From Professor to Social Worker
By Lee Trepanier, October 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

Preparing for the spring semester, we have received a notice from the university’s office of disability services that wants faculty to look for certain signs and symptoms among students to see whether they qualify for additional accommodations. I certainly am not opposed to faculty members who want to take students aside and ask them as to why their academic performance is so poor; and I certainly recommend at the beginning of the semester students who believe they require additional accommodations to visit the office of disability services in order to be diagnosed. However, I am reluctant to take these additional responsibilities, as 1) I am not qualified to do so, 2) it is not part of job description as a faculty member, and 3) I am concerned about liability issues apart from the problem of potential grade appeals. To put it simply, I’m not a social worker and don’t desire to be one. I would be curious whether other people have encountered similar situations and how they handled it.

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Joseph DiLuzio on Oct 11, 2011 at 5:41 am

I approach the situation from a slightly different perspective, though I arrive at the same conclusion. In college, students have to take responsibility for their academic success. Like any responsible adult, professors should watch to insure students don't do anything that would put either themselves or their classmates in danger. We should offer guidance as teachers and even offer personal/professional advice outside the classroom. Frankly, this is one of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher, but the student needs to seek us out. While we recognize that most of our students are not fully mature adults, under the law, we as a society have agreed that they are to be treated as such. Instead of patronizing them, we need to treat them as grown-ups (which ironically -- it seems to me -- is what they want) and hold them accountable. Part of the education process is making mistakes and failing, learning from your mistakes, and then (hopefully) not making them again. College offers a relatively low-risk environment in which to do that. Students need to be told about the resources that are available to them (multiple times, if necessary), but they need to take the initiative.

Mary on Oct 11, 2011 at 8:04 am

I am an adjunct who teaches a credit-bearing reading class at a technical and community college, which is mandated to have open enrollment. I recently had a student with Asperger's syndrome whose negative emotional behavior created a spectacle in class. (Luckily, the other students were accepting and mature about the situation, although one asked, "why is he in this class?") However, I was not forewarned and his behavior on the first day of class was such that I sought out the chief of security later in order to be assured that if the student posed a safety risk, he would be removed. As the term wore on, this student failed about half the many assignments required by this class and he screamed and cried every time he received an assignment back with a failing grade. The bottom line was that the administration was slow to put his accommodations (which he had arrived with from high school) in place, and this young man, his classmates, and the instructor all suffered!

Lee Trepanier on Oct 17, 2011 at 6:03 am

Thanks for the feedback - it was very helpful!

Tim Simpson on Oct 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Thank you for the post. I have been meaning to respond for some time because you have identified a key aspect of today's college and university experience. From their inception, colleges and universities conceived of their role as more or less in loco parentis. In so doing, colleges and universities served as a formative element in the education of the young adult. This is a noble tradition and one that I support and encourage a college and university to promote. In the past, what this meant was to provide a moral community of shared values and an initiation into a common tradition. Specifically, this vision of education might have meant regulations for separate men and women dorms, curfews, dress codes, etc. As we know, these kinds of regulations have been undermined since the freedom revolution of the 1960s. Throughout the late 1960s and 70s, colleges and universities catered more and more to the individual student interests and desires. They became less a parent and more like a friend enabling the young to test the bounds of freedom. Strangely, though, your post picks up on a kind of return of in loco parentis, but understood in a drastically different way. Here today colleges and universities struggle to care for the student, but it seems in all the less important ways. For example, we do not mandate a college core and initiate into shared ways and traditions, but we have "Move-in" day where the college literally moves the student into the dorm. In the past, it was through the shared struggle of move-in that friendships formed. Also, we also monitor the number of visits a student makes to their advisor without apparently any concern as to what is/was the advice. We force faculty, as you note well, to become social workers. We force faculty to become their own secretaries documenting all the rubrics, assessments, feedback, grades and follow-ups with students who are in our classes. For any student who does poorly, the administration looks to see what was lacking in the faculty's performance before asking the student simply to hold-up his part of the learning bargain. This new, strange version of in loco parentis nearly precludes the teacher from doing what he does best and what he would prefer to do which is teach students, especially those who are interested in learning. You have identified a key problem, but I believe it is a symptom of a much larger change in the nature and purpose of higher education. Thanks for the post.

about the author

Lee Trepanier
Lee Trepanier

I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. I teach courses in political philosophy as well as the Introduction to Political Science course. I received my B.A. in Political Science and English Literature with a Minor in Russian Studies at Marquette University and my M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Louisiana State University. My research interests are in Russian politics; politics and religion; politics, literature, and film; and political philosophy with a focus on the works of Eric Voegelin.