Monthly Archives: January 2009

Wednesday WTF

Because I know he already has fans, I give you this brief update on WTFG’s performance today:

Punctuality today: 50 minutes late to class.
Excuse (provided at the end, not during the 2 minutes he was banging around the room to get to his chair, during which time I didn’t even get a muttered, “sorry”): doing some work for another class.
Response to my comment, “I know you aren’t invested in this class, but don’t you think even for you that’s kind of awful?”: “I would drop, but I need this class.”
Response to my further comment, “If you need it don’t you think you need to be here and do the work?”: silence.

WTFG may have some competition for lulz in the form of Sexist Saul, though. Saul is very earnest, is punctual, tries hard and always writes more than he needs to. It’s not always on topic, but in the face of WTF guy, visible effort gets a lot of kudos.

So today, we read a fairly mild piece by Dave Barry about guys not being all that good at cooking, and we were discussing it when Saul piped up with an “I don’t agree with Women Liberation.” Oh dear. See, it turns out that he doesn’t mind if women are equal and get jobs and stuff, but he can’t be having with a woman in a position of authority over a man. He is one of these dudes who can’t shut up, either. So I am staring at him incredulously, and the girl beside him is making shovelling motions – like, dig yourself in deeper, dude – and the students on the other side of the room are laughing, but he just keeps going. Eventually I say, “So, you have a problem having a female professor?”

This gave him pause. “Let me think about that,” he said. So we went back to talking about other issues, and a few minutes later, up goes Saul’s hand again. “The thing is,” he says, “women are just more emotional than men.” The crowd goes wild. Saul ignores the extreme warning signs in the form of the two burly ethnic guys telling him to “just stop talking.” We have a discussion of what sexism means. As an example, I say “Okay, let’s try substituting another group for women in your statement. Would it be okay to say black people are more emotional than white people?” He has another pause for pondering. We talk about how making blanket statements about groups of people is problematic. It’s a useful conversation, if not exactly what I had planned.

Class moves on to some other topics. Saul comes up to me at the end of class and says, “I got your point about racism, I guess, but what about if I said black people just can’t swim? That’s not racist because it is a scientific fact.”

I am sure you haven’t heard the last from him. He’s oblivious, but I think his horrible attitudes are the result of ignorance rather than assholishness: i.e. there is hope. Oh, and we did establish that in the classroom, I am his boss, and he’s pretty much okay with that.

Still not giving a WTF.

Here’s a little update on WTF Guy from today, in the form of a play in one act.

[WTFG walks in to class 25 minutes late, ipod blaring so loud everyone can hear it, goes to a desk at the back of the computer lab, sits down, turns on computer and then sits for 15 minutes, rocking to his tunes. Meanwhile, the rest of the class carries on with their online grammar exercises. Eventually WTF guy wanders up to the front of the class.]

WTFG [ipod still on, but earphones not in]: So, like, what are we doing?
WL: We are working through the exercises on Sentence Structure on the Online Doohickey associated with your textbook. Oh, and here’s your paper back from last class. I asked you to describe an everyday object. This is a page about how you think people who like to solve Rubik’s Cubes are gay, so it doesn’t really meet the requirements for the assignment.
[WTFG goes and sits down. About 5 minutes pass. He comes back to the front of the class.]
WTFG: What if you don’t have the book?
WL: Me? I have it right here. [Points.]
WTFG: I don’t have my book with me.
WL: So, go get it?
WTFG: I mean I haven’t bought it yet.
[WL gives him a blank stare.]
WTFG: So I guess that means there isn’t anything I can do in class today, right? [Laughs, Beavis and Buttheadly.]
WL: Can I have a word with you outside?
[They go out into the hall.]
WL: Look, you don’t have to be here, you know.
[WTFG stares blankly.]
WL: I mean, you are giving me the strong impression that you don’t want to be here. I am not making you stay. You are an adult. If you don’t want to take this class, don’t. [Goes back inside. A few minutes later WTFG re-enters. Goes to his desk. Sits down. Gets back up again.]
WTFG: So, I guess I should go buy the book then?
WL: You’re a big boy, make up your own mind.
[WTFG leaves the room. Comes back 10 minutes later, notably without textbook. Goes to his desk. Sits down. Gets up. Leaves again. Comes back 10 minutes later, notably without textbook, but with ipod blaring loudly. Sits down. Stares at screen until just before the end of class.]

That’s okay, don’t pay attention.

No, I am not sitting in some dark corner experiencing an emo fugue state, it’s just that I have this student. Let’s call him What the Fuck Guy, or WTFG for short. He is in what is politely called my Introductory Comp course, where “Introductory” is a word that means “Remedial”. Needless to say, guys who get put in Remedial Comp get put there for a reason, which is that they don’t meet the prerequisites for Regular Comp. These prerequisites, by the way, are not onerous: can you tie your shoes? can you wipe your ass? can you spell your own name? That kind of thing.

So, he’s in Remedial Comp, it’s week 3 of semester and I already know him as the guy who is habitually late, who wears his ipod all the time. I am not quite at the level of yanking his earphones out, but his work definitely shows that he doesn’t hear instructions very well.

Yesterday, I went into class and there were a few puddings with laptops open, doing what they always do, which is Facebook. (As an aside, I hear that Facebook is “so 2008” and all the cool kids are now exclusively on Twitter, which I tried for like a day last summer and dumped because it was annoying.) So, I ask them to put the laptops away because they are doing some hand writing – I know! What a ridiculously old-fashioned idea! Mostly, they comply, although WTFG takes until I have explained the task and the rest of them are already well into doing it to get around to shutting the damned laptop.

The second thing we did in class was a discussion, during which WTFG put his ipod earphone in, presumably listening both to me and Celine Dion.

Then we did an activity sheet related to the discussion. We went through the answers. Every time I said anything like “put your hand up if you answered X,” WTFG was noticeably handless, sitting sideways on his chair, rather than looking at his paper.

Finally, we had a group discussion activity, after which, groups were supposed to report back. By this point, I was feeling less than charitable towards WTFG, I admit, so I did a mean thing. I called on him to be the person to report his group’s answer to one of their discussion questions.

His response? “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.”

Well I knew that, genius. The thing that got me was not that he wasn’t paying attention, but that he thought it was fine to say that. Jeebus dude. At least have the grace to lie. Go with a “we didn’t get to that one” or a “we couldn’t figure out the answer.”

I just about prevented my jaw from dropping, but I couldn’t for the life of me stop my body, of its own volition, from turning my back on him.

The new Bartleby – “It’s a policy”.

Since you are all erudite and well-read, Gentle Readers, I know you are familiar with Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Shall I risk insulting the sensibities of the intelligensia amongst you with a recap and a quote? I shall, of course, as I am unable to restrain my English Professor self.

So, in “Bartleby,” Melville has this narrator who claims to be a very busy and important lawyer, but his employees are all hilariously bad – there’s Turkey, who only works until lunch, when he gets drunk, and his counterpart, Nippers, who is a martyr to indigestion, and thus never does anything useful in the morning. These guys are dreadful enough, but then the lawyer hires Bartleby, who makes them look like paragons.

At first, Bartleby is an apparently productive employee, but then his boss makes the fatal mistake of asking him to produce some work quickly – this is a lawyer’s office, in the days before photocopiers, after all.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating
what it was I wanted him to do–namely, to examine a small paper with
me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving
from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I
would prefer not to.”

Bartleby’s preferring not to escalates, as he passively refuses more and more things; he prefers not to work, but when he is fired he prefers not to leave the premises. He never says no, just states his preference, in a monument to what I suppose post-modern sensibility would call passive-aggression. His refusals are all the more powerful for being unstated.

The story is full of subtle irony and humour, which I found pleasantly surprising when I read it, my experience wading through Moby Dick as an undergraduate not leaving me with high expectations for Melville’s readability. The bit where the lawyer is confronted by the new tenant after he moves office to get away from Bartleby is laugh out loud funny, in a restrained 19th century way. If you need to refresh your memory of it (hur), those angels of e-text at Project Gutenberg have it available.

Today’s tale arises from the Bartelby-esque (or perhaps Bartlebian) behaviour of that monolith of higher education, the unnamed beaurocrats who invent stupid-ass rules which are placed under the umbrella term “policy”. It also leads me to the conclusion that if I had been in Melville’s story, I would have punched the original Bartleby in the face.

Here, then, is the scenario. Our Department, in its wisdom, has generated, at the expense of hours of faulty committee time arguing over comma placement, and the nature of the examples, and Roberts Rules of Order, a number of documents, which we might call academic policies, procedures and standards. Two of these documents explain in detail what our expectations are with regard to written expression and citation, others are generic descriptions that apply to specific courses. All well and good. I admire these documents, especially since I know how much effort it took to produce them.

Up until now, these documents were distributed to students in what we might, I suppose, describe as the “old fashioned” medium of print on paper, although it wasn’t handwritten by recalicitrant clerks, but rather mass-produced by that technological wonder, the photocopier. Ah, but then someone noticed that photocopying and distributing umpteen thousand copies of a handout every semester was costing quite a lot of money. Not to mention the trees. So, it was decided that we would distribute these items to students “electronically,” which sounds not only economic, but technology-forward. Like we were hip, cutting edge and internets-savvy.

This would be all very well, except 90% of my colleagues are about as internets-savvy as a stale donut. And then there’s the issue of what, exactly, electronic distribution means. Pointing students to a web site that has these documents on it? Well, that might work. How about the library? Well, that’s a possibility, except that a) the library website is  a dog to navigate, and it is programmed by illiterate monkeys who will, naturally, when you give them 2 documents to link, link Document A with text entitled “Document B” and vice versa.

What about Blackboard, then? Don’t get me started. Or the Departmental website? I mean, we have this web space on the institution’s site, and it looks all official, and even says “English Department.” What better place to put  documents outlining rules and expectations for students in order to make them look official and enforceable?

Gentle Reader, your naive optimism makes me laugh. For as long as I can remember, which okay, is pretty much 2 years in the case of Faculty Meetings, on account of the mind-numbingness of them, this action has been suggested. No one disagrees with the idea in principle. Yes, we have a site. Yes, official departmental documents would seem to be the kind of thing that ought to go on the site. Can we do that then? Eventually.

Yesterday, at a meeting in which all of this was rehashed yet again, it fell to me to be the person to make the request to Bartleby, who in this case is represented by our Associate Head of Department. The Committee, said I, has asked me, in light of the fact that we are not printing these handouts anymore, and in light of the fact that the ones on the library website are FUBAR, to ask if we can have them on our website. It is a job of as much as 10 minutes, and in view of that, I am even volunteering my own precious time to accomplish this Herculean task. Point me, I said, in the direction of a password, and all shall be accomplished.

You know what happened. I encountered Bartleby, who now hides behind “policy” to express his preference, but the passive resistance is exactly the same.

There are plans, to put this information on the site, “eventually,” but there are problems, at a policy level, with the “content management system”. Moreover, while Faculty may determine what content is put on the site, it is against policy to allow faculty access to the site. Implementation is tightly controlled, although, obviously, the implementers don’t have any control over content, because that has to be determined by faculty, through a process which is shrouded in mystery.

It’s astounding, and frustrating, and naturally one’s first reaction is to fly into the kind of rage that is expressed by profanity and foaming at the mouth, but the genius of Bartleby, as Melville points out, is that none of this has any effect.

“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.
“You are decided, then, not to comply with my request—a request made according to common usage and common sense?”
He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: his decision was irreversible.

Like the lawyer in the story, then, I am stymied. No effort on my part will make Bartleby so much as dream of admitting that 2 years is an unconscionable amount of time to wait for a task that can be completed in 10 minutes. I will resort to working around the problem because in the face of his preferences, common sense and I are powerless.

A Grabbag from my Email Inbox.

So, semester started, which means I already have a series of hilarious emails from assorted snowflakes, which I am of course willing to share, for the lulz.

First, we have the common or garden “I am going to miss the first 3 classes because I will be still on vacay in Mexico with my parents” email. This one never ceases to appall me, even though I get at least one a semester. There are a couple of things that make this kind of email elicit a WTF response. One, of course, is that the dates of the start of semester are not secret, and so what kind of parents are these, who jeopardise their child’s academic success for the transient enjoyment of some kind of hedonistic beach vacation, during which, odds are, family members bicker constantly, possibly even about Junior’s grades last semester? Two is, why do these morons think telling me they are lying on the beach is somehow something I want to know? I am slaving away getting up before the crack of dawn in order to hand out course outlines to slack-jawed yokels who will lose them by next week. Don’t you think I want to be lying on a beach somewhere drinking margaritas?

The next email, or “eamil” comes from a dude who is clearly in the right place in English for the Backward, but needs all the class time he can get, couch or no couch. I quote, for your delectation.

Hi my name is Flakky Snowflak. I’m in your class on mondays and wensdays.
I will be in class this monday but im going to  miss tomrrow becuase
i’m sick and I can’t stop couching. Please eamil me the course outline
and any homework you assin tomrrow.
my eamil is

He’s polite, I will give him that; most of them don’t say “please”.

Finally we have the email from the student who thinks I am incompetent. Already! Some background: there’s this software, possibly designed by a committee of Hell’s least competent demons, called “Blackboard”. It is “Courseware,” whatever the hell that means, and its supposed use is that it has a series of functions to support academics who are teaching at post secondary level. The word “supposed” here is key.

An example of Blackboard’s functionality I experienced just this week, when I contacted the teaching support goon at our institution:

Me: So, hey, I had this hip and groovy idea to do a short weekly podcast for my students, you know, announcements, things they missed, stuff like that.
Goon: That sounds very technology-forward of you.
Me: So can I do that in Blackboard at all?
Goon: Theoretically, you should be able to, but we are finding that the RSS feature doesn’t actually work very well.
Me: What does that mean, exactly? As in, with regard to implementing my idea?
Goon: Well, you can upload the mp3s to Blackboard, and then you can email your students and tell them to download the mp3 and figure out how to play it.
Me: [stabbing self in back of hand with plastic fork I am using to eat my lunch] Kthxbai.

It is experiences like this, along with the fact that the parts of it that do work annoy the hell out of me (like the gradebook. Do I want my grade-grubbing students to be able to see their marks to 2 decimal places at any hour of the day or night so they can come bug me about them? I do not) that have caused me to abandon the use of Blackboard, in favour of a nice simple blog where I post helpful information and links. No, not this blog, gentle readers; I laugh heartily at your pleasantry.

I explain this whole blog business to my students at great length, putting the blog address on their course outline, showing it to them in the first class, and linking to it from their college computer account thingummies. I say, “I do not like Blackboard; I will not use it, Sam I am,” incorporating jokes, dance moves and music to reinforce the message. Despite this, I get emails like the following, and no doubt will continue to get them throughout the semester.

I was looking on blackboard and it doesn’t list english 18th literature
as one of my classes on the right side. Should I contact someone to fix it?

The thing I really like about this is the snotty undertone, with its suggestion that somehow the student has more authority to get my course sorted out than I do. I offer you here my fantasy response, since in real life, I can’t put in the swears.

Dear Snotty McSnotterson,
Did you come to the first class before you decided to micromanage me? Your question indicates either that you are too stupid to understand plain English, even when a statement is repeated 3 times, twice orally and once in writing, or you an arrogant bitch who is emailing me with complaints about the way I decide to run my course without even bothering to attend a class. Either way, fuck right off.

Man, that felt good.

Back to responding to the emails about whether I will be attending “Meet a Prof” night at the pub – god, no; whether I prefer a 10am or an 8am meeting – duh; and whether I can manage without my textbooks for a couple of days because they are lost in the mail, or fell off the truck or something – experience having been a harsh mistress in this department, the answer is, yes, because I now routinely assume my students won’t have texts until week 3 of semester.