An open letter to the student who wonders if he/she missed something

I have spoken to many colleagues and other academics about this issue. The matter of the "eventual e-mail," sent after a week of classes were missed on account of "sickness," wondering if he/she missed anything. Dear Professor,

I'm sorry I missed class this week. I was sick. I was just wondering if I missed anything.

- Student

Every professor receives this brand of e-mail. And we usually respond in kind.


Here, however, is the e-mail we do not send.

Dear Student,

I hope you are feeling better. Per your question, I will address what what missed during your absence. Please note, however, per the syllabus received on the first day of class, our policy indicates that every student is responsible for obtaining course notes for any classes missed due to sickness or other commitments, e.g. trips for other classes. Additionally, a note from the university health center should accompany the student upon his/her return to class.

You inquire if there was anything you missed during the 2.5 hours of classtime in which you were absent this week. I would imagine that in that time, class discussions transpired that cannot be replicated, questions were voiced that will never be echoed with the same spontaneity as the first time hands were raised, and difficult texts and media were explored by your classmates. Most, if not all of this, cannot be conveyed in a follow-up e-mail, though I am doing my utmost as one professor responding to the needs of 30-40 students whose assignments I will be grading and whose e-mails I will be answering until well past midnight tonight. And most nights. So did you miss anything this week? The answer is, emphatically, yes.

I suppose you would require that I provide detailed notation of what was missed, as you have obviously not taken the initiative to seek out these notes from a classmate, nor checked the online portal to see if there were any relevant materials uploaded. You are, afterall, the arbiter of this course and further my job since upon your evaluations does my future rest. If I appear in any way inflexible or less than amenable to student requests, I understand that this will be reflected directly in student feedback. Rightly so, many would say, since you are paying far more than an entry-level salary per year to attend this institution of higher learning. You may consider yourself a customer of higher education, a patron who should always be treated as if he/she is right. The difference between a customer and an investor, one who places great stock in his/her future by taking these courses seriously, is one of perception. The former perceives his/her opportunity in college as a right to be served. The other perceives his/her opportunity in college as a great privilege, enjoyed by a fraction of the world's population, and one that should be cherished.

Please note that your reluctance to attend class during sickness, despite your talent for broadcasting on Twitter your every rumination, trip to Starbucks, and conversation during latenight rendezvous during the time of your sickness renders me incapable of responding as I would to a classmate who approached me face-to-face during office hours (also published in the syllabus), explaining the predicament of his/her sickness and his/her willingness to go over any notes/reading missed as he/she strives to get caught up in this and other classes from which he/she was absent during sickness--not just this particular 8am class which you oftentimes miss. I am typically willing to spend hours with students in helping them and it is my great joy in doing so. Some 20 years ago, this face-to-face interaction would have been basically the only means of following up with a professor, save for a phonecall. There was no e-mail to hide behind, no text message to condense a sentiment deeply felt into a modern day smoke signal.

Because of your reluctance to report for class on time if at all, as well as your reluctance to visit during office hours, I will also be unable to provide a stellar reference for you when that entry-level job in the future calls. You will no doubt need that entry-level salary, in part, to pay back your astronomical student loans (over which I wholly sympathize as my salary still pays for mine). Since you have not accepted responsibility for class material missed, I dread for your future supervisors in the workplace who will be asked to "catch you up" at *your* convenience after you were out sick.

Which is why, to your original question, did you miss anything this week? I regret that you missed so much more than classtime over a few days. In fact, it would appear that you have missed more than time, more than notes and information, more than interactions, more than money.

I regret that you have, in fact, missed the point. You have missed the point of why you are here, in a university setting, pursuing a degree in a discipline that will prepare you for an exciting field of service in which you have the power to be a real agent of change. Perhaps you will be an agent of micro-change or macro-change; you may improve something or you may improve systems. The eventual diploma earned in higher learning is not a ticket. It is not a one-way pass to the great payout of entitlement. It is merely the evidence of some of the work you are capable of doing. It speaks to your accomplishments, your stamina and the integrity of your efforts. A diploma may not open all the doors you desire to fling open to you, but it is among the few things in this life that, if soundly earned, can never be taken away.

I just hope you don't miss your chance to earn one. To truly earn one.

Sincerely, Professor