Notes from The Professor

May 23, 2011

Nathan: the patient

Since we are an open enrollment commuter school, and a “teaching college,” it is part of our responsibility to teach students how to “do” college. Data consistenly show that success rates are heavily correlated to attendance (duh) so if we can keep bodies in seats, we can improve outcomes. To that end, and unlike a lot of four-year institutions, we have a mandatory attendance policy in most of our classes.

I am deeply ambivalent about this. One of the hardest parts of my job is keeping track of excuses. Because their lives are so demanding (nearly all of my students work; many have kids; some commute an hour each way; you name it) there are plenty of good reasons people miss class. With 125 students per quarter, it can be a recordkeeping nightmare to keep up with excused and unexcused absences, tardies, and makeup work. And when students are a) adults, and b) paying tuition, it sort of seems like it should be up to them to decide what they want to get out of the experience. I try not to take it personally when people don’t show up, but I do.

It especially galls me because of students like Nathan, who never missed a class. Ever. He always did the reading, he never missed a deadline, and he (most shockingly of all) frequently read parts of the book that weren’t assigned, just out of curiosity.

When he asked to do his research paper on stem cell research, though, I was disappointed. We spend a lot of time brainstorming topics so the proposals they write end up being something that might actually be useful to them, rather than just busywork for a grade. Surely he could come up with something more original than that.

“Why that topic, Nathan? Surely there’s something more relevant to your life.”

“I’m diabetic,” he told me. “My kidneys have failed. I spend six hours a day on dialysis. Researching a cure for this disease is pretty relevant to my life.”


We chatted for a while about what he hoped to learn, about whether a pancreas transplant would work for him and what advances were being made. He was politically conflicted — a Republican who was very unhappy with then-President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell lines.

Finally, I asked him how he managed to keep up with school (and work, and life in general) when he was hooked up to a machine for one quarter of his life.

“Dialysis has made me the student I am,” he told me. “For six hours a day, I have no choice but to sit still. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t spend it watching t.v. or playing video games or messing around online. When you’re on borrowed time, you don’t waste it.”

He went on to describe the setup he had at home, his bedroom serving as both his office and his clinic. I couldn’t help but try to imagine how much better my other students would do if they would devote six hours a day to school work. But then, I can’t imagine anyone–myself included–having that kind of discipline.

Despite his considerable challenges, Nathan looked perfectly healthy. He was thin–maybe too thin–but his color was good and his energy level completely normal. Had it not been for our conversation, I would never have known he was sick. He managed his diabetes just fine, but it was doing a number on him anyway.

His final term paper was smart, informative, and balanced. He concluded that the most promising therapies for type I diabetes would have to rely on stem cell research, and he cogently addressed the ethical issues surrounding it without getting bogged down in identity politics. It was a great paper.

I don’t know what became of Nathan, or whether he got his transplant–a kidney, a pancreas, or both–or even whether he’s still alive. But I think of him now and then when some kid skips a class or misses a deadline and makes a lame excuse. It’s not exactly fair to say, “Nathan got an A when he was on dialysis for six hours a day, and you could’t make it to class because you had a fight with your boyfriend? Really? You overslept because you were playing World of Warcraft until 4am? Really? You didn’t bother to even make an excuse? Really? Do you know how much harder you could have it?”

But I don’t say any of this. Instead, I try to give my students the benefit of the doubt without being a sucker. I try to make it worth their time to come, with natural consequences if they don’t. I try to make them want to come to class for intrinsic rewards. And I enforce the stupid attendance policy, just in case.



  1. Wow. This makes me think of all the students who deal, quiety, privately, with challenges most of us couldn’t imagine. For every Nathan whose situation we learn about, there are probably 2 or 3 or more others whose situations we never know. And I do have a hard time, then, with the ones who complain about a deadline during prom week or Homecoming or when they have rehearsal for the musical…

    Comment by Darby — May 23, 2011 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

  2. This story inspires me to do more with my bursts of free time. Instead of thinking about all the things I can accomplish when I “have more time,” I will use the small moments more wisely, while also cherishing all the body parts that work so hard every day helping me lead a life unhindered by physical challenges.

    Comment by Britton Minor — May 24, 2011 @ 9:47 am | Reply

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