I requested exactly two extensions throughout four years of college, one of which I did not receive and one of which I received only after being chastised for asking (five days in advance, I might add). In my experience, students were often hesitant to even ask, worried that their reasoning wasn’t legitimate enough and/or that the professor would presume mal-intent from their request.
Three days after I submitted my last blog post, I met my dad in Paris for a long weekend. As we walked to find lunch after dropping off our luggage at the hotel, he turned to me and said, “I need to tell you something: Grandpa has cancer.” He explained the rapid succession of events over the previous four days that had inspired concern, all of which had culminated in an MRI scan revealing a 6-centimeter glioblastoma during my dad’s layover in Miami just twelve hours earlier.
A few days after hearing this news, I was struggling to finish an assignment, and I had to be gently reminded by an Irish classmate that it was perfectly reasonable to request an extension given the circumstances. I emailed the professor the night before the deadline asking for an extra 24 hours, and, within twenty minutes, he gave me his sincere condolences and an extra week. When I informed a different professor that I would be missing the last week of classes to extend a trip to the US to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Wisconsin, she immediately offered me as much extra time as she could give on my final paper—without me bringing it up. I assured her there was no reason to believe he would pass in the next few weeks, and I fully anticipated being able to finish my work on time. She delicately responded, “he doesn’t have to have died for you to be grieving, and nobody can tell you the appropriate timeline for processing loss.”
I was reminded of these acts of kindness while perusing my spring syllabi. I’m taking a class titled Gender, Harm, and Justice, and my professor (Aisling Swaine) included a “note on our wellbeing” on the very first page of her syllabus. She emphasized that the focus of the module is violence, specifically sexual violence, and that the content is complicated, frustrating, and distressing. She then wrote, “I invite you to opt in and out of readings, and in and out of particular classes. You can alert me to this if you like, without any need for explanation.”
The grace and benefit-of-the-doubt extended to students here is a sharp departure from many of my undergraduate experiences, and I often wonder whether these differences are reflective of the shift from undergraduate to graduate education or American to Irish culture. It’s probably a combination of both, but I imagine the latter shift carries more weight. Asking for help feels very different here—perhaps because, oftentimes, you don’t even need to ask. Everybody feels a bit more human; there’s no expectation that you are constantly consumed by work or that personal struggles be pushed aside in lieu of professional commitments. It seems to me that, at a very fundamental level, there is simply more trust placed in students. I’m grateful to be a beneficiary of that trust this year; it’s adjusted my expectations of myself, encouraged me to ask for help when I need it—without feeling shame or questioning the legitimacy of the request—and, hopefully, primed me to extend that same trust to others who may need it from me in the future.