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I just received an email from an undergrad student in a course that I am teaching. The student informed me that his girlfriend's father passed away, and so he will be unable to attend my class because he "needs to stay with her to help her with official processes related to her father's death". (I am paraphrasing what he wrote.)

This is the first time that a student has raised this as a reason for missing a class.

Question: Is the death of a girlfriend's father a reasonable excuse for a student to miss a class?

Here's how I am thinking about it:

  • The death of an immediate family member is a significant event. If the student experienced the death of an immediate family member, there's no question to me that this would be a reasonable excuse for missing a class.
  • However, in this case, it's not the student who is experiencing the death of an immediate family member, but his girlfriend. I understand that for university students, a girlfriend/boyfriend can be extremely important.
  • I don't think my university policy allows a student to miss quizzes/exams due to the death of a relative of the student's significant other, so I am assuming that the same policy would apply for missing classes. However, I have a nagging feeling that if I were to deny his request, I would be a "bad" or "unreasonable" teacher. (Note: I mistakenly wrote "due to the death of the student's significant other" earlier but I fixed this mistake.)

Response to comments/questions

  • Due to COVID-19, the course is run virtually using Zoom.

  • A few weeks before the start of the semester, I inherited this course from a colleague who received reducing teaching load because he was assigned additional administrative tasks. I am therefore trying to run the course how he set it up in the past. The attendance policy which he set, and is included in the syllabus, is that if students miss 2 or more classes, they will automatically fail the course.

  • In addition, students do receive a small amount of points for attendance and participation.

  • The course is conducted using a seminar course format rather than a traditional lecture format. For all classes except the first class, students present their work, and other students ask questions and give feedback and suggestions. Due to the seminar course format, it makes some sense to me why my colleague required a high level of attendance to pass the course.

  • I found what the university policy says regarding excused absences for exams or coursework:

    A death certificate and supporting documentation where there is a demonstrably close relationship between the student and the deceased.

What I learned and what I decided to do

  • Ultimately I decided to excuse the student from that particular class.
  • It was pointed out that attendance and participation only counts for a very small number of marks in the overall course assessment. Therefore, I should not waste time and effort overthinking this issue. (In the case where the student were absent for an exam or major course assignment, I would have to follow official procedures to handle the student's issue.)
  • It was also pointed out that students may be strongly emotionally affected by events that occur not only to their immediate family or to their married spouses, but also to their significant others or close friends/relatives or even their pets.
  • Finally, it is a hassle to take attendance, so in future courses, it would make my life easier and less stressful if attendance was not considered in the course assessment.
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    I'd like to point out that this showcases one of the many, many reasons why I dislike mandatory attendance. It's freakishly hard to draw an absolute line what is justifiably more important than going to class. – xLeitix Sep 6 at 18:40
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    "I understand that for university students, a girlfriend/boyfriend can be extremly important." I would hope that not only for students, but for everyone the partner is extremly important. Furthermore, I would hope (as a partner) to be helped by my partner in this situation (if wished by me) and that they would take a day off to help me. – user111388 Sep 6 at 18:52
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    This is college. Why does a student need a reasonable excuse to miss a class, unless there is a missed exam? – Morgan Rodgers Sep 8 at 9:26
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    The root of your issue seems to be your notion that relationships are not real unless they're marriage, and you can't have any sort of bond or attachement to your partner's family until someone has said "I do" at some point... – Theoriok Sep 8 at 11:34
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    I would recommend simply get out of the business of judging these reasons. You wrote a long question, and edited it multiple times. Is this really a good use of your time? Does this level of scrutiny really serve students well? – Reid Sep 8 at 15:54

11 Answers 11

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Edit: see below for some additional thoughts following OP’s revision of the question.

Let me start with this basic premise: Your students are adults.

Let me repeat that: your students are adults. That is one of the great luxuries of teaching in a higher education setting: you get to spend your time and energy actually teaching the subjects you are passionate about and not having to worry about being some kind of glorified baby-sitter or beacon of moral rectitude for your students. The division of labor is clear: the students get to make to their own decisions about how they want to best benefit from the course you are teaching, and you get to test them, give out assignments of various sorts, and give a grade at the end of the semester that reflects your assessment of what they learned.

And now for your question:

Is the death of a girlfriend's father a reasonable excuse for a student to miss a class?

While it is tempting to answer with a simple “yes”, I think the more accurate answer is that it is meaningless to speak about a “reasonable excuse”. Quite simply, in the context of a lecture-based college class, you should not be in the business of policing the reasons for students’ absences, or indeed whether they are absent or not. So in that sense, any excuse is a “reasonable” excuse. But if that’s the case, of course the notion of an excuse loses all meaning, so we come back to what I said above.

I know that what I‘m saying here flies in the face of the reality that some instructors mandate attendance in lectures, and that you do as well. Well, I have nothing more to say other than that such mandates are misguided and pointless, and lead to precisely the kind of fake dilemmas of the sort presented in your question, in which a baffled instructor tries to wrap their head around whether something is a “reasonable excuse”.

Finally, from a practical point of view, since you inherited this course from a colleague and don’t seem to personally have a strong attachment to the mandated attendance requirement, the best course of action is to simply drop that requirement, and free up your and your students’ time and energy for more productive uses.


Edit: OP has edited the question to clarify that the course is “conducted using a seminar course format rather than a traditional lecture format. For all classes except the first class, students present their work, and other students ask questions and give feedback and suggestions.”

For such a course, an attendance requirement may be logical. I’d still advocate for the instructor to make every effort possible not to get dragged into having to adjudicate questions about what is a “reasonable excuse” for missing class. It’s simply not a healthy situation for an instructor to be in and again conflicts with my “students are adults” premise. What I suggest instead is to have a policy that “students may not miss more than X lectures”, without making a distinction between “excused” and “not excused” absences, and to set X at a number that’s high enough that the policy won’t hurt students who had “serious” problems like an illness or a death in the family. For example X=4 or 5 would be pretty reasonable for a course of the type OP is describing. With such a policy, again the instructor will be treating the students as the adults that they are and freeing up everyone’s time and energy to let them do what they are actually at university to do instead of quibbling over bureaucratic nonsense.

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    Alas, some colleges and universities impose mandatory attendance requirements on their instructors. – JeffE Sep 6 at 21:57
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    @JeffE yes, alas. And we all know these are not the better schools that do that, which fact I would claim only strengthens my argument even more. – Dan Romik Sep 6 at 21:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Sep 8 at 21:28
  • Completely agree with @DanRomik. In my experience mandatory attendance is also frequently used as a misguided attempt to "force students to learn" in subjects which the teacher deems difficult to test or grade (or is too lazy to do properly). Whereas the only thing which the students are forced to do is to park their behinds on some seats for given periodic intervals. – fgysin reinstate Monica Sep 9 at 9:18
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    "Up to X missed lectures" avoids not only deciding what reasons are acceptable for absences, but also forcing students to reveal those reasons. For example, "my father left my pregnant mother and I must stay with her to drive to the hospital if labour starts" is certainly a reasonable excuse, but one I would not want to share with a teacher or employer. – UJM Sep 9 at 17:46
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Unless your university has an umbrella policy about absences, you as the instructor get to decide what you deem acceptable. In this case, I would first defer to what you wrote in the syllabus.

A common type of wording is to allow "excused" absences, where a proof of an excuse can range from things like a doctor's note, official notice from the university (commonly used for athletes), or an obituary, to name a few. If you were not explicit about absences in the syllabus, then you have even more freedom to make a judgment call here.

If the student experienced the death of an immediate family member, there's no question to me that this would be a reasonable excuse for missing a class.

What if the death was a student's guardian? How about a childhood friend? What if it was a cousin that they have not spoken to in 20 years but is still considered immediate family? Often, instructors ask that the student provide proof of the event such as by providing an obituary, which is what you could do here to avoid being an unfair instructor.

Is the death of a girlfriend's father a reasonable excuse for a student to miss a class?

Yes.

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    Would you also request the student to bring a proof that the daughter of the dead is OP's partner? (Good answer, plus 1.) – user111388 Sep 6 at 18:57
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    @user111388 I don't think that would be necessary, as I think the OP in this case should rely on their personal judgment for whether or not they believe this case is legitimate or just an excuse to get out of class. While it is possible that the student could find a random obituary and present it to the professor, I think asking to provide proof would at least discourage the student from faking this. In my experience (as the student), my explanation was taken at face value despite the policy to provide an obituary, which I appreciated since it was already a difficult time. – Kevin Miller Sep 6 at 19:03
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    "Often, instructors ask that the student provide proof of the event such as by providing an obituary, which is what you could do here to avoid being an unfair instructor." When I was a student, I would have rather risked failing a class than agreeing to provide an obituary. This is a private document and out of principle I would keep it private. – Stef Sep 8 at 8:18
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    @Stef I agree. I don't know if this is an American cultural thing, but asking an adult for proof that a relative died is ridiculous, offensive and at least for me unacceptable. Central European point of view. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 8 at 8:24
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    @Stef This is an American point of view. Typically there are two types of obituaries: one is more of a private matter (available on cards at the funeral) and another that is public (typically available in the local newspaper and containing information for those wishing to attend). There are also others (eulogies and likewise) that are very private and more for close family. It’s my understanding that the publicly available one is the “proof.” Though I’ll echo TheoreticalMinimum that it is ridiculous to demand a grieving student provide proof of their situation to a practical stranger. – Kevin Miller Sep 8 at 9:36
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Yes, this should be a reasonable excuse.

Leaving aside the discussion in certain other answers about mandatory attendance policies and whether or not they're appropriate, there is an important factor that you haven't considered: University students are adults. Adults engage in romantic relationships that have traditionally been formalized with marriage. As time has passed, however, increasing numbers of young people have decided to do away with formalizing a relationship as a marriage when engaging in a serious romantic relationship that, in previous years, would have been recognized as a marriage. Indeed, in many places, the government has put into place rules governing "de facto marriages" that cause such relationships to be legally considered marriage.

As such, if I was in your position, I would assume that your student was engaged in such a relationship, and treat the death of his girlfriend's father the exact same way that you'd treat the death of his wife's father, and thereby treat it as a death in the immediate family.

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    @scaaahu: I don't think this is an important consideration as it is theoretically possible, but very unlikely. If you wish to go that route, it is also possible that a wife has 5 siblings and each month a new one dies. Also, a new girlfriend is probably not that close to the student and would maybe prefer somebody else to comfort her (like her best friend, mother, expartner etc.) – user111388 Sep 7 at 6:38
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    And, just in case there might be people around with not too much people skills: Please, do NOT tell the student @scaaahu's comment in a way like "Your attandence is mandatory because it could be that you change girlfriend next week and then the new girlfriend's mother could die and next month, you change again and then your new girlfriend could die, so I cannot make an excuse." – user111388 Sep 7 at 9:19
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    to echo what @user111388 do not take this route with the student it's going to feel incredibly tone deaf and might cause him to file a complaint against you or never speak to you again outside of course matters. – mag Sep 7 at 9:39
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    @user111388 instead of criticizing scaaahu’s comments, I think it’s more helpful to point out that this comment thread is a perfect illustration of the folly of attempting to codify the notion of a “reasonable excuse”. The logic of turning the instructor into the excuse police will inevitably lead to this sort of fruitless debate about the idea/seriousness of girlfriends, relatives dying every month and whatnot. Let’s not validate the logic by not allowing ourselves to get dragged into such absurd discussions in the first place. – Dan Romik Sep 7 at 13:17
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    @user111388 yes, scaahahu’s remarks were insensitive and it was reasonable of you to point it out. I had upvoted your comment discussing those things, but still feel this line of debate misses the point that we simply shouldn’t be discussing whether someone’s girlfriend is serious or not. It’s none of OP’s business how many girlfriends a student has or for how long. And yet the logic that instructors need to scrutinize students’ excuses for absence forces well-intentioned people like scaaaahu who are merely trying to be consistent and logical to enter into these sorts of pointless debates. – Dan Romik Sep 8 at 4:24
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I don't think my university policy allows a student to miss quizzes/exams due to the death of the student's significant other, so I am assuming that the same policy would apply for missing classes.

You'd have to check your university's policy, but I would be very surprised if this were correct. I'd urge you to double check.

What I suspect is that university policy requires you to excuse absences, for a list of specifically enumerated reasons. If the student offers a different reason, I would guess that policy neither forbids you nor requires you to excuse the absence.

Quite frankly, the policy that "if students miss 2 or more classes, they will automatically fail the course" sounds draconian to me. (And like something that might be forbidden by university policy.) I wouldn't adopt such a policy, just becase a colleague did. Personally, if I were in your shoes, I would immediately reverse course and announce a more lenient policy in its place. And in this case in particular, I would definitely accept the offered excuse.

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    I do not think that is so surprising: usually, deaths of family members are accepted as a valid reason to miss exams, but deaths of partners or friends are often not "officially" accepted. The reason is probably that it is not easy to prove that someone was your partner or your friend. However, we are not talking about exams here, but about missing one class, so I suspect that this is mostly the instructor's decision, and I agree with your suggestion to remove the draconian policy, or to make an exception in this case. – wimi Sep 7 at 7:34
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    This was my experience: In college, after a life threatening event, I took a friend to the ER and spent the entire night with them since they didn't have any family in the area. Because I had no familial relationship, I couldn't get an 'official' excuse for classes the following day. But each of my teachers excused me individually. Not that them saying no would have changed my behavior: you can retake a class, you can't do-over not being there for someone. – TemporalWolf Sep 8 at 23:34
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I think your question is ill-posed. Why do you consider that a family member's death is justified and the death of a girlfriend's father is questionable? In some cases, we are emotionally much more attached to people who are not family members. Then, I think it is not appropriate to judge which one is "justified" or not. This is your personal judgement, we respect it but no need to impose them to others.

By the way, this could be the death of my pet. You can be deeply attached to your pet and its loss can make you sadden so much that you do not want to attend your class.

This is said in previous comments but these people are adults and unless the university has a policy which obliges students to attend classes, we should let them do what they want. Either they attend or not, this should not be our business.

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    I don't know if the question has been edited since you answered, but it now says that the stated reason for absence is to assist and support his girlfriend in handing formalities around the death, not any grief from the student himself. So arguments about the degree of grief the student himself will be feeling are irrelevant to the question. – Stuart F Sep 8 at 14:15
  • I just made a remark about the first two bulletpoints. – optimal control Sep 8 at 22:36
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Yes, of course.

(Any discussion beyond this is over-thinking it...)

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  • This is straight to the point, but I'm afraid it's not of much value on its own (without other detailed answers in this same thread). – iBug Sep 9 at 16:05
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    @iBug I disagree, I think these other answers are definitely overthinking it. If the student needs time because his girlfriend's father (potentially someone he was close to) died, then he should get it. End of story. – yeah22 Sep 9 at 17:38
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You are actually asking 2 questions:

  1. Is this a valid reason to miss class?
  2. How should grades be handled?

Let's look at the questions one at a time.

Is this a valid reason to miss class?

I think it's important to see this from the students perspective. So let's get you into similar situations.

The father of your husband/wife passed away, and he/she needs you. Is it ok for you to take the day off? Or your almost adult child's best friend since they were kids pass away. Is it ok for you to stay home? What if it's your almost adult child's special someone that passes away, is it ok for you to take care of your child in this case?

According to your reasoning in the question it wouldn't be ok for you to take care of your loved ones and help them out in any way you can. To me that is ridiculous, of course you should do what is needed for your family. It's really no difference with a boyfriend/girlfriend.

How should grades be handled

This part of the question is harder to answer.

Let's take it to the extreme, different things happen during the course and the student isn't able to participate at all. Should you pass this student? Of course not, they haven't shown they have the knowledge needed to pass.

So what is the goal of the education? Is it to be in the classes? Or is it to get the knowledge of the course? Obviously it's getting the knowledge, and I think your goal should be to make sure the student have the knowledge needed rather than count the amount of missed classes.

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Well, again this is a rather difficult topic to debate. What exactly do we mean by 'reasonable excuse'? Who decides what's reasonable? I'm not sure that there ever will be any definitive answer to the question of whether or not someone has good reason to miss class.

As for the death of a girlfriend's father, I think that this is definitely one of those situations in which you might be able to show some leniency and understanding. It's not surprising that a young man would want to console his girl after she has lost her father.

On the other hand, I do think that it is important to teach students the importance of responsibility and accountability. If a student chooses to skip class in order to console his girlfriend, he does so at the expense of his learning.

In this case, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to deny the student's request for an excuse and instead require him to attend class. However, if you do choose to allow the student to miss a class or two in order to take care of his girlfriend, then there is nothing wrong with that.

The topic provides much food for thought, and I appreciated the opportunity to respond. And thanks! That's one of the most interesting topics I've seen so far. Thanks again for the great topic. I really enjoyed thinking about it.

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  • "he does so at the expense of his learning". This is a reason to excuse him -- after the exam, he will see whether his decision of not going to class was worth it or not. – user111388 Sep 8 at 10:30
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Yes

1. Students are adults

I largely agree with Dan Romik's answer, especially with emphasizing the voluntary nature of higher education.

2. The reasonableness of excuses

However, saying that any excuse is a “reasonable” excuse, while true does not seem very useful to me. Instead, I want to introduce a handy way of thinking about excuses and how we might determine how reasonable they are.

As a reference, I am using this LessWrong post, which frames the question as a two-person game in which one player (of type utilitarian) makes a rule, the other player breaks it and gives an excuse, which the first player needs to either accept or reject.

The general principle:

The general principle is that by accepting an excuse, a rule-maker is also committing themselves to accepting all equally good excuses in the future.

Which means that:

The first party's response is based not only on whether the person's excuse is believable, not even on whether the person's excuse is morally valid, but on whether the excuse can be accepted without straining the credibility of their previous pre-commitment.

Now, to apply this to the present case.

3. The Co-grieving Student

First, this is different from The Grieving Student, since in this scenario, the student has not felt the loss themselves, but rather is supporting their grieving partner (note that I don't include if the student is related to the deceased person or not, which would lead to a different discussion), which I term "co-grieving".
Second, it's still relevant that the primary grief is that of a deceased loved-one, instead of, say, grief about a lost competition, in that we would accept this primary grief as an excuse (for details see the link above).
Third, we apply the quoted principles and ask the following questions:

  1. Does accepting the excuse encourage other students to miss class?
  2. Does rejecting the excuse deter other students from missing class?

3.1 Note

Remember, by accepting the excuse we are essentially saying "I am the type of player to accept this kind of excuse. You can expect me to accept this kind of excuse in the future". However, society judges the loss of a family member to be of high importance, irrespective of our decision regarding the excuse. Including the partner/s of the grieving person does not drastically lower the standard.

3.2 Accept

If we accept the excuse, we cannot expect a sudden rise in people missing our classes, since it is unlikely that they will kill their partner's family members in order to miss class.

3.3 Reject

If we reject the excuse, we might deter people who's partner lost a family member from missing class. However, this is unsure, since plenty of people would regard such an event as more important than attending class (and find other ways to miss class, like finding a lax doctor). Conversely, if those people effectively are deterred from missing class in such a situation, our contribution to society is that we establish class-attendance to be of higher importance than partnership (which might not be essential to the game we are playing, but still seems worth noting).

4. Conclusion

Keeping in mind that class attendance in higher education is not terribly important, we find that under the premise that we want to ensure class attendance, it still makes sense to accept the excuse that someone's partner is grieving the loss of a family member for missing class.

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    This answer seems far too overwrought for this question. – user111388 Sep 8 at 17:02
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The student told you: "...needs to stay with her to help her with official processes related to her father's death". This suggests that there isn't much support from the family of the girlfriend. It's then best to talk to the student to assess whether there are now other issues causing a longer term impact beyond the usual formalities. Should that be the case, you can suggest that the student get help from the university to manage the situation.

For example, it may be that the girlfriend's mother needs care and that the father was taking care of her. The mother is not able to take care of the formalities, so the girlfriend needs to do that, as well as take care of her mother temporarily before a permanent solution is found. However, she also has a job and can only get limited time off. The student is then expected to do his share. In such a situation, it's easy for the student to underestimate the impact this may have on his studies.

There is then no need for you to find out the precise details of such a situation, the student is entitled to privacy about this. But you can tell the student that in case he is now confronted with having more duties on the longer term that are likely to interfere with his studies, that he should not hesitate to seek help and not wait until problems arise.

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-2

All of this is U.S.-specific: Some history on this: A specific college (I think it was actually a truck driver's school) reported that student's were attending classes that they weren't. This caused financial-aid (i.e. funding) issues and seemed to be unethical and possibly illegal. (See the web-site: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/attendance-policies) As a result, many schools were forced to take attendance (when I went to college, they didn't typically at the University level). So, then one has the obligation to attend lectures that had previously been basically miss-at-your-own-risk.

If I were the professor, I would typically always allow a student to attend almost any funeral, especially if it were a one-day-event. For out of town or overseas funerals, the situation gets more complicated.

Also, in my post-academia work-world, I would think most managers would generally allow an employee to miss in this situation, though for certain jobs/situations that would not always be true. I had to do this myself, and there was no problem from my manager. Of course, I used a vacation-day (but with very little notice).

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    This claim requires citations/support. E.g., This related question was asked previously and to date no one has been able to provide a citation that attendance is actually required by U.S. federal law. Title IV language says that class participation is required in some way, of which attendance is a sufficient but not necessary condition. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/122091/… – Daniel R. Collins Sep 8 at 19:56
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    Why does it require citations? This isn't a research paper. The following web-site has some information that verifies that federal policy does require attendance tracking for financial-aid purposes, it doesn't discuss the history... In any event, I put 'I think' in the above answer, admitting it was informal. See the following web-site: insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/… – JosephDoggie Sep 8 at 21:06
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    I'll be more clear: The claim in this answer is incorrect. Physical attendance is not needed under U.S. federal law per Title IV funds. See: 668.22-l-7-i (search for "physically attending"). law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/34/668.22 – Daniel R. Collins Sep 9 at 15:33
  • Many instructors have been told this claim, so someone (other than me) had it wrong. – JosephDoggie Sep 14 at 13:30

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