Why You Have to Get Doctor’s Notes

I was in my first year or so in a PhD program when I realized something weird. A professor had been riffing sardonically about how little money they made, and I just couldn’t make sense of it.  Professor X had a Summer home in the Berkshires.  They taught at one of the most prestigious universities in pretty much the whole world, and also happened to be extremely famous in their own right.  To those of us who were fighting tooth-and-nail to organize a union of grad student employees, Professor X seemed like a lofty figure, part of the cosseted establishment we were fighting against (though it should be said that, politically, they were pretty cool).

How could this person feel underpaid and aggrieved? 

It did not compute to me that someone who had reached basically the pinnacle of all you could hope to achieve in a respected creative field could feel a sense of frustratingly low status.  Of course, money and status are all relative.  To me, an annual income of $35,000 per year sounded like a comfortable middle class lifestyle when I was in college – it was more money than I had ever heard of.  To someone in the professions or corporate middle management, $35,000 is probably a laughably small sum.  (I remember being chortled at quite derisively when I made the mistake of telling the truth, when asked, about how much I made starting out at Georgia State.)

All of this came to mind when Twitter user @Rozb7aleeb posted a hilariously on-point tweet about a professor who demanded a medical note for her absence in class.  At last count, the tweet had 73,000 likes and had circulated far and wide in less than a day.  Clearly, many people have experiences of being forced to account for their whereabouts or physical or mental condition by a teacher, who insists on documentation. 

I have been teaching in some form or fashion for about 17 years, and in all that time I have only once required a student to provide evidence to justify a prolonged absence in my class.  I was a TA at the time, and it seemed like the individual was just shirking off the discussion section.  Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I regret imposing this extra burden on a student who, it seems, quite likely was struggling.   

Other than that, it has never made sense to me to ask for the sacred Doctors’ Note.  Students have been habituated to providing this evidence by long experience with teachers and other authority figures, so they often ask if it’s necessary.  If someone is ill, I feel like they already have enough to deal with without worrying about remembering to ask for such-and-such document, likely in a rushed encounter with a medical professional.  In addition, it seems exceedingly easy for an enterprising student to fabricate such a piece of evidence if they really wanted to.  (The wonderful scene in Parasite comes to mind.) 

As with the ever-present dead grandmother at exam time, what’s the point of quibbling over evidence?  I can’t imagine morbidly asking a student to bring in an obituary, though I’m sure some teachers have.  If you want to lie about having a serious illness or losing a loved one, that is on your conscience.  It’s not any of my business.  I’m also so goddamn disorganized as it is, that the last thing I want is one more document to keep track of.

Of course, the Doctor’s Note is part of a performance of authority and obedience. Students are always lying and trying to get one over on you, and they have to be whipped into behaving and learning, or else chaos will be loosed on all the world.  The teacher has to sharpen the steely scimitar of Weberian bureaucratic power.  (God, did I just write that?) 

This isn’t ‘Nam. There are rules.

This is all part of a concept that the great historian Stephanie McCurry called “masters of small worlds.”  You might not have much, but you have this.  You might get shit on and disrespected all the time, but someone has to respect you.  In any case, you certainly don’t have as much power, status, or money as you rightly deserve to have, so holding on to what you’ve got is important – even in small, fleeting moments like an encounter with a recently absent student after class.

Economists and social psychologists know that humans are notoriously bad at judging value and proportionality.  To me, this one small enactment of authority seems unworthy of the cost that it places on the student, or even the psychic wage that the teacher gets from demanding it.  Yet it seems really important to some people in the moment.  Almost everything is riding on the outcome of that interaction.

A huge part of understanding the psychology of professors is recognizing the dynamic of highly educated professionals who experience what they perceive as a mismatch between, on one hand, their social status, and on the other, their relatively modest income and feeling of institutional impotence. Professors occupy, in the class imaginary of American culture, a status somewhat akin to that of a pastor or imam.  The position typically requires a good deal of education and commands respect in the community, on arguably the same level as a doctor or lawyer – and yet clergy and professors alike make drastically less money than their peers in equivalent professions.  (Except, of course, for canny and gilded megachurch villains.) 

The key is that, being professionals, they mostly associate with people with similar levels of educational attainment and cultural capital.  Thus, their couple-friends are lawyers and doctors or corporate middle managers who make two, three, four times what they do.  They drive better cars.  They have bigger houses.  They wear nicer clothes, and they go on more extravagant vacations.  It’s hard not to notice, especially when you think you’re just as smart and hardworking as them.  (More, if you really, really think about it… right?!  Life is so unfair.)

Long ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter used the concept of “status anxiety” to explain how the traditional middle class, the modest and hardworking petit bourgeoisie, felt threatened by the ballooning and gargantuan power of the new class of capitalists – Carnegie or Rockefeller being as out of proportion to the small-town lawyer as Bezos and Gates are to you and me.  Status anxiety has been out of fashion among historians as an explanatory device for some time, but I think it’s quite useful and relevant.

And this is why you have to get doctors’ notes.  Your professors are all radically postmodern anarcho-syndicalists who want to Fuck the Pigs, but too many also want to be a little regional chieftain in a remorseless Soviet bureaucracy. Academics as a class generally feel powerless even within their own institutions, where an increasingly rococo encrustation of corporate-babbling admin-mandarins run the show, and well-heeled donors call the shots.  This is also why – in my humble opinion – faculty invest such vast symbolic significance in hiring decisions, especially for tenure-track jobs.  Here we find the one arena in which they have sweeping authority: who gets to be in the club, the tribe?  Other than that, they feel acutely that their power in this world is improperly small in proportion to their rightfully deserved status.

So, please, by all means – forge the doctor’s note.  Or send a photo of a pad and a bottle of Midol.  This nonsense has to stop.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

One thought

  1. I had a professor literally chase after some poor kid who was trying to sneak out of his BIO 121 class. He’d complained about attendance for the first half of the semester and it just boiled over on that particular day.

    When he caught the kid, it turned out that the kid wasn’t actually in the class–he’d just be in there to carry books for his roommate, who had a broken leg.

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