Doctor’s notes and the issue of trust

Today a student emailed apologizing for not being able to come to class because her car broke down. She offered to bring me the tow slip and garage bill as evidence.

I frequently have college students offer me doctor’s notes.

I tell them I don’t need these things, but it occurred to me today (as I answered the car-challenged student) that it’s because I much prefer to take a student’s word.

I find being handed doctor’s notes and towing slips vaguely offensive. They imply that I don’t believe the student, without giving me a chance to show I do.

I believe them because it is the polite, adult thing to do. Keeping your word is an important expectation; in fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a major component of being an adult. One can’t walk around as an adult with the assumption that your word will not be accepted. To do so keeps you apart from adult society.

If we are going to say we value honesty, to the point of recommending the electric chair for plagiarism and execution for Wall Street bankers (not that I’m against that, you understand), the only way to get it is to make honesty the default expectation. We know as teachers that expectations are important – we are told that we need to have high expectations for our students, and that many will rise to meet them.

And then we demand a doctor’s note when they’re absent?

Besides, if we insist on documentation, we also have to develop complex rules for what’s excused and unexcused. A dentist appointment or trip to Greece one could have rescheduled? the death of a pet? the nanny didn’t show up? the I-5 was crowded? Frankly, it takes less time to give a test later for reduced credit than to come up with a constitution for allowed excuses.

Two weeks ago I had a student miss a great deal of class. Her friend was dying in the hospital, his family was both crazy and absent, and she needed to be there. She did her coursework while he was sleeping. Who would write that note? The nurse who brought his morphine?

So I trust them, because it’s polite, conveys trust, and is a hell of a lot easier.




3 thoughts on “Doctor’s notes and the issue of trust

  1. Your reasons are great. I’ll add one more, if I may: an authority figure in an college classroom should model an attitude less like high school principals and more like mentors.


  2. Even worse, insistence on documentation also creates an incentive for students to forge doctor’s excuses. I’ve received a number of insultingly bad forgeries, resulting in academic dishonesty charges that make students worse off than if they’d just missed the test. (Such forgeries are also misdemeanors punishable by up to 6 months in jail here, but I’m not aware of any prosecutions.)

    I tend to be pretty relaxed about makeups, but the institutional culture here is pretty rigid about them; the college even has an official policy about which absences are excused and which aren’t (military service, death, or illness: yes; work, childcare, or transportation: no).


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