#699: Thanking former professors after an awkward period of silence.

Dear Captain & Crew,

I’m a grad student and I want to write thank-you cards to a couple of my undergrad professors whose classes and mentorship were really important to my academic and personal growth. There two profs are my former advisor/PI and another prof who basically inspired what I’m doing for my graduate work – similar topic coming from another field. The problem for me is that when I was graduating and for a while after (aka prime thank-you time) my anxiety was out of control, but as that has become more manageable my feelings of awkwardness about the amount of time that has passed are increasing. I feel like I would be taking advantage of their time and professionalism if I just reestablished contact because it might be useful to me.

I want to avoid turning these thank-yous into a FEELINGSDUMP. One of the things I appreciated was my advisor being supportive and calm about my (at the time undiagnosed) panic attacks and general graduating/life stress, but I don’t think that’s the kind of long-winded screed they really need, ya know? I also ideally would like these notes to maybe be the start of a friendly-professional correspondence. I think they’re cool people, and we’re facebook friends so though we don’t actually talk there I think they are open to being in that sort of contact with their graduated students.

Scripts? General tips on how I should approach the situation from a professor’s point of view?

Signed,
Grateful Also Awkward
PS I use she/her pronouns.

Dear Grateful:

Keep it short and sweet, but please don’t fear that saying “thank you” to a teacher is an imposition even if some time has gone by. Your teachers all did their work without ever knowing what would take root or how students would receive it, and getting the confirmation that something stuck with you is a gift that you’re giving them, not an imposition on their time. Script:

“Dear Professor, as you may know, I’ve been doing graduate work in (field of study), and I wanted to tell you how wonderfully your class set me up to succeed here, especially the way you covered (specific topic). Thank you again for your class and for the mentorship and advising you gave me. I hope all is well with you. Best wishes, Grateful.”

Since you’re casually in touch on social media, that will do the rest to keep the doors open.

P.S. Thanks for telling us what pronouns to use. It didn’t come into play here, but it’s so helpful to know.

—————

Since we’re in that time in the semester, I want to make a public service announcement to college students whose academic success is being derailed by stress and mental health issues:

Universities aren’t magical places where stigma about mental illness doesn’t exist, but you (yes, you! and you!) are not the first students having genuine difficulty that your professor has seen. Unfortunately, “not giving a fuck” and “having a major crisis” can look exactly the same to your professors, so if you can, communicate. They can often steer you toward advising and on-campus health services to help you pull through. With some notice, they can maybe set up alternate structures for you to complete your work. The sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get back on track in some way. The very last week of the semester, “But I need a good grade in this class I never come to or do work for to graduate/keep my scholarship” isn’t really gonna work.

If you’re behind on your work, and you’re overwhelmed about how you’re ever going to catch up, let me help you prioritize that shitpile:

  1. What’s the assignment that’s due next? Ignore the old stuff for now. Focus on the next thing and hand it in by the deadline.
  2. Hand in all future things by the deadline, i.e., show that you can respect deadlines and respect the professors’s time and get caught up.
  3. Once you’ve made a plan for future work, what’s the outstanding assignment that’s worth the most points toward your grade? Try negotiating an extension for that one thing.
  4. When asking for an extension, your profs don’t need all the details of why. Look at what the syllabus says about late work and/or extensions, and if you have to ask, just do it. “I am having some personal issues and I need an extra week to finish my assignment. Can I turn it in on x date? I understand that this might affect my grade.” Your profs don’t spend all their time thinking about you or your missing work. Tell them what they need to know, ask them for what you need, and do it with the least amount of friction for them.
  5. Show that you are aware of what you need to do and suggest a realistic plan for getting the additional work in. Asking a professor, “What assignments am I missing?” is kind of insulting (see also: “Did I miss anything in class today?“). If you haven’t been reading the syllabus or the class website, now’s the time to read it or fake that you have. Grading late work is a pain in the ass, so make it easy for busy people to help you.
  6.  Is the missing work from the very beginning of the semester? Maybe let that stuff go. You don’t want to do it and your prof probably doesn’t want to read/grade it.
  7. Attend all classes, even if you aren’t quite caught up. Students who shame-hide because they haven’t finished their work: We see you! Or, we don’t, because you are skipping a class you paid a lot of money for because you’re worried about what we’ll think of you for missing an assignment, but we’d like to see you! Come back! Show that you’re interested and committed to catching up.

I have had students fail a class or withdraw from a class because they were going through a really bad time and then come back at it a semester later and do beautifully. It makes me so happy when that happens. It’s not embarrassing, it’s awesome!

62 comments
  1. attica said:

    Gosh, I don’t think there’s ever a deadline for thank you notes. Sure, the sooner you do them the better, but a sincere (i.e. not cut-and-paste) note after a long period of time engenders nice feels (at least for me). On the other hand, there does come to mind one particular deadline — the literal one, where your intended recipient has died. But since LW knows via social media that’s not in play here, write away!

    • Elizabeth said:

      Actually, even then, a condolence note to your professor’s survivors would not go amiss. “Your [loved one] helped me unstintingly, both professionally and personally. His/her passing is a sad day for all of the students who benefited from his/her knowledge and wisdom. Please accept my condolences on your loss.” This is appropriate even if you don’t learn of your professor’s passing for years.

      • I did this with my inspirational chemistry teacher from middle school. He died a couple of years ago and my mum still lives in the same town as his widow, so I asked her to pass along a brief note with my condolences, explaining how much I had enjoyed being one of his students. I gather it was appreciated.

  2. Jane said:

    Hey LW! I really don’t think it would be out of place to include a gently-phrased and brief line like “I deeply appreciate your kindness and understanding as I navigated some diffficult personal issues” would be out of place. My best and most-loved professors have been people who treated me as a human who has issues, not a work-producing robot who occasionally malfunctions, and I think it is not a bad thing for them to be reminded that compassion for students = very good thing, definitely remembered.

  3. Elle said:

    THANK YOU for your sage advice to college students at the end. Most of us care about our students deeply, but we can’t read your minds and don’t know if you’re missing assignments and deadlines because you’re having a crisis or dealing with some major trauma in your life, or if you’ve just decided that sleeping until noon and going to the beach every day is more fun than showing up in class. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE let us know about these things.

    Also, if you really liked a professor and their class helped you in some way, let them know! Even if it’s years after the fact! Teaching can be a really thankless job and it’s hard to know whether you’re getting through to students and really having an impact on them. Fill out that end-of-the-semester evaluation and say nice things, write a note to their department chair (especially appreciated for adjunct/contingent or pre-tenure faculty!), or send them an email. I’ve got an email tag called “Things to cheer me up” that consists mostly of nice emails from former students, and I go back and read those emails sometimes when I’m having a shit day and need some reminding that I’m doing some amount of good in the world.

    • adorkable said:

      Speaking as another professor type, let me second this. Times a million. Professors are human, and we care about you, and if you are struggling for literally any reason that is not some version of “being spoiled and giving zero fucks about the subject matter” we will work with you to fix it. And this absolutely does not mean that you have to let us in on the gory details; it is generally enough to let us know that *something* has happened. (As a side note: every mental health professional I’ve ever met is good at writing notes that provide simultaneously zero details and a sense of urgency. Take advantage of this ability.)

      Let me speak for myself here: I want to help you succeed. But I also make strict policies about things like missing work because … there’s one of me and typically about three hundred of you, and without some really clear rules y’all will trample me.

      *However* even those professors (like me) with policies like “you must clear all extensions with me ahead of time” will *still* make exceptions in case of a documented emergency. And most of us — at least everyone I know — will take a vague note from a mental health professional quite seriously and say, “great, I’m so glad you told me that something’s going on with you, now let’s work together to help you succeed.”

    • Just Plain Neddy said:

      I made a point of sending thank you cards to all of the professors whose courses I found valuable (there were only a couple who didn’t quite make the cut, but I wanted to keep the gratitude genuine). They were usually delighted and surprised. I got messages back saying “I’ve been teaching this course for five years and you’re the first person to send me a card, ever” which I thought was really sad. People love being appreciated. Professors love their subjects, and their students, and the when the students also love the subject and take a moment to show appreciation it’s just a great big happy bowl of unicorns.

  4. Cosima Niehaus said:

    Man, my Sophomore year, which was the year my anxiety and physical health issues were THE WORST, I think the shame-hiding is what killed me. I’d stress out about an assignment, not finish it, not turn it in because turning in something half-finished was embarrassing, then not come to class because I didn’t turn the thing in and THAT was embarrassing.

    Eventually I managed my anxiety and shame-stuff, but until then I found huge lecture classes where you can “learn and lurk” but not participate, and online classes, were the way to go. It was so much easier being an English major than a Fine Arts majors for this alone.

    • Oh man. I had that feeling too. I usually cried (sobbed), then finished the assignment in some fashion and tried to not be seen turning it in. The shame made me afraid to ask for help. I thought I was so stupid and they’d see I wasn’t worth helping. I made a friend and we helped each other though. 🙂

  5. Polychrome said:

    Professors know this stuff is weird because they have it, too. My parents went back to my old high school in another country and they had a note from me for an old teacher that turned out to be undeliverable because she was away. I meant to put it in the mail when they came back with it (this was back in pre-email days) but didn’t. I *still* think about it sometimes: should I do it (or, actually, write a new note because that one is a decade old now)? Would she remember me now, 10 years after 10 years after? People recognize the overcoming of weirdness because they have their own wrestling matches with weirdness of exactly the same mentor / student type. I think a prof getting this note from you will feel the same way you do sending it — a little flustered and flummoxed but also quite pleased and warm fuzzied 🙂

    • KatrinaK said:

      I think you should do it. I recently made contact with one of my high school teachers after over 30 years. I had been wanting to thank him for years but didn’t know how to contact him and then I discovered that he was back teaching at the same school after having left teaching for a number of years. Knowing that, I found his school e-mail address. So I sent him an e-mail several months ago and the end result is that we’re planning on getting together for dinner a couple weeks from now.

  6. Irene said:

    I think, if you want to, you could perfectly well say something like “It was an anxious/difficult/stressful time in my life, and your calm and supportive presence made a great difference to me,” without going into details.

  7. Polychrome said:

    Actually that one is about 20 years old now. I still think about it, 20 years after (nearly) 10 years after.

  8. squids said:

    It’s better to get 50% than 0%. It’s better to get 10% than 0%. It’s better to get 2% than 0%. I had to keep reminding myself of this through some rough years in school, and I’m now a university instructor wishing my students believed it. Please, keep communicating, and hand something in even if it’s not your best work.

    This post was good and important to read as every April there’s someone I’m worried about and want to do well.

  9. What a great idea!

    I’ve done this for a few professors and teachers I really liked. I think the key is starting out small. I went the short, pretty note card route. One teacher especially wrote back and was very kind. It was a good experience overall! I hope the same will happen for you.

  10. Remy said:

    Unfortunately, “not giving a fuck” and “having a major crisis” can look exactly the same to your professors, so if you can, communicate.

    This was something I heard from more than one professor I know (not my own), so when my final semester of grad school crashed in on me, I steeled myself and sent an email to the prof of each course I was enrolled in. It was brief and covered: a) I am aware that I am behind/missed a deadline; b) I am juggling working and schooling full time and a death in the family and writing my final project; c) I have a plan to get back on track and WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW. This wasn’t a plea for special favors (if I had needed those, I would have addressed them as the Captain has suggested), but a heads-up that I was not just completely MIA and that I cared about my progress.

    Result: All of them responded briefly and compassionately, and at least to my eyes there were no negative consequences. I passed all my classes. And I graduated.

  11. Also, students who haven’t had this happen yet, or have managed to keep it mild so far but are afraid: SOONER IS ALWAYS BETTER. When I was teaching I always told my students on the very first day (and in the syllabus, and repeated right before the drop date), the time to come see me is the SECOND you realize you’re falling behind. Please don’t wait until the last week of classes. I will never laugh at you, mock you, or tell you you are a bad person or a bad student. Please go see your professors immediately you realize there’s a problem. There are many things that can be done if you tell them immediately. The longer you wait, the fewer options your professor has to help you help yourself.

    Almost anyone who’s gone through grad school understands what it’s like to have an academic meltdown. They happen to almost everyone at some point, but the difference between pushing through and being totally derailed is often just overcoming the shame spiral enough to talk to someone about it.

    • jeanne said:

      At the two-months-left-of-grad-school mark, I thought everything was going to down in flames and I was actually the “dummy of the family” my father once told me I was. I went to my professor to tell her I was having trouble; she didn’t just understand, she told me how SHE’D been there herself and remembered how scared and ashamed she felt. We worked out a schedule to get all my assignments in, she made me promise to let her know if anything got shaky, and I ended up doing better than I thought I would in her class.

      • I’m so glad! Really, pretty much everyone really does get it and will be as supportive as they can. The only students I’ve ever been absolutely unable to help were the ones who just never came to class because they didn’t feel like it and then realized at the end of term that they were failing.

    • Puck said:

      I fell afoul of this several times because I was *sure* I could scrape an assignment together at the last minute. Going into class on the day the assignment was due without it was a horrible feeling. I really should have gone to the professor ahead of time. So yes, SOONER IS BETTER. I am seconding that very hard.

  12. CKinIL said:

    LW, go ahead send some short and sweet thank you notes. There really is no statute of limitations, and it’s quite reasonable that your appreciation of what your professors taught you would grow with time and the experience you gain the further you get into your graduate work.

    Also, it sounds like you might be a little bit concerned about asking for their help later. I usually try to frame those requests in a way that involves as little effort on the professor’s part as possible. I would ask them to point me in the right direction to be able to figure out stuff on my own. That way I don’t take up too much time, but if the prof has time, then they can offer more assistance than I’ve asked for.

    And be sure to send a note or email if you see the professors publish something new or speak at a conference or what have you. That’s a way to keep up professional correspondence–i.e. networking–when you don’t need anything from them. You’re soon to be a professional just like them, and can lose the student/professor dynamic where you are clearly not equal to them. You may be a junior colleague in the field, but you will be their colleague. Creating the habit now of sending a quick hello or thank you note from time to time will most likely pay off in the long run for you.

  13. The Captain’s note proposal is great. I sent a very similar one to one of my favourite profs (who was a TA when I was an undergrad and got his Ph.D. around the time I got my MA), and attached a link to an article about an adaptation of a novel we covered in the course. He was very pleased. A few months later he asked me if I would be interested in a new post-grad internship available at an organisation he works in (of course I was!). Now we teach in the same university — different departments, but in related areas — and we just got an article published together!

    The Captains PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT is great. I might quote it next semester in the syllabus. (Yesterday I got an e-mail from a student who I have seen once this semester with loads of bullshit about her thinking she would have TOO MANY ECTS points if she attended my course, but it turns out she NEEDS the points to graduate on time. The problem is, I got THE SAME excuse from her last semester for a different course. She’s in grad school. AAAAAARGH!).

  14. Captain, I wanted to thank you for your advice on missing / late assignments. My Autistic son is in high school and has always struggled with missing assignments. We are always looking for tools to assist him with turning in work, as it is *the* task that every line of work has in common.
    Having a clearly defined list like this is super helpful to someone who is chronically overwhelmed especially in social situations. I’m printing this out and having him read it, and if it helps him understand things in a way his previous and current teachers haven’t been able to explain, then I’ll bet it’ll get posted on his wall and referenced often.

    Mahalo!

  15. Aurora said:

    STUDENTS, LISTEN TO THE CAPTAIN, HOLY COW. DO IT.

    Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. This friend has serious anxiety about school, and between that and his other issues, sometimes he just falls right over. Sadly, said anxiety about school also leads to the following subconscious thoughts: “Professors will be pissed that I missed class last week! Clearly I cannot ever go back to class because they will call me out, it will be horrible, and they will think I’m a bad student who slacks off and everything will be terrible!” Like, this guy gets the flu for a week and he thinks all his professors hate him and he can never show his face again. He almost failed out of university.

    No. Do not listen to Jerkbrain when it says this. Professors know only the information you give them. They are MORE likely to think you’re a bad student who slacks off if you don’t ever go back to class, or if you never tell them what’s up. Yes, some of them will be assholes and demand doctors’ notes and shit, but many of them are very understanding. But if they don’t know, they can’t understand. There is some “buck up and be brave” that needs to happen here, but such is life, and basically every other student ever has had this problem in some fashion. Close friends or relatives die. Students get sick. (I had food poisoning the night before my calc final. Gosh it was shit. The professor took one look at me and said to GO HOME and I could make it up.) Students have mental health problems. Shit *happens.* Know that even if you feel like an incompetent cock, you *aren’t*, and people do understand you.

    But if you hide in a hermit hole and don’t come out, no one will know this. You need to talk to the professors as *soon* as you can, preferably in person. Email also works. If your prof is a known slow communicator, contact a head TA or some such. If you don’t have the spoons to do this, get a friend to help, whether it’s composing an email for you or shoving a phone to your ear or coaching you through conversations or just getting you out of bed. Whatever it takes.

    Also, yes, if you can *afford* to drop a class you’re going to get a shit grade in, do it. You will thank me when your first job asks for your GPA. Yes, they do, at least in STEM. Only your first, but many will. So if you’re normally a B or A student, and you’re about to pull a D or something, drop and retake. It also lets the material sink in so you can learn it more clearly next time. (I wish I could’ve retaken ALL my college classes for this reason.)

    If you can’t, work with your professor, TAs, and so on to figure out a way for you to get back in the game quickly. You *can* do this. You *can* recover. You just have to not give up.

    Best of luck, students. Gosh do I remember being in your place.

    • Kitts said:

      Good advice, but I’ll now that it’s totally possible to have multiple C- grades on one’s transcript and still get jobs, scholarships, and into grad programs. To many people, one C- or D doesn’t say “this person is a spaz or a failure,” it says “this person was willing to try things outside her comfort zone, and when that backfired, she kept going and did well in her other classes.”

      • Aurora said:

        That’s fair. I should have added that. And a low GPA is not the end of your life. However, it does open more doors to have a good one, many times.

      • RunForChocolate said:

        I actually had a year of college where I failed every class except for two. It was…a rough time for me.

        I got those grades retroactively withdrawn by pleading my case to the academic powers that be, graduated just fine, and wound up getting into the doctoral program of my choice several years later. When I interviewed for grad school, they asked what happened that year (in a perfunctory fashion) but didn’t seem to give much of a shit about it. It happens. They’ve seen it before and will see it again. If you can pick yourself up after a fall, the fall doesn’t matter, except to teach you new coping skills.

  16. Loubeelou said:

    Beautiful kind words from professors. Even in retrospect, it’s good to know you guys care! I have dealt with periodic episodes of depression probably since I was a teenager, but I didn’t actually realize it was depression until I was maybe 24 years old. I had one semester of college that I can distinctly recall being absolutely awful – everything was coming to a head and I had to drop two electives I was taking as “pass/fail” because I realized I was going to fail them. Also lots of teary “I just need another week” talks with the professors for the classes required for my major. They were all really nice (even the super-intimidating-to-me economics profs) and accepted late work, not without penalty, but still with encouragement. I do wonder what they thought of me though. I didn’t have the verbiage or perspective to articulate that I was having a mental health crisis – did they realize that anyway?

  17. Clementine Danger said:

    “Universities aren’t magical places where stigma about mental illness doesn’t exist, but you (yes, you! and you!) are not the first students having genuine difficulty that your professor has seen. Unfortunately, “not giving a fuck” and “having a major crisis” can look exactly the same to your professors, so if you can, communicate.”

    Can I just throw my full support behind this? I was going through a major mental health crisis in college, had been for many years by that point. Unfortunately I had received so many terrible reactions to this that I felt utterly and completely helpless and ashamed. My college had so many resources for me, there were so many people I could have talked to, but I never did. I had been told time and time again to “just tough it out” and “don’t whine” and “just stop being difficult” (mostly from teachers) that I felt like I was the only person in the world weak and stupid enough to fall victim to mental health problems. I wasn’t, and I could have used those resources, and I didn’t. At the risk of making the facts sound like some 50s scare film: I never graduated and ended up in a mental hospital instead. I still regret not reaching out.

    So yeah, this is solid advice. You’re not the first or only one to go through a major crisis during those college years. There’s places you can go and people you can talk to who are trained to help you and/or sympathetic to your problems. There’s no need to try and tough it out on your own. Believe me, I tried.

  18. Kitts said:

    My experience has been that no matter whether my period of anxiety-silence lasted 1, 2, or 5 years, my former professor have always been very happy to hear from me (and willing to write recommendations). For my current PhD program, my two choices were the school where I got my MA, and rich ivy league. After a ridiculous amount of angst, I chose ivy league, and other than sending an “I’m sorry to not be staying here” email, I pretty much stopped talking to my MA advisor or of guilt. Then after almost the years I emailed him, and was too anxious to say much more than “Hi, it’s Kitts, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’ll be in next month and would love to stop by your office and catch up.” I got back an extremely warm and friendly response, and now I meet up with him every time I’m back in town, and he’s been almost as encouraging as my amazing advisor. The moral of the story is that professors usually love to hear from old students! Plus, most of them are either as anxious and avoidant as we are, or if not, they’re very used to colleagues, students, and mentors who have gotten overwhelmed and anxious and disappeared. So most academics won’t take it personally.

  19. biogirl said:

    As a grad TA right now, ALL OF WHAT THE CAPTAIN SAID. DO IT PLZ.

    I save my good evaluations (always have one or two where “I grade too hard” which basically means “I didn’t get the grade I think I deserve even though I don’t know the material”) and look back at them when I’m having a bad day. If I got a card or note from one of my former students, it would make my day because despite just being a TA, I really really care about my students and want them to do well. I put a ton of time and effort into teaching my classes, so it is so nice to have those things acknowledged and appreciated by my students.

    About Capn’s advice to undergrads: Not giving a fuck and having a crisis DO REALLY look like the same thing and I’m not a mind reader. Please let me know as soon as possible if something is up. I know you might feel ashamed if you’re behind or you don’t have enough spoons to care about classes, but I WILL ADVOCATE LIKE GANGBUSTERS for you if you just tell me. Afraid to talk to a professor to get an extension? I will talk with him or her to let them know what’s up, tell them you’re being legit, and throw in a good word for you based on what I have seen (in class all the time? participate? etc.). TAs might be a better way to go at times – if you’re taking a class that has discussion groups or labs and TAs are in charge of those, you might feel more comfortable approaching them because you’ve built up more of a rapport due to smaller class size and we’re not as intimidating as the professors at least in title.

    Watching students fail is agonizing (for me at least). Like I have one student now who is failing – the person has never emailed me, talked to me, nothing. I have no idea why she is doing so poorly. But I can’t help her if she doesn’t come talk to me because a) I am not her mom running after her to force her to talk to me and b) even if I did chase after her, forcing her to admit something she may not want to is not okay. I know it’s hard, but it’s up to you to let us know and we are happy to help you.

  20. sara said:

    Just chiming in as a fellow academic that it’s never too late to say thank you, and I always appreciate old students reaching out. I will add, it helps to add some identifying details (I’m the one with bright red hair! I’m the one who wrote that weird paper about how Doctor Who relates to politics! etc.) if you can, because if it’s been a few years, I may have had literally hundreds of students since you passed through my office. 🙂 But if you can’t think of anything, that is okay too. 🙂

    One thing I might add, especially once you’ve exchanged a few emails — if there’s a disciplinary conference coming up that you’re planning to attend, you might ask if your former prof is planning to be there, and if they have time to catch up over coffee. Especially if you think these folks might be good contacts down the line, this is a great way to reestablish the connection.

  21. Professor Mew said:

    I wish I could send this post back in time.

    I did exceptionally well in high school but floundered spectacularly in university and never even ended up finishing my degree. For a few years now, that’s one of the things that has always weighed in the back of my mind somewhere. No matter what I was doing or how outwardly happy I was with the rest of my life, there it was. It was only a few months ago that it clicked that, oh right, my abusive mother threw me out with no warning and I spent part of first year homeless and sleeping on people’s couches — maybe the fact that my grades dropped by 40% between high school and university wasn’t actually because I’m not cut out for higher education.

    Sorry to go all ME ME ME on this post but gah, if I could get one wish in this world it would be that nobody ever has to go through what I did. Take your mental health seriously! Seek help before it’s too late! Take a break if you have to!

    • picked said:

      To jump on your derail – I did great at school too and then failed university miserably.

      Took me two years to realise I had been raped in my first week there.

      Took me a further 18 years to realise that maybe that was at least part of the reason I dropped out.

      I wish I hadn’t hidden how badly I was falling apart.even from myself.if I’d realised myself maybe I could have got help.

  22. Amanda said:

    I really wish that I had chosen to communicate to more professors when I was in college. [TW eating disorder] I was in the throes of horrible body dysmorphia and anorexia and a lot of self hatred throughout the majority of my sophomore and junior years of college, and I really, really wish that I had not listened to my jerkbrain that told me that my half-assed or incomplete papers were too shitty to hand in, which resulted in a number of withdrawal failures in courses with professors that I believe would have been really understanding, had I come to them.

    I love reading the above comments from such obviously supportive and wonderful professors, but I just want to say that unfortunately not every professor approached mental illness or family emergencies that way. Part of why I shied away from sharing any information with any of my future professors was because of the one that, when I confided to her that my grandfather was in the hospital and that I was really struggling with it, told me that “she wasn’t my counselor” and that “purported family emergencies do not change deadlines”.

    Thankfully, I later had more supportive professors that made it clear that not all academics were that cold. But man, was that a conversation that fucked me up.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m sorry you had to deal with that, and I’m very glad you shared your story with how your professor treated you. Maybe it will help someone else!

      It is entirely possible that a struggling student will share what’s going on, and a prof. will either be a jerk about it or simply not work with you on deadlines. That’s one reason I suggest keeping it short and sweet when you request an extension – don’t spill your guts to someone when you don’t know how they’ll react, just ask for the thing you need. If they say no, it’s discouraging, but you’re still ahead of where you were before.

      1) You know exactly where you stand with this person, which is “meet deadlines or fail.” You have information now that can inform the choices you make next. I really try to help people come back from a crisis, but I’ve also been in the awkward position of having to say “But you have to turn in something , or I really can’t work with you” or telling them when/if it is too late to catch up. Like, I know the student is struggling, but they aren’t doing ANY work, and while I want them to get help, I can’t grade air, and I need to let them know that honestly.

      2) If there’s time to withdraw and you can afford to do so, maybe do that? A “W” is often better than an “F.” Make the decision to stop engaging where you know you can’t succeed. Cut your losses.

      3) Chances are, if you’re having a crisis your work is suffering in more than one class. If you know you can’t meet a deadline and can’t possibly catch up, and the professor won’t budge, and you’re probably going to fail, give yourself permission to totally refocus your efforts on the classes where you do have some hope of catching up. Again, cut your losses, engage where you have the best chance of succeeding.

      Professors are people, they have different approaches. One person having a discouraging approach doesn’t mean all of them will. Take courage and heart.

  23. We LOVE to receive acknowledgments from our students that our teaching and/or mentoring had a positive influence on them!!! This is regardless of the passage of time, or whether they then see us as a networking opportunity going forward. We want to provide networking opportunities for our former students!

  24. Nina said:

    This is all great advice! Let me chime in with the other professors/TAs and beg students to please please please talk to us! I taught Intro Composition back in the day and I really appreciated it when students came in to tell me they were having a rough time. Otherwise, I couldn’t tell if they didn’t care, were contemptuous of taking my (required) class, were terminally lazy, etc. Also, I worried a lot about my students. This isn’t necessarily a universal trait, but I only had 20 students at a time so I had the time/energy to get to know and worry about each and every one. I noticed when students missed class and I was deeply appreciative when they would tell me why.

    Also, this makes me think maybe I ought to send some thank you notes to some of my undergrad professors. It’s been years, but I know I would enjoy hearing from my students, years after they took my class, so…

  25. curious86 said:

    Definitely second sending the letter; it is always nice to know someone appreciated you, even way after the fact. I actually got the advice from this very site to send a very very late thank you note to a professor who had written me a recommendation letter and it felt really good to do it. There isn’t really a statute of limitations on these things.

    To the second point: As a graduate student who is currently working at a counseling center on a college campus and who has taught/TA-ed courses throughout grad school, I just have to chime in and fully agree with the Captain’s second piece of advice. I have worked with students from both a counseling perspective and a teaching perspective who were struggling with their schoolwork because of mental health reasons. It was so so so much easier for them to get what they needed when they asked for it. Your professors are not mindless machines who don’t give a fuck about you. They are also not mind readers and cannot intuit that your poor performance/absences/not turning stuff in is due to struggling, not living in the land of no fucks. I know the mean jerk-brain things that depression and anxiety and other struggles can do sometimes mean thinking the worse-case scenario and imagining them failing you or yelling at you or laughing at you, but these outcomes are very unlikely (not 100% impossible, but very unlikely). But they cannot help you if they do not know you need help.

  26. I started to copy and paste some phrases and then realized I would just copy and paste the Captain’s entire response. So just YES. COMMUNICATE!!!!! Yes, that is in all caps. I will go out of my way to help you, but I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on.

    Regarding the thank you notes. Send them. I can tell when they are genuine. Send them. I value your feedback. Send them.

  27. Ursula said:

    For my professorial job, applications for promotion require that I document my efforts at advising and mentoring. That note is not only a nice gesture, it may provide evidence that helps your professor get a raise!

  28. G said:

    Sadly enough, right now I am shame-hiding from my actual work (that pays the rent). Time to break out of that. It doesn’t do anybody any good.

  29. Dropping out for a while isn’t the worst thing that could happen. It could even be beneficial. I’ve been working On my bachelor since last October. I was diagnosed with depression in November after a series of illnesses (flu, severe migraines) and didn’t rreturn until January. Via the student health service I got therapy and CBT for my sleeping disorder I’ve had since childhood.

    I will probably finish this spring. But once again my health has struck: turns out my body was unable to tolerate my anti-depressants and my salt balances were low to the point of near-death. But when I was hale and hearty, my arthritis and psoriasis flared up so I’ve been unable to work. My advisor told me to take it easy and when I’m ready, they’ll give me an opportunity to defend my paper. I’m a psychology major so mental illness doesn’t have much stigma.

  30. Sarah said:

    I have been both a puzzled professor and an emotionally struggling student, and let me just say that I may put a link to this brilliant, clear, compassionate advice in all of my syllabi from now on. Thank you!

  31. LD said:

    My husband is a prof, and I promise you, LW, he loves any and all thank you notes/cards/etc. from students. So do all of his colleagues.
    Often, profs will include copies of thank you notes/cards in their application portfolios for tenure or promotion, so you really are giving them a gift when you send them a thank you note. Even if the professor has made it past those stages, they still appreciate getting them, because everyone likes confirmation that what they’re doing is useful and helpful to others.

    Also, definitely want to second the “almost anyone who has made it through grad school has been through something akin to what you’re going through, and will most likely be understanding.” Profs (and teachers, for those still in high school) are people too, and they’ve gone through similar stuff. If they can help you help yourself, almost all of them will. Just remember, there’s only one of them, so like the captain says, come at them with an idea/plan of what you need to do; don’t expect them to figure it out for you. And contact them ASAP. They’re sooooo much more likely to help you if all they have to do is agree to grade some late assignments, and if it’s not the end of the semester. Some of them might be unbending hardasses who won’t work with you, but it’s unlikely all of them will be, especially if you’re at least showing up for class. And even the unbending hardasses will be glad to see you do well if you have to retake their class a semester later. If you have no idea how to come up with a plan for how to catch up in a particular class, try asking your friends who seem on top of things to help you come up with a plan.

  32. argent said:

    I think it might also be helpful for some people to remember to step back and remind themselves of the fact that all this is happening in the context of a brutal nonconsent culture that bizarrely insists that ‘a morally wrong way to be a learner’ is actually a real thing. Unless you are harming other people, there isn’t actually a morally wrong way to participate or not participate in a service that you are paying for and presumably consenting to! Skipping class to do things that are less stressful might be a beneficial choice for one person and not for the next, but it doesn’t mean either of them are somehow a Bad Student. The idea that only people with Legitimate Problems have the right to self-care or the right not to be forced into things without their consent is ultimately very ableist, as our society constantly tells disabled people that their differences are not real or valid.

    So please, remember that whether your reasons for missing work were ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’, under no circumstances are they actually something to be ashamed of.

  33. A view from each side of the thank-you:

    After college, I did a little time in graduate school, then floundered about temping and various things for a few years. Then one of the temp jobs led to a really, really good full-time permanent gig. I very clearly got that gig, not because of my professional experience (what professional experience?), but because of my summer research with my undergrad mentor. The next time I was in town, I called her up and requested the privilege of taking her out to lunch to say thank you, and Reader, she let me. (This was at a time in my life when many of the previous generation were still patting me on the head and saying, now, dear, you just let us pay for lunch.) She got confirmation, almost ten years after the fact, that she had had a huge impact on me and my career, I got treated like a real adult, and we both had a lovely lunch enjoying each other’s company.

    These days I teach high school students. Sometimes those students are grateful for help from me that gets them through tomorrow’s test, but the vast majority of what I do is meant to be long-term. I am fully expecting that most students won’t realize the value of what they learned with me for two years, or ten years, or more. By the time they need these skills, they may have forgotten them, in which case our shared enterprise was not a success. By the time they need these skills, if they *do* remember the skills, they may nevertheless have forgotten who helped them. So if a student wrote to say thank you for the real work I do, a) it would necessarily be after a period of years, and b) I would be thrilled right down to my toenails.

  34. Labyrinth said:

    I don’t want to scare away any student who’s thinking of telling their professor about a problem – but I do want to reply to the professors here. I’m one of the students wary of asking for help. That doesn’t mean I’ve never done it, though, and I’ve even had it go well several times. But other times, it’s been bad or even spectacularly bad.

    1. “Ask for help sooner rather than later” sounds great, but in practice it doesn’t work, in my experience. If I ask for help or mention a problem before I have a very big, obvious problem, people tend to assume I’m just anxious and comfort-seeking (which can make them treat me like I’m childish) or that there’s no need to act because nothing’s wrong yet.
    2. The risk of having a disability talk go bad isn’t that I’ll feel bad for a while. I’m an adult and I can handle discomfort. The risk is actual discrimination. Also, that the professor forms a bad personal impression of me beyond “one of those students who just disappeared”. Especially if I have to talk to several professors in the same department.
    3. The reason that students disappear even after talking to the prof is that keeping up a relationship with the professor, creating new plans, keeping track of promises, trying to foresee when the problem is going to be over or what I’ll be able to do (they want to know this and I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep), handling their opinions of me, generally being active to prevent disaster, etc, *takes a lot of work*. If my problem is that I have too much on my plate or that I’m ill and having a hard time keeping up, I may not have any energy to spare. When I’m stressed out, I need my life to have fewer pieces to manage, I can’t add more even if they would be beneficial in the long term. I’m able to study sometimes when it’s like that, but I’m not very able to have a coherent conversation about it.
    4. But I also don’t want to drop the class at the first sign of trouble. I know that things might be better after a while, or that they might not be. I don’t have any idea at all which it’s going to be.
    5. Professors have very different preferences in when they want to be told. It’s not possible for the student to know everyone’s preference. Thus, they will feel that I tell them “too early” or “too late”, and maybe they go on the internet and honestly wonder why students always do x…

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for sharing these concerns, they are all very real.

      For these reasons, I don’t suggest necessarily disclosing one’s entire situation to professors – discrimination IS a thing, they are NOT therapists, they ARE a really mixed bag of individuals. I also suggest doing it in the context of asking for something specific, like an extension on an assignment, more specific feedback on an assignment, extra help in understanding a concept, etc. That takes work to formulate and isn’t always possible, and like, if you can’t then you can’t.

      Sometimes people really are too ill to catch up or finish the class, and the upshot is that they will fail, and it’s not really preventable by anyone. Sometimes the answer is: Do whatever you need to do to feel better, come back when you do and you can do the work. Failing a class or some classes isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes the referral to student mental health services comes too late to save this semester but in time to rescue next semester.

    • Labyrinth, I can’t thank you enough for this. It is wonderful to see the compassionate professors in this thread, but in my experience of undergrad and three graduate degrees while dealing with a mental disorder, it has gone poorly more often than it has gone well (while following all the advice listed here). Academia IS a culture of nonconsent, and a culture that feels entitled to every part of your life, and even professors that mean well are sometimes (often?) not really coming from a place that understands crisis or mental illness. (Not to mention a varying level of understanding/support from different fields!)

      Thanks again to all the lovely professors offering their support in this thread!

      • Lizzy said:

        Thank you for saying this. I had professors I loved to pieces, and still love to pieces, and wrote heartfelt thank you notes to, and nominated for teaching awards, and trust in some ways more than I trust members of my immediate family. But I’m also now university support staff, and the nastiness and unprofessionalism I’ve seen from some (in fact, many) faculty is jaw-dropping. Also, oh irony, many of them cannot meet a simple deadline to save their lives. Which of course does not make it okay for students to do the same without good reason! I guess that’s encouraging though? Students, if you have trouble with deadlines, at least you’re in good company.

    • Aurora said:

      Oh my gosh, I had forgotten this poem existed. Thank you; this is great.

  35. thegirlfrommarz said:

    Send the note. Saying nice things about what someone’s help meant to you has no time limit.

    A cautionary tale about waiting too long: I had always meant to thank my lovely and kind former piano teacher for teaching me to play, but I hadn’t gotten around to it even though her house is very close to where I work. Not long ago, I walked past the house and there was a Sold sign up outside it and the house was full of black plastic bags. I have to conclude that she has gone into a home or died (she would now be in her 80s). I feel very sad that I never told her how much her teaching meant to me and I wish there was a way to get in touch with her family to find out what happened.

  36. Thank you, Captain. There is a teacher I keep meaning to thank, though things ended awkwardly when I didnt choose his subject at A level and he kept saying “have you changed your mind yet?” I loved his subject but it didnt fit with the a levels I needed for uni. I think Ill write him a note now, based on a specific passion he instilled which has stayed with me.

    There is another person I remain grateful to; a uni lecturer who awarded me the pass grade in trust and anticipation that Id turn the work in. (It was a computer program which needed time to compile, and my rubbish computer took a week when new ones would take an hour). His awarding me the grade and saying “because I trust you to complete it” when my slow computer had driven me to almost crying, meant so much. However I dont recall his name. Any ideas how I can contact him, Army? Middlesex university, 1996, on a campus which has since been demolished:-

    • Lizzy said:

      How much do you remember? The department (Computer Science?)? The course number? The course title? The term (fall/spring/etc.) you took the course?

      Depending on how much you remember, a few ideas:

      1. If you were ordering an official transcript of your coursework and grades, who would you contact? If there are staff who could provide that, they might be able to look up an instructor name for one of those courses, or put you in touch with someone who could. If you currently don’t know what the course was called, you might be able to figure it out by looking at your transcript. My university has an office you can contact to ask things like “Who taught Comp Sci 151 in Fall 1996?”

      2. Your classmates/schoolmates. Is there an alumni association? Is there a “Middlesex University Class of 199X” LinkedIn or Facebook group?

      3. If it was, say, the Comp Sci department, try contacting the Comp Sci departments of the campuses that do still exist. At my university there are faculty who have been teaching at the same school since the 1960s, and there are staff who have been working there for 30 years. Academia’s a small world, people know a lot of other people in their field. If you know anything about this person’s research interests / area of specialization, that would probably help. If you explain why you are looking for him I think many university people would be charmed and happy to help find him.

  37. MadGastronomer said:

    The last time I did school, the disability office was invaluable to me. Any college or university in the US that takes any federal money at all should have one — it’s an ADA thing. Go in to see them and get on their lists. They’ll help you make arrangements for whatever accommodations you need, and can also help you find help through the school if it’s available. They’ll back you up with professors who are shitty about mental health (because seriously if they do not give you appropriate accommodations, there are legal liabilities), and they may be able to suggest specific accommodations available to someone with your particular disability.

    All of which is, of course, dependent on you having gotten a diagnosis already. They’re not much help with undiagnosed stuff. But the minute you get your Dx, GO SEE THE DISABILITIES OFFICE. Not nearly enough people know they exist, and not nearly enough people with mental illnesses know that those services are available to us, too.

    • THIS so many this. Accommodations can make a huge difference. Even if you don’t know what would help, ask. I’ve seen many, from “quiet room to take exams” to “give a few days flexibility in deadlines” to “must be seated near the exit.”

  38. There are a lot of professors in the Awkward Army!

    Positive letters are the best thing in the world. I certainly didn’t go into this career for the money; being told I am remembered well is pretty freakin rewarding. =)

    I will millionth the “please talk to us” plea. It’s finals week at my university, so I’ve been thinking a lot about this.
    I have a number of students who struggle. A lot of times that struggle is completely beyond me – I’m a psych professor, but I’m not a therapist – but all I need to know is that you are still trying. Or maybe you’re not trying! That’s okay too! I don’t expect my class to be a priority for everyone; if you need to prioritize your mental and/or physical health, I will help you minimize the damage to your academic record.

    Some professors do get off on being a hardass. I think they are declining, though, and they mostly live at huge research universities. Most professors, especially newer ones, tend to be pretty willing to work with students and all their myriad of life experiences. Depression and anxiety are disturbingly common in grad school, so there’s a pretty good chance your professor has gone though similar problems.

    And always remember: grades are an indication of how well you fulfilled course requirements. They are not a referendum on your worth as a human being, or your intelligence, or anything else.

  39. Odge said:

    Cap, may I post your PSA on Tumblr? It was very timely for me and I think it might be for some of my friends as well.

  40. johnny teaches college said:

    Also, if you’re missing class due to a diagnosed mental health issue (depression, anxiety, etc) check in with your college’s disability services office. Colleges are required by federal law to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities, and the staff in charge of this can help you sort out deadlines with your professors. (They can also arrange for things like audio textbooks and alternative test locations.)

  41. Spc. Agent Bluejay said:

    Psych services at my school was great when it came to the immediate crisis of helping me arrange retroactive withdrawal from classes that I’d FUBARed, but the nice lady who helped me with that was not able to take me on as her patient.

    I hated the psychologist they assigned me to. She just made me feel worse every time I saw her, and after a few sessions, I asked to be assigned to someone else. Unfortunately that meant I went on a waiting list. In my depressed state, I did not think to ask what the estimated time was for moving to the front of this list. An entire academic year went by while I re-enrolled to complete my remaining credits and redid (and got a pity pass) on my thesis project. That whole time, I just waited, because as a depressed student, that was all I could manage. I downplayed my problems thinking I shouldn’t use outside resources like the public system and my mother’s connections when I had school resources. Only when I graduated did I ask my mom to use her connections to get me a psychiatrist immediately. I felt the new psychiatris understood me from the very first and I gradually recovered under her care.

    Anyway, this is to say that, yes, take the first step of getting in touch with your school’s psych services, but if it’s not a good fit, you may need to reach out and grab for another lifeline. You can do it.

    (And yes, I might hold a disproportionate level of bitterness over nobody checking on me while I was on the waiting list or making clear to me that I would never get off the waiting list.)

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