I'm home sick today, having been hit by one of the many evil viruses making the rounds at work. My fever is hovering between 102 and 103, so I'm really not trying to do anything more strenuous than change channels on the tv and skim a few blogs. I started feeling the onset Wednesday afternoon, but I didn't have any fever then, and kept trying to convince myself that it was just tiredness or allergies or some other non-sickness condition. But it soon became clear that I was actually coming down with something, and that I wasn't going to be able to finish grading all of my students' essays to hand back in class on Thurs. (Of course, if my psychic abilities were good enough to let me predict who would actually show up for class that afternoon, I could have just graded those students' work -- but that's not really my strong suit.) I feel genuinely sorry for my students, some of whom are anxious to learn their grades, and I hate feeling like one of those professor cliches. So I was heading into Thursday's class feeling bad about letting them down, and also just feeling plain bad physically: my head ached, I was coughing, and I could feel the fever beginning to burn.
So I was upfront with my students: I explained that I was coming down with something -- this was of course pretty obvious, since my voice had dropped two octaves and I was coughing. And then we did a small group activity in which I assigned each group a section of the text, and some focus questions based on the previous day's lecture, asking them to discuss it, and come up with some specific passages to present to the class. They spent 20 minutes in their groups, then the rest of class was a moderated discussion with their presentations and my expanding on what they pointed out, and bringing up some additional passages.
Yes, this activity was easier for me to manage, given the state of my voice that day and my low energy level. But it was also the group activity I usually do with this particular novel at about this point in the text. I would have done a similar activity in any case, sick or not. There's no way to make that clear to my students, although we've done group work before in class. I'm sure some of them assumed I did the group work because I was sick.
I always give very clear directions for group projects, and make it clear how that work relates to the rest of the class (in this case it was about developing close reading skills). That, and doing lots of different kinds of things in the classroom, are part of my approach to making my pedagogy visible to my students.
Although I don't think I could or would have done anything differently, I'm still thinking it over. Earlier this term, I made the mistake of looking myself up on ratemyprofessor because one of my students said he'd enrolled in class because my ratings were good -- to me they don't seem that good, but maybe I don't know what ratings my colleagues get. In any case, there was a vicious comment from a student last semester (a term for which I have not yet seen my official evaluations) about how I was lazy and did group work because I didn't feel like teaching. I know that the negative comments always ring louder than the positives, and I also know that each semester I have a couple students who dislike an active-learning, discussion based approach. They would rather sit and listen to a lecture. Because that's not the way I teach, they're never going to be happy, and I can assume that the complaining student was probably one of that group.
I don't need every student to be happy all the time, but I also don't want my class to think I was lazy. Plus, I made myself kind of vulnerable to my students by revealing my sickness. I was honest in telling my class that I was sick. To pretend otherwise would have been stupid. But I fear that it might have seemed manipulative, like I was asking for sympathy. I suppose I feel a little odd because, in fact, several of my students were sympathetic. One offered me cough drops and another sent me an email hoping I get better soon. It's a weird position to be in with my class.