A professor reflects on the sudden passing of beloved student Jeet Patel ’22
BY DAN MORRIS, PhD
NORWICH RECORD | Summer 2021
Jeet was in my Criminal Justice Ethics class this semester. I wish I had known him.
In any other year, that would be a ridiculous thing to say. I would know all my students, even the ones who skip class a lot. But this year I have been teaching in a completely online, asynchronous mode. I haven’t met any of my students in person. I never met Jeet.
Jeet died on Sunday, March 28. His third paper for our class was due Friday, March 26 at 11 p.m. He submitted the paper online at 10:25 p.m., 35 minutes before it was due. I suspect it was the last assignment he completed at Norwich. I imagine him hitting the “Submit” button, leaning back, feeling satisfied that he had completed this small but significant task, and knowing that it was a good paper. And it was a good paper.
I learned that Jeet died on Sunday, March 28 at 2:42 p.m. The email I received shows the time stamp. I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear of Jeet’s death. Even though I didn’t know him, I knew him to be a good student from all he had done in our class. I went to my computer to see if he had submitted his paper. He had. I looked at it quickly, searching for anything out of the ordinary. The paper looked normal. I closed it and waited to hear more from the university about his death and what we should do.
As the hours went by, I began grading the other papers that had been submitted. When I downloaded all 39 of them, I knew Jeet’s would be among the files. I couldn’t wait to grade his paper. I knew it didn’t matter now. But it did, to me. Especially because I had never met him.
In this academic year, we owe all of our students the greatest possible attention and focus and feedback that we can give them. They are scattered across the country, working, caring for sick relatives, trying to learn without face-to-face teaching. Jeet was doing that. He submitted his paper on time. I know that because I can see the digital time stamp, even though I don’t know how he would have greeted me when he walked into the classroom or how he would have moved in his seat when he didn’t want me to call on him. His profile picture in emails and discussion forums shows him playing the sousaphone, outdoors, in his gray cadet tunic. The picture is full of personality, but I have been blocked from knowing his. I couldn’t wait to read the paper.
While I was reading the essay just before Jeet’s in the stack, I got a ding. An email came in. It was an automatic message, saying that Jeet had been withdrawn from my class.
His paper was great. In the four short papers students write, I ask them to pick a problem in the world of criminal justice and write about it, using the moral theory of Aristotle, Kant, or Mill. In the previous paper, Jeet had used Kant and Mill to argue for more permissive drug laws in the United States. In this paper, he used Mill to argue for more restrictive drug laws. He was exploring the ways that utilitarianism could be used to argue for opposing positions on an important topic. His papers were in dialogue with each other. He was drawing on his work in criminal justice and learning about philosophy and ethics to think as deeply and broadly as he could about a really important issue in U.S. society.
It was clean, clear, and persuasive. Jeet proofread his paper carefully, used Mill well, and made a convincing argument in favor of restricting access to drugs.
I made some suggestions in track changes and typed conversational comments in the margins. With great papers, that’s how it goes. You find yourself just having a discussion with the student about the topic. All of Jeet’s papers were like that. I wondered if the two of us might have had an exchange in the classroom that left other students rolling their eyes and laughing. “Stop talking about utilitarianism, already!” That has happened before. It’s funnier and more fulfilling than it sounds. I’ve missed it this year.
As I came to the last page, it occurred to me that I didn’t want the conversation to end. I gave the last comment and the grade breakdown as I always do and closed the file. The time stamp on my last comment is 10:03 p.m., Tuesday, March 30. I will think of Jeet playing the sousaphone outdoors in his gray tunic long, long after that.
Daniel A. Morris is an assistant professor in the Philosophy Program. He teaches classes in religion, philosophy, and ethics, and is the advisor to the Debate Club and the co-editor of Voices on Peace and War, a blog curated by the Peace and War Center.