I’m writing this post through watery eyes while I sit sniffling on a bus with 28 of my colleagues heading to a meeting with the Board of Trustees. I’m mad, and I’m mad at you. I’m mad at you because you’re the reason I’m sick. I’m not mad at the dozens of sick students I’ve had in class this past week who got me sick. I’m not mad at the students, because it’s not the students’ fault. It’s your fault I’m sick, because you’ve created and perpetuated a culture that makes students feel like they have to come to class when they are sick.
You got me sick, because you get annoyed with your students when they’re sick. You whine when they miss your exams due to illness and you have to schedule a make-up exam. You’re put out by your students’ petty sniffles and sneezes. You have restrictive attendance policies that make students nervous about missing class. Some of your attendance policies make it clear that you think your students will take any opportunity to lie to you about their health and skip every class possible. Even if you don’t say it out-right, your students know you are vexed by their illnesses, so the students bend to the point of breaking in response to your annoyance and come to class sick. I’ve seen students sneeze and violently cough all over stacks of exams before they continue passing the stack to the end of the row—for this I blame you. These policies, both explicit and implicit, and the resultant student behavior are sick and need to change.
As a developmental psychologist, I question what we’re teaching our students and future workers about the importance of their own health. We should be teaching them that their well-being is their first priority—or at least more important than showing up on quiz day. Instead, we are teaching our students how to navigate the Protestant work ethic that so many of us eschewed by going into academia. We pride ourselves as inspiring change and progress, yet we act like The Establishment with our arcane attendance policies. We’re teaching them to prioritize someone else’s agenda over their own. We’re teaching them to go to work sick and save their sick days for vacation rather than demanding more annual leave from their employers. We’re teaching them to suffer. We’re punishing them for taking time to be well. Our inflexibility with our students’ illnesses is subjecting them to unnecessary stress, which is probably making them sicker.
Almost all of the major diseases that millions of Americans suffer from have been linked to stress. In other words, stress is killing us. The culture that we are creating in our colleges and universities is one that teaches students to be stressed out and sick. We’re setting them up for increased rates of depression, anxiety, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, diabetes, obesity, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease. We’re accelerating their rate of aging and sending them to early graves all because we implicitly expect them never to get sick and never inconvenience us by asking to take a make-up exam.
Please join me in my crusade to reduce our dependence on tissues and cold medicine by letting our students be sick in the comfort of their messy dorm rooms. Let’s start seeing them as innately motivated to learn like Piaget and Vygotsky before me and believing them when they say they’re ill. Together we can change our attendance policies to reflect our true values rather than reflecting how easily annoyed we are when our students ask for accommodations.