Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Blaming Mom

Here's a weird little trendlet I have observed over the years: the tendency for a student to blame their mother for various problems associated with their own attendance and participation in a class.

Two possible hypotheses to explain this phenomenon are:

1 - The students are telling the truth. Moms -- perhaps even helicopter moms -- are organizing things from afar, e.g. scheduling medical appointments and planning travel for their offspring, not caring that their daughter or son may have academic commitments such as (1) attending class, not to mention (2) taking exams. If so, then helicopter moms vastly outnumber helicopter dads (12 : 0, by one recent, unofficial count).

2 - The students are using the mom-excuse because they think it will be more compelling than saying, for example "I forgot about the final exam and got a plane ticket to Nouakchott". This mom-centric excuse may be somewhat related to the mass extinction of grandmothers (at a higher rate than grandfathers) during exam weeks. Do mothers and grandmothers as a concept have more emotional impact?

I always ask the mom-blaming students "Didn't you tell your mother that you have an exam that week?". No, they did not, and she didn't even ask. How sad, but it is ultimately the student's responsibility to manage their own academic schedule.

Note to students: Don't read this paragraph.
One of my colleagues recently gave into a "my mom got me a plane ticket for a short vacation in England during the week of the exam" excuse and constructed a make-up exam for the student. I asked him whether he habitually gave make-up exams, even for non-emergency, recreational reasons like this, and he said no, not usually, but this wasn't the student's fault -- it was his mother's.

Maybe I am just meaner than my colleagues, but maybe my lack of sympathy for the it's-my-mom's-fault reasons for missing an exam will ultimately help my students learn how to be independent people who value academics and who need to communicate better with their mothers.


Anonymous said...

It is your class, and your students. So you can do whatever you see fit.

However, were they my own students, I'd take the position that it's just college and give them a break. Make them make it up on their own time, with minimal extra work for you.

Yes, college is supposed to teach these kids something, but the lax attitude in grad school and some areas of the work force will bleed over in their lives. I find it hard to believe any sort of lesson regarding personal responsibility will be gained from this experience.

Ms.PhD said...

How bizarre. I can't see myself falling for those kinds of excuses... certainly not for a vacation. Probably any excuse would not fly with me, mom or no mom, unless the mom had some kind of terrible accident that put her on or through death's door-?

Maybe because we didn't have storybook relationships with our mothers, we're less likely to respond in the expected way? I guess we learned something about your colleague, though...

Anonymous said...

"my mom got me a plane ticket for a short vacation in England during the week of the exam"

The fact that the mistake was made by the mother seems to me about as relevant as knowing that the ticket was paid using visa instead of mastercard.

Alyssa said...

These students are adults!! It's their responsibility to keep track of their commitments - and tell their mothers if need be :P That kind of BS excuse just pisses me off to no end.

x-ine said...

Wow - these kids are UNIVERSITY students and they think they can get away with blaming their mothers for being irresponsible?!

Honestly, I don't know of any mother that would book medical appointments and flights without confirming that their kid had no commitments anyway. At any rate, once I finished high school, my mother left it up to me to take care of these sorts of things.

I'm still a student and I would never use the "it's my mom" excuse. It makes you sound like your 5 years old. Ridiculous.

gwen said...

As a former TA, I had to have a recitation, which was mandatory. For homework to be counted, you had to stay the entire 50 minutes. This was written in the syllabus and all students had to sign and read that they agreed.

I had a student answer his phone in class, get up, leave, come back in, gather his things and start to leave. I stopped teaching, reminded him his homework wouldn't count and he shrugged and left, saying he had to go.

The next week, I passed out homework before a quiz. Instead of giving him a zero, I graded the homework and took 50% off for leaving.

Three days later, I get called into my professors office. This student's MOTHER had emailed her about her son's homework. He apparently was so distraught over his homework that he failed his quiz.

Now, the quiz was a straight memorization--amino acids, draw, name, etc. The fact that his mother emailed the professor I was working for was just ridiculous. I should also mention that this class was full of students who were eligible to drink.

me said...

i completely agree with you. you aren't mean, just living in reality.

and i really want to believe that if you were to tell those moms what their kids are giving as excuses, they would be upset, too.

i mean because if i have a child in college and i'm paying for them to be there, they sure as hell better show up for exams and we'll just post pone whatever trip we had planned.

but that's just me.

**is your colleague, that gave in to the excuse, a man?

Anonymous said...

I dunno... Honestly I'm OK with the idea of giving in to excuses like this provided the student turns in the term paper / takes the exam early (rather than when they get back from England, Tahiti, etc). If they are being honest with you, and it's really a situation they can't get out of then OK. If they are lying and using the excuse to give them extra time or possibly get out of an assignment altogether, then this policy won't help them.

John Vidale said...

My attitude, if I have the energy, is simply to made the make-up harder than the original assignment, and be very lenient about letting them opt for the make-up.

I figure, statistically, if they suffer some for not being able to do the original work, who's treated unfairly? Also, I'm not a child counselor, I'm a scientist. Requiring them to cross every T is within my power, but even were I a fierce disciplinarian, I don't think it is a good idea.

My most common tactic is requiring a short essay for missed assignments, a longer essay for oversleeping the exam and such, with only maybe 75% credit possible. They almost never complain, usually they are grateful, and they end up working harder than they would have, or get a zero.

I wasn't a model student, and don't think that obeying authority strictly and automatically is a virtue. Much of my day is spent ignoring bureaucratic requests to hand in this or that form and on time, for which some would like to ding me.

For example, yesterday (2pm waste of time, I wasted time with 3 functionaries enforcing reasonable rules that led to a problematical result. Too many rules and deadlines in the world for good mental health.

Anonymous said...

I would say to give the students a break.

It is hard for multiple-sibling families to find a vacation time that coincides with a break in classes for everyone, especially if some are in high school.

And for a family trying to fly on a budget, plane tickets may have been cheaper say, 6 months ago, before the student knew their exam schedule.

Female Science Professor said...

Even if I were less mean, it's not so easy for me to give students a break in a class consisting of hundreds of students, each with a complicated life. If I gave everyone a make-up exam every time they wanted or needed one, I would do nothing else but create and administer exams the entire term. Instead, I do the classic drop-the-lowest-grade approach.

Unknown said...

Wow, I can't believe so many people would want to "give the students a break". How about summer break? Is it really that hard to schedule a family vacation when each kid has about three months off in the summer?

Also, of course pointless bureaucracy is, well, pointless, but here there is good reason for people to go along with the schedule set by the professor. Missing exams and expecting makeups is not harmless; it actually has a detrimental effect. The amount of time it takes for a professor to make, proctor and grade a whole new exam is not insignificant. It takes away from the time available for the professor to devote to other students, the class as a whole. Students should not get to do everything at their own convenience without regard for the consequences for others. I'm sure it doesn't even occur to most of them even to think about how other people are affected, but they need to get out of the self-centered pre-school mentality a lot of them seem to be in.

Anonymous said...

Our approach in the courses I teach--the following policy in the course policy section of the website

"Exams must be taken on the dates indicated during the regular class period; no makeup exams except in special circumstances, i.e., medical or family emergency documented in writing. The makeup test may be an oral exam."

No exceptions

Mark P

Anonymous said...

PS Imagine going to your boss at work and telling her: I am going to have to miss the next two weeks of work because my mom booked me a plane ticket for a brief vacation in London

Mark P

Curt F. said...

Much of my day is spent ignoring bureaucratic requests.

If ignoring takes up so much time, why bother? Sometimes responding is the best tactic.


Alex said...

I wonder how different we really are from the "good old days." Academia has gone through different phases. Once upon a time, universities were places for the sons of the elite. I find it hard to believe that a professor never took any flack for enforcing tough standards on a kid whose father is the Duke that donated the money to build the library, or whatever.

I do find that the students from the most privileged backgrounds tend to be the most demanding. Of course, there are memorably demanding students of every background.

If we're viewing this as something new, I wonder if some of it reflects rising tuition segregating students by income, and fewer international students. Less privileged students, as well as international students, tend to be more appreciative of educational opportunity.

Dr. Lisa said...

I've had several instances of parental interference. One from last semester: I had a student hand me his cell phone so his mother could explain to me that her son could not turn in his assignment because SHE had packed it in the wrong backpack for him! I was stunned and could only mumble "okay."

I had another case, though, of a mother who kept calling her daughter during class to check in on her whereabouts. I once grabbed the phone and told her to stop calling at this time. The daughter had good attendance and was an excellent student. However, the daughter missed the final exam. She showed up later in the day, noticeably battered. Turns out her boyfriend had put her in the emergency room the night before, and her mother's worries about this man were why she called her daughter so much.

I've given the parental excuses a bit more slack since then.

Unknown said...

Ugh. I have to say that my parents had the attitude that "it's just school, you can do a makeup assignment" when I was an undergrad...actually they still seem to think it works that way now that I'm a grad student. I suspect that this is because my mom is a school teacher and has to make accommodations like these for her middle schoolers.

My parents never went so far as to actually book me a plane ticket without making sure it would work with my schedule, but they did get a little weird about me saying that no I can't leave that day because I have a final.

Students need to decide whether it is better to inconvenience the family or the professor - to me the choice is obvious. You're family still has to love even if your travels plans are difficult. Your professor doesn't have to like you when you make extra work for them.

Mike said...

x-ine : Your Stockholm Syndrome is showing. ;-)

Jim Kakalios said...

Back when I was in college (when dinosaurs walked the Earth!) a fellow physics student had returned to school following a stint in the Navy.

He told a story involving what I consider the single best excuse I've ever heard. I tell my students that they can get a make-up exam, only if their reason tops this excuse.

My Navy friend says that someone on ship, when petitioning for a shore leave, gave as his reason for needing to leave:

"My one-armed uncle's coming to town - and he's got two suitcases."

My friend said that the CO's response was: "You have balls enough to put that down - I have balls enough to let you go. Shore Leave approved!"

So far, no student has come close to this standard.

Anonymous said...

Wow, writing exams must be way easier for the rest of you than it is for me. The very first comment said "minimal extra work." I think that writing another exam from scratch is HARD! It is hours and hours of work for me. This takes away from the time I can spend helping many students because time in the day is limited.

JeffE said...

Dear sweet Loki on a stick.

To the student: "You're joking, right? The exam schedule has been posted on the course web site since the first week of class. I'm sorry your mom screwed up, but that's really not my problem. Next time, give her your final exam schedule!"

To the parent: "I'm sorry, but federal privacy law and university policy forbid me from discussing any student's educational records with anyone, including their parents, without prior written authorization from the student. No exceptions. I am not even allowed to confirm that your son/daughter is taking my class. If you have any questions about this policy, you're welcome to call my department head."

Curt F. said...

Jeffe: Why stop there? Have obtuse, will travel.

Instead of telling parents to call the department head, just end conversations with "...and if you don't like it, write your Congressman," and then hang up.

me said...

Ambivalent Academic i believe that is a highly special circumstance. when something like that instance happens, it makes sense; however, what FSP gave as examples-- immature by far.

dude! if you are so relaxed about giving in, what will these students learn? that society will be so forgiving and that you can have your mom call and tell your boss that you couldn't complete your tasks, b/c she put your presentations in the wrong briefcase? i mean seriously? does hard work and maturity just not matter anymore?!

i too am so surprised at all the responses that insinuate that these kids should be cut a break.

i feel for your kids when they have to "grow up".

John Vidale said...

I'm all for having a fair policy, but the idea that how deal with students' excuses prepares them to deal with life seems farfetched. A few nominate us for awards, citing our formative influence, but generally those are the very people who already were on the right set of tracks, just looking for the precise groove.

How we deal with students IS their life, as well as ours, so I try to keep it easy and functional, rather than inflexible and suspicious.

Danielle said...

I had a student miss an exam with the excuse "My mom needed me to help with my little brother."

Now, this student had already missed excessive amounts of class, skipped quizzes and was basically getting a D or F in class. So, I was suspicious.

I called him on it and said "Well, I'll need to email or talk to your mother on the phone to confirm your excuse."

He then admitted that he'd LIED TO ME. He really had a friend drive into town and wanted to spend time with her rather than take the exam.

Aresen said...

I'd have to go along with the student if there was a genuine emergency - death/serious injury in the family - or real illness (hangovers don't count).

"Mom wanted me to go on vacation" doesn't cut it.

I would probably allow "I couldn't get to the exam because the street was blocked by a lava flow", but I'd want independent confirmation.

Bravegirl01 said...

25 yrs or so ago, two days before a history midterm, I was assaulted in my dorm room. The day of the midterm, my boyfriend told our prof about my absence. The prof said, "how awful! she can have a make-up, but tell her I need a note from her doctor." He was utterly sincere, btw. (and scored me gently when I turned in a subpar midterm two weeks later.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm. My father bought plane tickets for the day of my MCAT exam, after I had repeatedly told him not to schedule anything until the next day. Fortunately I managed to finish the test in time to get to the airport and we made our flight (barely), but it wasn't a fun experience. My mom, on the other hand, would never have made that mistake.

Female Science Professor said...

Based on my own parental experience, I too would find a blame-dad excuse more believable than a blame-mom one, but I hesitate to extrapolate (too much).

Anonymous said...

I think it's appalling that anyone over the age of 18 would go running to their mommies for something as trivial as school assignments or exams. Why do they not feel embarrassed? If you are old enough to be drafted into the military and sent off to war, you are old enough to handle your school work on your own or face the consequences of shirking your academic responsibilities. I can't believe parents would enable this behavior by reinforcing it. when these young adults enter the working world will they have their mommies fight their battles with their bosses for them too?? (actually, not joking, I read an article recently on how there are now some companies that hold parent-orientation days for their new hires!!)

John Vidale said...

I feel countercyclical here, but can't resist pointing out the didacticism in many posts. Presumably, we're faculty due to our narrow expertises, primarily in the objective sciences. I know I am.

Yet we repeatedly post about how students should be living their lives, how parents should be parenting, how we should gear our policies to give them a lesson in how they should conduct their lives.

My job is to teach them some science, as much as they can be threatened, persuaded or tricked into learning, and give them a fair grade. They can watch Oprah for drama and life lessons.

Randy said...


I think I'd probably start out soft and get hardened against excuses pretty quickly. "Your mom bought you a plane ticket during exam week? Wow, that was an expensive mistake."

But the original post marks an intriguing trend -- kids blaming Mom more than Dad. I'd be interested to talk to some high school teachers about the excuses they hear and see how many are mom-centric compared to dad-centric.