Don't Ask, Don't Tell
As Ralph Luker has mentioned, I recently received orders from the army for 18 months of active duty. One unfortunate consequence of the army's generous invitation is that I'll be leaving two weeks before the end of the quarter at UCLA, where I am a teaching assistant in a survey course on ninteenth century U.S. history.
I've been considering a question without much success at finding an answer: What do I tell the students in my discussion sections? I graded their midterms and first papers, but will not be here to grade their second papers and final exams. I'll also miss the last discussion, which will be covered by other TAs. I'll have to say something about my coming absence. They'll also probably notice the sudden appearance of a wedding ring in the week before I leave.
I'm not inclined to discuss personal business or contemporary politics in the classroom, and so have been thinking I'll just announce that I won't be here for the end of the quarter, thank you and goodnight. Others here have argued that I should -- even must -- tell them why I'm leaving and where I'm going. I can think of arguments for and against, but I'll just ask this as a question, or as several questions: Should I tell? Should I tell, and try to use the news to generate a classroom discussion? Is there a reasonable way to drag a history lesson out of my news? (My research interests relate to the development of an American empire in the late nineteenth century, so it seems like some very careful and limited analogies might be made.)
One concern worth mentioning: In previous quarters, I have had active and engaged sections, and have also had students who were in ROTC or considering careers in the foreign service or the CIA, bless their innocent hearts. This quarter, the universe is punishing me for unidentified prior transgressions, and I have one section that could serve as a perfect metaphor for sailing through the doldrums. They just...don't...care. About anything. Ever. (I'm told that this is normal for the spring quarter.)
Does the composition and chemistry of a class change the answer to the questions? If they're disengaged, do I not bother? Or do I just sigh and step out there?
And, to repeat the question, is there a discussion about history available in the decision to tell them that I'm headed for Iraq?
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John Penta - 5/20/2005
Not so sure, Greg. Chris, I know you can't reveal details due to OPSEC, but (to Greg) I imagine he's going over a 1-year tour.
Chris Bray - 5/17/2005
Many thanks -- I appreciate the advice and the kind thoughts. I also love the image of a Marine Corps first sergeant who is a history professor. Good stuff.
Jim Williams - 5/17/2005
I am a professor and a now retired career Reservist with 26 years of combined active and reserve service when I retired, as well as service for 5 years as company commander, two years as battalion commander, and two years as a division primary staff officer.
I always was forthright with my students about my activities, particularly when TDY or drills delayed grading. Fortunately, I was never activated in mid-semester. The battalion I commanded is now in Iraq; had I not retired, I might be there too, though the Army has limited need for arthritic 53 year old colonels with high blood pressure.
I think mentioning such things helps students connect academia with the real world. In class, I did not go beyond explaining that losing 2-3 weekends a month and 160+ days a year to Reserve duty (after I became a lieutenant colonel) necessarily slowed my grading. Outside of class, several students discussed my service with me, and I became and am something of a mentor for ROTC cadets on campus.
I think the advice of other commenters is good; tell your students! You might even tell them you are getting married as well.
My best wishes and prayers for your marrieage and your safety go with you, as they are with Fred Dotolo, a history prof at St. John Fisher College and USMCR First Sergeant who is "over there".
Greg James Robinson - 5/17/2005
Just think, you could give your studennts a great model for their first essay on "what I did suring my summer vacation"!
Chris Bray - 5/17/2005
It is well known that academics spend the summer on a riverbank, swathed in silk and being fanned with giant ostrich feathers, eating cheese and peeled grapes while discussing Great Literature.
Of course, for us that means spending the summer on the L.A. river, so it's not so pleasant. But still.
Jonathan Dresner - 5/17/2005
You can't simplify something without complicating something else.....
Now I guess it falls in the category of summer plans, and we don't talk about those with students because it shatters their illusions of our leisurely, scholarly pleasures.
Chris Bray - 5/16/2005
I posted this at school today, then got home to find, you guessed it, amended orders. I don't have to report until June 16.
I suspect them of waiting until I'd disrupted the department and completed all of my planning for the earlier departure.
Such an army thing to do. Did we say Guam? We meant Siberia! And you were supposed to be there in 1994!
Greg James Robinson - 5/16/2005
Chris, I think you should certainly tell your students, or else they may be tempted to connect your sudden disappearance with the wedding ring you put on (for which many congraulations) and think that your case of nuptials may have wiped you out and might even be contagious (connubial?) After all, haven't you been feeling rather uxorious lately?
Ralph E. Luker - 5/16/2005
Chris, I think it might be a mistake not to tell them. Something pretty obvious will have happened. If you simply have disappeared without notice, it could feed a rumor mill. A simple statement of fact should do it. If they then have questions, you're free to decide what you're willing to entertain and what you're not. If there's some hook to the subject of the section discussion, it might give it some vitality. But, after a simple explanation, I'd be prepared to move on to the class subject. They may be more interested in re-assurances about someone else assuming responsibility for the section when you can no longer be there.
Anne Zook - 5/16/2005
P.S. I think it's rather sad that someone being sent to Iraq has to worry that some student will be offended if the topic of serving in Iraq comes up in a college classroom. When I was in college, it was assumed we were adults.
Jonathan T. Reynolds - 5/16/2005
I think it would only be fair to tell them up front why and when you will be leaving. As for discussion following that statement, if it were me, I wouldn't engage in it unless it were directly relevant to the class material. At that point methinks it would be too likely to become the sort of political issue that might be a distraction or cause tensions with students of one political bent or another. Perhaps informal discussion about the topic during office hours would be suitable, but only if you felt like sharing your feelings on the subject.
Julie A Hofmann - 5/16/2005
I don't see anything wrong with telling the students. Just say you have been called up and won't be there. It's not a political statement. And it doesn't have to be a big conversation, just an announcement. They can always ask more during office hours ...
Pete Anderson - 5/16/2005
I think the student's should know, coming from a student's perspective of course. It would be worrisome for a T.A. to leave mid term before he can mark our grades, especially if we have been adjusting our styles to his. The easiest way to do so to avoid the other problems would be to have the discussion cell as usual, only ending in five minutes early to announce that you're going and say why. That leaves little time for the parallels that you seem to want to avoid, but also will allow the students to focus on meeting the new marker's guidelines and less on complaining about that "insert stinging insult here" T.A. who abandoned them to some "harsher stinging insult."