Grief By The Numbers

By Jill Granger, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Chemistry

I’ve seen it on their faces for weeks. My Sweet Briar College students are still there, still sitting in their usual seats, still going through their usual motions. But their faces are pained, their eyes puffy, their smiles gone. Occasionally, when I turn from the board and look around the room, I see tears quietly streaming down a face.

Analytical Chemistry is not a subject that typically brings tears to a young person’s eyes. It’s not a touching subject. It is, as the name offers, quite analytical. Sophomore-level Analytical is the world of significant figures, dilution calculations, equilibria, titrations, potentiometry, and some spectroscopy, for fun. But Analytical Chemistry has not been on these students’ minds since the college’s Board of Directors announced the unexpected closure of the college to come at the end of this term.

I can see it in the numbers now. As classes have ended and the students are preparing for finals, I’m going through my usual motions, which includes doing a summary of their grades, getting my books in order, and filing my papers away. And, like my students, my face is pained, I drop my head to my desk, and I cry quietly. Again, Analytical Chemistry, it’s not normally emotional work. But I can see in the numbers an unequivocal evidence of the damage done to these young lives. The sadness morphs into anger when I hear the voices of our Board, with their talking points, dismissing the students’ loss as “collateral damage,” and their empty promises of a “seamless transition” and an “orderly wind-down.”

I feel protective and indignant when I hear the administration dismiss the human value of our current students when they say things like “students today don’t want to come to a women’s college,” or “students today don’t have the capability to pay” what we need to balance our budget. I want to say: These students want to be here. They are paying what they were asked to pay. They are important and they matter.

***

I just started using an online homework vendor for my Analytical class, a web-based site by Sapling Learning. Coupled with their textbooks, students got a set of homework problems to work on in each chapter and the system provided them with instant feedback, hints when asked, help when needed. I controlled selection of the problems, the difficulty, the mix of topics, and more. I liked the on-line homework because it gave my students more time with the material, more practice with problems, and immediate feedback, all of which is important in Analytical Chemistry, a problem-solving course. If the student sticks with a problem in the online system and keeps trying, her grade for an assignment will typically be in the 80’s or 90’s.

Before the closure announcement, my students were averaging 78.9 percent on their homework, overall. There were only 3 assignments in all that were turned in as a 0 (not attempted). After the announcement, my students averaged 34.8 percent on their homework, and this was with me extending deadlines, reopening closed homework, and being as accommodating as possible. I don’t need to look at my syllabus to see where the closure came in the term – I can see it as large as life in my spreadsheet of numbers. There were 20 assignments, post announcement that were turned in as a 0; and barely any completed assignments that were at or above the previous average.

These numbers are meaningful to me. I think they provide a kind of dispassionate sort of proof that some irreparable harm was done to these students. I put stock in what these on-line homework numbers say because the questions and assignments, set up by my Sapling Learning online TA and myself at the start of term, were not at all influenced by my own grief, trauma, and stress over the announcement of closure. They serve as a proxy, as a sort of meter that has registered and witnessed this traumatic event.

For these students, who are mostly nineteen or twenty, the closure of the college is likely the first major loss they have ever suffered, and it’s a strange loss at that. They are losing their college, their friends, their teammates, their hangouts, their study buddies, their lab partners, and their faculty, not to mention their credits, their grades, their options, their scholarships and aid packages, and their sense of well-being. Some of them will be fine, absolutely. Some may take a step back for now, but will make a comeback in days and months to come. And there are some students who will not weather this transition.

This is a practical point. While we like to think of college students cruising through their academic studies semester by semester, that is a gross simplification. For a vast number of students, their college experience is a series of good semester, bad semester, ups and downs, highs and lows, which average out above the threshold for the degree. For any student who happened to be at a lower point going into this semester, her aspirations may have gotten washed over by the swell of the impact of the closure announcement. Those are the ones I fear for the most, because they will not overcome this, and will likely never obtain a degree.

***

Copyright Sweet Briar College. Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan.
Dr. Jill Granger Copyright Sweet Briar College. Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan.

On the last day of class, the sense of loss was so palpable that I couldn’t bear to acknowledge it. It’s very likely that I won’t ever teach Analytical Chemistry again. As a full professor with 22 years of teaching at the same institution, and given the range of my work and scholarship, it’s much more likely that I will find a position in administration. Too old to start over and too young to retire, I’m hopeful that I will land a position that will afford me faculty status and the chance to teach on a regular basis – but I think it unlikely that it will be a majors course, like Analytical. Like our students, we faculty and staff face the same daunting set of compromises, but with families, mortgages, and responsibilities in tow.

A couple of weeks after the announcement, as the shock was beginning to wear off and the reality and sense of having been victimized was settling in, I said to one of my friends in our Physics Department, “we’ve lost our titles. We’ve lost our status as faculty members.” And his comforting words to me were, “But you still have your degree. You still have the Ph.D. They can’t take that away.”

Now that some time has passed, and the feeling of freefall has subsided, I’m able to see that my friend made a good point. As our semester is coming to a close, we face a few more difficult days and weeks ahead. Unfortunately, much of our situation is no clearer now than it was six weeks ago and it still feels terrible. In Analytical, students were talking about the necessity and meaning for the end of course evaluations. One student tried to explain, saying that, “They are trying to keep things as normal as possible.” Another student replied in frustration, “Well, they’re doing a pretty shitty job of it.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.


Jill Nelson Granger is a Professor of Chemistry at Sweet Briar College and also serves as the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, leading the college’s Honors Program and helping to direct college-wide assessment efforts.  She earned a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry in 1993 at Purdue University and a BS degree in Chemistry in 1988 at Butler University.   In addition to her teaching and administrative responsibilities, Jill is very involved in K-12 teacher professional development efforts in the STEM fields and has garnered over $2 million in extramural funding for support of the Central Virginia school divisions and their teachers over the past 15 years.  Jill was awarded the 2007 Education Advocate of the Year Award by the AAUW of Virginia, and has twice been recognized, 2000 and 2011, by the Virginia Math and Science Coalition for a “Programs that Work” award.   Jill and her husband Rob, who is also a Professor of Chemistry at Sweet Briar College, have raised four children on the Sweet Briar campus, the youngest of whom is currently a high school student at Amherst County High School.

Cover photo credit: Copyright Sweet Briar College. Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan.


If you are a student, faculty, staff member, or alumni of Sweet Briar and are interested in writing about your experience, we would love to hear your stories as well. Email us at thecapitalchemist@gmail.com.

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