By SUSAN JONES
The hoax shooter incident at Hillman Library last month has brought new attention to how faculty should deal with students who miss class or miss deadlines because of non-disability-related mental health concern or trauma.
For the past three years, Provost Ann Cudd’s annual message to faculty in August about being flexible when dealing with students’ various religious observations also has included language about applying that same flexibility when dealing with mental health issues, including those created by current events.
The following has been included provost’s memo on Religious Observances and Student Well-Being during the Academic Year since 2020:
“Please note that the University works to foster the physical and mental wellbeing of all our students. For disability-related accommodation requests, students should consult with the Office of Disability Resources and Services. To the extent students experience non-disability-related illness, physical impairment, mental health concern, distress or trauma, including distress or trauma related to current events, they should not be penalized for related absences, and modifications should be made for their continued academic progress. In turn, students should make faculty aware of their need for such modifications as soon as practical. When modifications are requested, students and faculty should make a reasonable effort to reach mutually agreeable arrangements to reschedule the academic activity or provide a substitute activity or evaluation.”
Several faculty have complained this year that the language in the announcement is vague and is often overlooked when it comes with the religious observances message.
The topic came up again at the Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs committee meeting on April 26, with faculty asking what they should have done about having in-person classes or delaying exams the day after the hoax shooting incident.
Kenyon Bonner, vice provost of student affairs, said the provost addressed the issue at a student town hall on April 17 by referring to the earlier memo.
“I think one of the things that students were asking for is more communication of that memo to faculty,” Bonner said. “One of the criticisms was not being sure that faculty felt that they were compelled to do that; it was more of a recommendation. The provost at that town hall said that it was an expectation.”
The other issue, Bonner said, is “how we can communicate that memo to students so that students are aware of the memo and they have the agency to work with their faculty to talk about what’s going on with them personally and how it might impact their ability to attend class or not.”
He said there is a need to encourage students “to really lean into their own agency, to really advocate for themselves and not ask for permission for self care. … There’s a gap there between the faculty understanding and the students knowing that this is something that has been out there for years.”
Sybil Streeter, co-chair of the committee and a faculty member in psychology, said that separating the mental health and religious observances announcements might be helpful to draw more attention to each. There also should be guidance after an incident like the one at Hillman.
“We don’t get guidance about how to handle the next day,” said Streeter, who offered her two classes that day on Zoom, but was told by her upper-level students that none of their other instructors had given this option. “Nobody called, nobody sent me an email and said we recommend this or you have permission to do that. … If I had been giving an exam though, I don’t know if I would have been able to. … It’s what can you do? What can you not do? What do we have time for?”
“I think that’s a good conversation to have among faculty and instructors — how to navigate that,” Bonner said. “There were students in the library who were clearly traumatized and probably in no condition to take a test if they had one the next day. So while you may not cancel the test, there may be individual students who are uniquely impacted that you would have a conversation with. That’s something you would navigate as an instructor.”
He also said there’s a need on the faculty and instructor side for more awareness and clarification of what the expectations are and for more “training and tools that you can use to respond and support students in the class.”
In its April 17 newsletter, the Center for Teaching and Learning offered some resources for trauma-aware teaching, including video recordings of two previous sessions offered by Toya Jones:
Trauma-Aware Pedagogy: Covers current definitions of trauma, its impact on cognitive function, and an overview of our brain’s response to traumatic events.
Applying Trauma-Aware Pedagogical Practices: Focuses on the effects of racial trauma, with case studies, as well as a brief review of tools for self-awareness.
The teaching center also plans to schedule a live workshop on this topic during the summer. Check back on the center’s website for more information later in the summer.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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