There's a student in my class who obviously has some serious body hygeine issues. To preface, this is a fairly packed class -- about 60 students in a small lecture room. The class is about 2 hours long. The problem has been so bad that when the student comes up to ask a question the stench hits hard. The problem is so bad lately that in the past month, people will leave a seat distance away from this one person, even standing up for the entirety of the lecture just to avoid sitting next to this person when the only seats available are next to the person.

I don't know how to approach him and to ask that they take care of their body. Or will I be a prude if I do try to get him to shower? Maybe it's a unique body issue that he can't fix (unlikely), but I really want to solve this before exams come up, which are going to cause issues. No one has come up to talk to me privately about it but the problem is incredibly obvious.

What should I do?

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    I like to point out that if you decide to confront the student that you should address the actual issue (he smells bad), and not to say that he needs to shower. Because he actually might already take daily showers. Smelling bad can have other causes – Ivo Beckers Sep 18 '19 at 9:06
  • The question this is marked as duplicate of strikes me as a loaded question; written to limit replies to meet the questioner's agenda, and also a situation with issues other than body odor. I would prepare a dialogue for the next time the student approaches you. With the possibility the student is living rough or in their vehicle, make sure to mention shower facilities on campus (pool area), and locker accommodations. With issues in mind they may be dealing with, be very delicate so as to not distract the student from their education, structure the dialogue as informative, not critical. – Andrew Smart Sep 19 '19 at 20:19

Normally my advice would be identical to Buffy’s, to simply talk to the student. At least, I would have liked to think that we live in a world where that would be the correct, and obvious, answer to the question. However, the reality is that in today’s culture there is a great deal of sensitivity about certain topics, such that when a college instructor makes a comment to a student about those topics, the result may be unpredictable.* This is particularly true in matters relating to personal appearance and behavior, even more so when other factors like gender, race, mental health, disability status and perhaps other things get dragged into the discussion (which may end up happening whether or not you think it ought to), and even more so when the parties involved are of unknown temperament, sound like they may not be the most sensible people around, and cannot be counted on to react in a reasonable fashion even to the most benign and well-intentioned of approaches.

Considering all that, given your situation I should think that it would be a trivial matter to go to your department’s staff and/or faculty administrators such as the vice-chair or chair, and ask for suggestions how to proceed. Make it clear to them that the situation is untenable and that the student’s hygiene problem is impinging on your other students’ rights to benefit from a physically safe and healthy educational environment while attending your class, so that you feel that some action must be taken. And do not worry about being a busybody or wasting their time - this is indeed a tricky situation and it is perfectly reasonable even for a very experienced instructor to wonder how to respond and seek advice.

Finally, if your administrators suggest that you talk to the student — which is after all the obvious, and probably necessary, solution — well, then, at least you will be able to say that you followed the advice of officialdom rather than strangers on the internet, should your friendly suggestion to the student end up being ill-received.

* Many discussions right here on academia.se, among other things, have opened my eyes to this reality - one memorable one involved an instructor wondering how to respond to a female student coming to class in a bikini top, if I remember correctly. I remember being rather taken aback by the diversity of opinions on what should be done in such a scenario, as well as by the judgmental tone of some of those opinions.

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    I agree. TLDR: Talk to them, but ask your supervisors/admins what to do first. This moves blame to them if things go poorly. – Mars Sep 18 '19 at 7:50
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    Rather than or in addition to talking the the chair, consider talking to the office of student affairs or dean of students or similar title. They have people who deal with these problems every day. Recently I heard about a situation where a student smelled bad and it turned out that the water in the family's home had been turned off so they could not wash themselves or their clothes. You do not know what the complexities might be and you many not be equipped to handle them. – Elin Sep 18 '19 at 9:26
  • Bikini top :) LOL – Alchimista Sep 18 '19 at 10:26
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    This is a comment. It is grotesque that straightforward matters of interpersonal good manners need to be elevated to the faculty head in a university. If I were a faculty head, admittedly an unlikely contingency, but I have been the chief executive of a large institution, I would be inclined to say that one of the reasons I pay you so much is that I expect you to sort out such issues without running to me every time you feel scared. – JeremyC Sep 18 '19 at 21:47

Some things are just best said straight out. Oddly enough, people don't always recognize their own body odor. But calling the student aside, or to your office and just saying that it is common practice to bathe/shower daily and use some sort of deodorant will be an advantage for them in all social situations. Again, they may not recognize the problem and will, perhaps, thank you for your honesty.

Polite sometimes means being direct.

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  • I'm just hoping I'm not overstepping my bounds as an instructor. I don't want to email my department head as I don't want to seem like a busybody, and more importantly don't want to waste their time if this is trivial – yuritsuki Sep 17 '19 at 22:43
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    Just talk to the student. Friendly like. – Buffy Sep 17 '19 at 22:50
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    Just as a complement to "oddly enough, people don't always recognize their own body odor": there is a phenomenon called adaptation (not to be confused with evolutionary adaptation) which partially explains this. When a given stimulus becomes ordinary the sensory organ stops responding to it. It also explain the opposite scenario: when we apply a perfume, after some minutes, we don't smell the perfume anymore, and then we apply it again... result: a person with a very strong perfume odour. – Gerardo Furtado Sep 18 '19 at 9:34
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    I think these days, one must also consider the possibility that the student might be homeless, and lacks facilities for hygiene. – Scott Seidman Sep 18 '19 at 13:41
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    @ScottSeidman, I think that is an important point that I neglected to make. In such a case, a university may have athletic facilities with showers that might be made available. There might even be an office that could provide other assistance win some cases. – Buffy Sep 18 '19 at 13:44

Talking to the student is the first step. I realise I'm duplicating other answers with this.

What isn't duplicating other answers is to say that when you do, make sure you have another person present. This is potentially something which the student could get highly offended over. A shouting match would be embarrassing but not ultimately too harmful. Some people might even resort to violence. More of a worry for you should be the threat of the student starting formal disciplinary proceedings against you. All these are prevented by having an independent witness.

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