most likely going to go quietly into the dark night, in her sleep, of old age. However, there is the slight chance that the high blood pressure she’s had for years might catch up with her or, worse, she might have a heart attack or stroke. Then there’s that pesky hip surgery she had last year and the insidious, undiscovered infection that has been festering in her body, coursing through her blood stream, slowly shutting down the functioning of her organs one by one. Of course, she could also just be walking along a street, minding her own business, and out of nowhere a city bus jumps a curb and runs her and her dog, Laura, over.
Appalled yet? Devastated? I hope so.
I sincerely hope you find my entirely-too-vivid description of all the ways your precious grandmother can and might die just as appalling and inexcusable as I find your faking her death in order to escape being accountable for the work you chose not to do. I hope you see how it would take a soulless, life-suck of a person who lacked both character and integrity to say such horrifying things without an ounce of compassion or—wait for it—truth.
Then I hope you make another choice. One that includes taking the “L” (and my “F”) and owning this tragic, yet totally predictable, mistake. In the meantime, let Granny live to die another day.
P.S. You’re 19. Your granny is 57. Stop it.
David J. Leonard
associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University at Pullman
I surely hope your grandma is OK. I am sending my best to you and your entire family. I understand your concern about the midterm but I would encourage you to focus on what’s in front of our face: being a rock for your family and your own well-being. That should be your primary focus, so let me know if I can help in any way.
As for class, I assume there will also be moments where you can take care of class responsibilities. You have readings to do for class, and studying that can be done for our class (and presumably others). Focus on completing that work. I don't say this because I expect you to focus your entire life on our course, but because one of life’s challenges is to be present in our current moment. In doing so, you will get a lot more out of the class as well as life.
Now, to answer your question, although I prefer to avoid hypotheticals (I do not even want to think about loss of life): Should “life happen” where you cannot take the midterm, all you need to do is talk to me. You can email me, call, tweet, send a telegram, or reach out in whatever way works for you. While it may not be possible, do your best to contact me before the midterm so that I know the situation. My only expectation is that you do so in a timely manner. Sending me an email in a month and showing for make-up on last day of semester would not be timely.
So once you return from being with your family, please come see me in office hours so we can figure out a make-up midterm. To be honest, in the scope of life, figuring out what to do when life precludes you from taking a midterm should not be stressful, especially given the situation. Just communicate and we will find a path forward.
assistant professor of English
Ball State University
Should your granny die before the midterm … Wait. Let me rephrase that. Dear student, your granny will most likely “die” before the midterm, and if not then, most definitely by the time your final paper is due. How do I know this? So happy you asked. I know this because I can tell from the way you half-attend class—and nod off during the times when you actually do attend class—that it is just a matter of time before you start killing off some member of your family, most likely your granny, in a lame attempt to gain my sympathy so I will give you extra time to work on an assignment you are still going to fail anyway.
Therefore, let me stop you now. Dead grannies no longer impress me. In fact, dead grannies are so 1990s it’s not even funny. And to be honest, the way my luck has gone this semester, I probably have already taught your mother and/or your father, and if DNA is any indicator, they most likely “killed off” your granny years ago. Thus I’m asking you to forgo that little granny dance of death with me. And it would probably only take me a half a minute of Google searching to find your granny taking selfies of herself in real time. So let’s save each other the trouble.
Drop my class and keep your granny from dropping dead … again.
Is that the best you’ve got?
adjunct and Ph.D. candidate in history
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Thanks for the heads up, again, and for asking if your continued absences to “see about Grandma” caused you to miss anything 'important'. Well, I am here to tell you a big, fat "hell no, you did not miss anything important." Rest easy, my friend.
The lectures I prepared earlier were mostly unimportant, and your absences have coincided with those class dates. I spent dozens of hours writing and researching the most mundane information. Then, I bring that information into the room where you, and hundreds of others, pay exorbitant fees and tuition. Wow, how do I stay employed?
The bad news is by the time Grandma dies at midterm I will shift towards giving mostly important lectures, and those you should not miss. In anticipation of your impending familial obligations to the rituals surrounding death, I am carbon-copying your adviser on this email and requesting that they help you drop this course.
By the way, you should not have tried to friend me on Facebook because your profile is public and pictures of you partying while attending to your sick grandma have framed your commitment to our unimportant course!
professor of Africana studies and American studies
I am very sorry to hear that your grandmother is ill. I am even sorrier to learn that her impending demise from neurasthenia, which you describe in such encyclopedic detail, has brought you so much stress on the eve of our comprehensive midterm examination. I, too, have read The Yellow Wallpaper, and I remember those same passages about the smell, the texture, and the effect of this disabling disorder quite vividly. So know, then, that my profound sympathies are with you and yours.
I must pause, though, with great concern. Because, dear student, we actually have no midterm in this class. This is an interdisciplinary class, and we assign essays and group projects, all of which are due at the end of the semester. If you are studying for an exam, I'd encourage you to revisit the syllabi for all of your classes, identify the one with the upcoming test, and redirect your energies in that direction.
One last thought: should your grandmother pass away, please don't worry about notifying me about your subsequent absence. I imagine you will be away for some time, attending to funeral details and calming the emotional landscapes of your family. Because I don't usually take attendance, I probably would not have noticed that you were missing, but now, with my heart bleeding for you, I will be keenly attentive to your empty seat, and will count the days until you return. At the start of every class, I will gesture to the chair, and ask the class to think of you. So take care of your people—and yourself—first. We can work out the details of suitably demanding make-up project later.
associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies
Washington State University
I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother’s unexpected passing. I’m sure it is a difficult time. I am sure you two were close. She was probably the type of grandmother who would do anything for her children and grandchildren … including conveniently meeting her maker on the same day that the class midterm was scheduled. She must have sensed that you were one of my more inquisitive students, who was constantly asking questions in class like: “Will this be on the test?” “How far should we have read before the midterm?” “Is the midterm really next week?” and “Will we be able to drop our lowest grade if we fail the midterm?” I only hope she did not die in vain, and that you actually spend your time at her “wake” catching up on the reading so that you can take the midterm next week.
I believe in karma … both mine and yours. And if you are fine with tempting karma by virtually knocking off family members on a whim simply because you can’t get your act together, then you have bigger problems than the grade you’re going to get in my class.
professor of African-American studies and history
The only death I will accept as an excuse for a late paper is your own. And in the event of your demise, I expect your executors to turn in the paper within six months of your passing.