Students in a First-Year Writing Seminar

Students of Concern: Protocols & Procedures

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Indispensable Reference

Students of Concern: Protocols and Procedures


 

Most of the problems you’ll encounter while teaching are the expected problems of teaching well-planned classes, writing responses to student essays, and so on. But occasionally you will notice a student who seems to be in trouble:

  • A student who doesn’t attend class
  • A student who is behind in the course work
  • A student who is emotionally troubled

In the worst case, all three may apply.

Because first-year students usually take large classes in which they aren’t noticed as individuals, your attention to a student with difficulties may be especially helpful, and you may well want to take some kind of action. At the same time, you should remember that a teacher is not a counselor. The guidelines below are designed to help you avoid assuming the role of counselor while helping you take appropriate, responsible action to assist the student. You have a variety of resources (though not all of them obvious) on which you can rely in such circumstances, including:

  • your course leader, if you are a graduate student
  • the Knight Institute staff
  • the Crisis Manager (5-1111, ask for crisis manager)
  • the contact for the student’s college and the student’s faculty advisor
  • Gannett Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services, CAPS, (5-5208)
  • Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service (272-1616)

The following are some kinds of difficulties students get into, and some responses that seem to work best:

Students who don’t attend class

DescriptionA student hasn’t appeared in class for several weeks. You hear rumors from his or her friends or classmates, but have no real idea what is going on.

Your action:

  1. Try to contact the student to find out what the situation is. If the student’s email address is not listed in the Cornell Directory, the student’s college registrar should be able to give you that information. The student’s college appears on your class list.
  2. Contact the student’s advisor if you can’t locate the student. You may find out who the student’s advisor is by calling the contact for the student’s college.
  3. Write a letter or email the student, with copies to the contact for the student’s college and to the student’s advisor.

Include the following information:

  • Your attendance policy
  • The student’s attendance record since the beginning of the term
  • The student’s work in the course to date
  • What you expect the student to do so as not to fail the seminar and what penalties will ensue if the student does not comply
  • A potential grade that you would give if the student were not to return to class
  • Whether, if the student will fail no matter what, the student should consider petitioning to drop from the course if possible

Action you cannot take: Drops

You can’t simply drop students who stop attending from your class. According to University and college policies, the student must receive an “F” in the seminar if he or she does not drop (or, if necessary, withdraw from) it.

Action you should not take: Incompletes

The Institute cautions you not to give incompletes unless the student has a significant academic investment in the course (an investment that includes participation in class discussion as well as written work), and unless the student has demonstrated a genuine need to postpone the work. In First-Year Writing Seminars, students write papers and receive comments on them in a cumulative effort throughout the semester. Incompletes that require massive submissions of essays after the course is over do not make educational sense. If you are in any doubt whatever about what to do, consult your course leader, if you have one, or the Director of First-Year Writing Seminars.

The student’s college also has its own policies on incomplete grades. Before acting, you should therefore check with the student’s college registrar for its policy. You will probably need to fill out a special form.

What the Knight Institute can do to help you

We can determine whether the student is still registered, or on leave. If you have not reached the student, we will try to provide the student’s contact information.

If you have already attempted to write the student over the past several weeks, we will determine in which college the student is registered and find out the name of the student’s faculty advisor. If a college does not have faculty advisors, then the Institute asks for the name of an appropriate dean or member of the counseling staff. Bruce Roebal, the Institute’s Registrar, will be glad to assist you with any questions. Contact Bruce at 5-3505, via email at bar2@cornell.edu, or at 263 McGraw Hall.

Students who are behind in course work

DescriptionYour student is seriously behind in the course work (he or she probably also attends sporadically). The student keeps promising to catch up with the work, to attend more faithfully—but doesn’t.

Your action: Write a letter to the student, sending copies to the contact for the student’s college and to the student’s advisor (see the guidelines above). Talk with the student; it occasionally works to have the student draw up a contract describing in detail how and when he or she will make up the work. Include in writing the penalties that will ensue if the contract is broken. Consult the Director of First-Year Writing Seminars or your course leader (if you are a graduate student) if you are in any doubt about the appropriate course of action to take. This isn’t the first time students have started to fail a course, and experience helps in deciding what to do.

Actions you should not take: You should not try to drop the student from your course or give him or her an incomplete (see above).

Students who are emotionally troubled

Coming to college often means leaving behind one’s usual support systems. Consequently, the first year can be a source of significant distress for some students.

First-Year Writing Seminar instructors are in a unique position. Because of the small class size, the intimacy of the seminar format, and the one-on-one contact afforded by student conferences, you may be the first person to see the outward signs that a student is struggling. You may also be one of the first people in whom a student considers confiding.

Problems a student may experience or signs you may notice include missing classes, getting behind on coursework, withdrawing from friends and commitments, erratic sleeping patterns, appetite and weight changes, deterioration in physical appearance, excessive alcohol or drug use, odd or erratic behavior, frequent difficulties in relationships, hostility towards others, excessive worry, consistently sad or depressed mood, expressions of hopelessness or wishes to die, self harming behaviors, or anything else you sense is self-defeating or unhealthy.

General advice

As a writing instructor, you have a unique role in noticing and responding to students in distress. Detailed information about this role can be found at: https://health.cornell.edu/services/counseling-psychiatry/resources-faculty-staff. Although your role is different from that of a therapist, you can assist in connecting a student to appropriate resources. Please consider the following advice:

  1. If a student comes to you with a problem, keep in mind that it probably took great courage to ask for help. Listen actively and validate that he or she has made a good choice by seeking support.
  2. If a student has not sought help from you but appears to be struggling, consider expressing your concern. (You may view the common signs of distress at https://health.cornell.edu/resources/health-topics/concern-others.) Privately bring up the subject in an empathic and nonjudgmental way. It’s often helpful to get some advice about this beforehand. See #4 below.
  3. Affirm your belief that “help works” and that while problems may not resolve overnight, it’s smart to seek assistance in order to get a new perspective, support, or resources. Suggest the student seek support from the many campus and community support resources (see list at www.health.cornell.eduHighlights from this list include:
    • 24/7 phone consultation provided by Gannett Health Services, (5-5155)
    • Counseling and Psychological Services, CAPS, (5-5208), for individual and group therapy, as well as “Let’s Talk” off-site consultation and support hours (see schedule: www.health.cornell.edu)
    • Peer counseling provided by Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service, EARS, (5-EARS)
    • Cornell United Religious Work, CURW, (5-4214)
    • Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services (272-1616), an Ithaca-based hotline appropriate for any one who is struggling, not just those who are feeling suicidal.
  4. Remember you are not alone. Review the “How to Respond” information on the Gannett website: https://health.cornell.edu/resources/health-topics/concern-others. Consult your course leader, the student’s College Contact, the Institute (5-2280), or a CAPS counselor (5-5155).
  5. Avoid becoming the student’s only or primary source of support. This can be overwhelming for you and detri- mental to the student’s welfare.
  6. Dealing with student problems can be personally stressful. If you are a faculty member and feel you could use additional support, consider the resources listed in #3 or contact the Faculty Staff Assistance Program, (607-255-2673). The FSAP is a free, professional, and confidential service provided to Cornell employees. If you are a graduate student instructor, call Gannett Health Services for support. Phone consultation is available 24/7 at 255-5155.
  7. If a student is in the midst of a life-threatening, imminent crisis (e.g., threatening suicide), call 911 or Cornell Police at 255-1111. It makes sense simply to program the numbers of Gannett Health Services (255-5155) and Cornell Police (255-1111) into your cellular phone.

More detailed information on Noticing and Responding to students in distress is available on the Gannett Health Services web site: https://health.cornell.edu/resources/health-topics/concern-others.

What the Institute can do to help you

We can talk with you about the student and about possible courses of action to take. The Institute determines the student’s college, and immediately telephones that college’s first contact.

We will make follow-up calls as necessary:

  • Calling Residence Life if they do not report back to us
  • Contacting you to see if the student is still attending class
  • Offering other support as appropriate
  • Coordinating flow of information with the crisis manager, if appropriate

 

We guard the student’s privacy as much as possible, by:

  • asking you, the instructor, how you wish to handle the situation.
  • giving you enough information to take the first steps on your own.
  • having you make the calls (if desired).
  • not releasing the student’s name to anyone other than primary caretakers in college, residence-life, and psychological staffs.

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