I am an undergrad in the second year of a 2-year transfer program at a community college. I am retaking a class that I was forced to drop a couple of semesters ago due to family issues. The instructor is the senior guy in the department for my major, and I will be taking another course with him (both are 4 credits), requiring lab work.

The trouble is, I have known for a few months that I will need surgery. I'm on medications that are working, but the side effects in the strategic term are disastrous. The surgery will leave me bedridden for 3 days to 3 weeks.I am assuming at this point that I will have at least some flexibility in scheduling the surgery. I thought I could get it done over summer break, but that's next to impossible at this point.

So far as I can tell, these are my options;

  • Tell the instructor immediately (via email) or the first day of class.
  • Tell the instructor once I have any clarity regarding scheduling, in the hope that I can get it done over winter break.

Since this is a specialist in my major, who can help me with career guidance, references, and hands-on skills, I really want to make the best possible impression. His opinion of me is even more important as I expect to transfer next semester and would like to get As for both courses.

Unfortunately, in addition to making me unable to finish the semester with him, the aforementioned family issues resulted in an anxiety diagnosis which required special testing arrangements. He was not super happy with that. So, on the one hand, I need this surgery as soon as possible. On the other hand, I want to avoid the perception that I am unable to handle a heavy workload for any reason. How/when should I tell him about this, if at all?

  • There should be a university office that deals with this sort of thing (though I can't for the life of me recall what a standard name for this is in the US) and can tell you what you should do and what you can expect. Universities tend to have pretty well-developed policies regarding these matters, for legal reasons if nothing else. Have you looked into this? Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 2:30
  • @zibadawatimmy, policy is one thing, relationships and respect another.
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 2:32
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    Following the policies of an organization is showing respect to people who work within that organization. Depending on your jurisdiction, it may be exactly none of your professor's business about your medical condition, and he may be legally obligated to not alter his professional behavior as a result. Find the relevant office and get their guidance. If you specified where you are that might help people give you advice beyond that. If you're not in the US or the EU, for example, what I just said may not apply to you. I assume US from the community college bit. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 2:36
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    @zibadawatimmy, granted, he may be objectively legally required to accommodate my issues. I absolutely will look into the proper channels within the school administration. However, all prior life experience suggests that appealing to outside administrative agencies does not poduce warm, fuzzy feelings within the relevant individuals. I would like A grades for the courses, as I expect to transfer next semester. I will update the question to reflect this.
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 2:54
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    You should inform your instructor as soon as possible that you may miss class for medical reasons. There is no need to explain what the medical reasons are. The instructor is likely to want to help you. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 3:28

3 Answers 3


Short answer: Tell him now.

Longer answer:
As pointed out in the comments, go find the office dealing with such questions and contact them. You don't need to resort to legal rights immediately, just tell them your story and get some advice on how to proceed. They might also know things you didn't consider yet, e.g. some regulations on how much of a class you are allowed to miss, what sort of medical certificate is needed, etc.

After you cleared all questions with them, tell your instructor that you have a pressing medical issue that will force you to miss up to three weeks of class. Do that in person if possible, not via email. Ask him how to handle this and show him that you are still interested in his class and willing to take it, e.g. ask him if it is possible to get the lecture notes for these weeks and hand in the homework via email. Of course this depends on how you define "bedridden", so if you will be on heavy meds and unable to do anything, or if you will be sitting in your bed, fully alert and able to work on a laptop, but not able to stand up. I don't know what condition you have and I understand that this is private, but you should think about a plan on how to make up for the missed classes and present this plan in the discussion with the professor. This will show him that you are motivated and willing to take the class and is far easier to accept than you being gone for a few weeks and some legal office forcing him to still let you pass.
Also try to point out that you have some flexibility on when to schedule the operation and ask him for his opinion. Make clear that you can't say an exact date, but ask him if he prefers this month or that month, for example. All in all, talk to him, be frank and show motivation to make up for the missed time and you should be ok.

The above advice might also help with him not being pleased with your anxiety. It is hard for a non-professional to distinguish between anxiety and stress/fear of exams. Furthermore, some students simply say "I have anxiety", even if they are just a little stressed at the moment. Show the professor that you are still motivated for his class, that you are not trying to use your anxiety as an excuse for anything, that you are doing your best even though you have several medical conditions and he will most likely not worry about it anymore.

  • A little difficult to track him down over the summer.
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:24
  • Point being, should I email him now or tell him in person later?
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:36
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    Do whatever will get the message to him fastest; there's no particular advantage to an in-person conversation for something like this. In particular, there's always a worst-case chance that the nature of this class means that such an absence simply cannot be accommodated; you'd want to know that before the term starts, so you can adjust your class schedule. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 20:15

Don't do it. Do not take the class or, if you're already enrolled, seek a medical withdrawal immediately and get your money back. Here in the US, I can't imagine a school that wouldn't do that, given a valid medical reason.

Instructors can be understanding of medical problems but ultimately have to grade based on your performance. If you can't be there, you can't perform. Please consider whether you paid for the course because you just want it on your transcript or because you'd like to learn the material. You cannot miss up to three weeks in a college course and learn the material. You may not even get the passing grade.

Students with long-term disabilities usually arrive with realistic expectations of the accommodations they need and what can be done. But students hit with sudden or unexpected illness or other medical issues tend to be overoptimistic about how many days they'll miss, their ability to make up for the absence and about how much leeway they'll have to skip the work but still pass. If the class involves a lab and perhaps a partner where you can't just read the book, you simply must show up, there's no way you can be gone for up to 3 weeks. The fact this is a class you didn't do well in last time does not help.

In my experience, (sigh, yes, I have some) what happens in situations like yours is that the student is advised this is unlikely to work, then they plead, oh, it's going to ruin their life, they'll lose their scholarship, their apartment, blah, blah, blah. Often, they pull the "but Mom said" ploy by getting an instructor doing the lectures to agree before going to the lab instructor. If they persist, eventually everyone gives in and they're told, okay, fine, we warned you, you're an adult, this is your choice, so do it.

And then they show up after the long absence unhappy that their instructors can't give them a personalized repeat performance of all the hours of lectures and so on that they missed because they've got a whole class that was there the first time and needs them now on the current stuff. They typically pull the worst grade in the class, maybe or maybe not pass and they're unhappy, often convinced the problem was their awful and inflexible instructors, who they slam on their evals.

Instructors typically have some flexibility to grant or deny these absences in their own courses. I'm to the point where I basically don't ever grant them, no matter what the sob story. It is virtually always a huge mistake.

  • 2
    1) I could care less about his lectures. It took me longer than I wanted to, but if the only parameter is exams I can guarantee an A as long as there are no drastic emergencies while I'm in the course. I've been doing the work already, it doesn't scare me in the least. My primary concern is the labs. 2) I am, in fact in the next-to-last semester of a scholarship, after which I will probably transfer. It's conditional on full-time enrollment.
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 17:56
  • Having said that, thank you for the advice, especially from someone in my field. I will consider offering to drop the course. By the way, looks like some really cool software you made there. Wish I could afford it.
    – jamesson
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 18:05
  • @jamesson, contact me offline. Happy to comp you a copy. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 18:24
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    I pretty much agree. For major medical issues, I tell the students that I'll make whatever accommodations the Dean's office asks me to. That forces students to work through official mechanisms, doesn't force me to probe into sensitive and personal issues that I really don't want to look into, and keeps me honest with respect to making sure I treat all students the same, regardless of whatever unconcious bias (good or bad) that I might hold. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 18:41
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    In fact, I specifically state in my syllabus that there is no guarantee that I will hold requests that don't come from official channels confidential, and I reserve the right to discuss such matters with students' advisors, the Department Chair, and the university's student help mechanism. I carefully worked out the language with university officials before including it. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 18:44

Go to the Office of Students with Disabilities, with letters from your doctor about the two conditions -- the one requiring surgery, and the anxiety.

Then, imagine what it's like to be in the instructor's role. As instructor, you would want a student with a disability (either temporary or permanent) to have a clear idea about what his needs are, what he himself can do to make the educational system work for him, and how the instructor can help. So think about those things, and try to come up with clear proposals. Be prepared to be a bit flexible and trying some alternate ideas that might be proposed.

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