Monthly Archives: February 2010

A post for Alison

We’ve been having this interesting back and forth in the comments on my post ranting about how to deal with learning disabilities in Higher Education, and I said something about Learning Styles and Alison asked for a link, and I thought, I don’t have a link, but here, let me expound a bit.

Are you listening carefully? Then I will begin.

First, a bit of personal background. As a postgrad student in English, I did a bit of editing and tutoring, and this eventually led to a job that was in a Learning Skills Unit in a Science faculty, ostensibly teaching senior students in Agriculture and Psychology how to write essays, but more often than not, just editing drafts for them.

I had an absolutely awesome colleague and mentor in that job, who wanted to do more than just edit student essays, so she found a job at a different university, where the staff in the Learning Skills Unit were looking at student learning as something that needed to be supported and developed more creatively, and eventually she got me a job there, too.

There were bad things about that job, but one of the good things was a huge focus on professional development, learning about teaching and learning in a variety of ways, and one of the things we did was look at the MBTI (here’s a sample test, if you have never done one), and at learning styles, and in particular, Kolb’s approach to learning styles.

Let me pause here and say I know there are problems with the MBTI, and with learning styles tests and categorization, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and in particular, I found that it gave me a blinding epiphany, which was that not everyone processes information (ie learns) in the same way.

Yes, I can hear you all going “DUH”, but here’s the thing – I think my experience as a student is pretty typical of a lot of academics. I was a good student; I enjoyed learning; I tested well, and it wasn’t ever particularly difficult for me to learn stuff. Because I did well, I never had a moment when I had to evaluate how I learned (just like you don’t ask how your computer works until it fails to function), and I had never thought about learning as a process that might differ from one person to the next. I also know I wasn’t the only person to have this reaction, because after we learned this stuff in professional development sessions, we shared it with faculty, who also talked about it being a revelation.

So, what, then, did I learn from Kolb and the MBTI? Let me sum it up for you; you can go read Kolb’s books, if you are interested in more info, and there are some online sites that talk about him, even if they do tend to be off-puttingly business-oriented.

Essentially, Kolb says, learning is a process that has different steps, or stages, but it isn’t a linear sequence. He defines 4 categories of these steps, and we can argue about whether this is a good number, but for a working model, it’s okay. So, according to Kolb, there are these 4 processes:

  • experiencing things – feeling
  • reflecting on things – watching
  • coming up with ideas – thinking
  • experimenting with ideas – doing

Some people say, well, you do those in that order, but in fact, you can enter the cycle at any point, which is why Kolb diagrammed the process in a circle, rather than just as a list. His diagram had them working in only one direction, but I think, actually, it can happen in any order, so my circle (demonstrating my dire paint skills) has arrows on both ends.

(Awesome, eh?)

Okay, so we have these 4 learning processes, and the key issue to understanding learning styles is to understand that people have different levels of comfort with these different processes. In order to learn thoroughly, Kolb argues, you have to do all 4 things, but each of us will do them with a different level of emphasis: some people prefer to learn by experience and experimentation more than thinking, others prefer to reflect for a long time before trying out new knowledge, and so on.

The next step in understanding this idea is to look at these 4 processes as a set of oppositional pairs. Thinking and feeling are opposites on one axis, and doing and watching are opposites on another axis. The idea here is to codify which processes you prefer, in order to present a learning profile. (I made a test for this, but it is not in a high-tech electronic version. I should really get on that.

It is important to remember that this graph (and the idea of the categories generally, too) represents a range of behaviour, so of course, you can have people who tend more or less strongly in one direction or the other.

NB: for those of you playing along at home, you can see that thinking and feeling relate to the T/F divide in your MBTI, too. The doing and watching line relates loosely to N/S in the MBTI. Additionally, if you imagine diagonal lines (like an X) bisecting the diagram, you can roughly equate the / as being an I/E divide (Face-planters are nearly all Extroverts, while Eggheads are introverts, and the other two groups have both types); and the \ similarly presents a P/J divide.

Kolb made up these really abstruse titles for the 4 types of learners, which I think make NO sense to most people. Let me try to explain them in a more accessible way, and with another awesome display of paint skills.

(Note that in this diagram, the groups adjacent to each other have elements in common, while those diagonally opposite do not; so Cynics and Procrastinators may find it more difficult to understand each other, while Cynics and Eggheads may have some approaches in common, and so on.)

So, we have 4 groups:

  • Feeling Doers (ooh, er, sounds a bit rude), whom we can call Activists, or Keeners, or Jump in Feet Firsters, or even Faceplanters. These are the people who learn through trying things out. They are feelers rather than thinkers, which means they also tend to be extroverts (MBTI E-types), and that means they love to chat as they learn. Group work works really well for them as a learning strategy, especially if it is group work with an activity. They are often really good at running meetings. Their weakness is that they may zoom through the task and miss the embedded principle they were meant to learn, unless the teacher adequately debriefs the activity, or includes an item asking “What did you learn?” in the task. This group is usually the largest when I test my whole class, about which, more later.
  • Watching Feelers (even worse!), whom we can call Reflectors, or Procrastinators, or, when things go badly for the Faceplanters, the Point-and-Laughers. These are people who prefer their experiential learning to come in the form of watching others. They like to observe others, and often, given time to ponder what they seen, are those really useful people who can come in and say “okay, here is what you did and this is the main problem”. Although they tend to prefer to observe, they aren’t necessarily introverts, and since they tend to rely on feeling, they can be very intuitive and have good people skills (N as opposed to S on the MBTI). Their weakness is likely to be procrastination, since they will wait until something is “finished” before pulling their ideas about it together.
  • Thinking Watchers, whom we can call Theorists, or Nerds, or Eggheads. These are your stereotypical philosopher types, who like to think about ideas, and are always happy to geek out on the most arcane points of knowledge in whatever field interests them. They like to work with ideas and hypotheticals, and prefer conceptual learning – these are people who read manuals before they try a new computer game, for instance. They are more likely to pursue things that interest them (which can be a strength or a weakness because they get trapped in tangents instead of doing the assignment). They hate group work, and can be really uncomfortable in situations that require, for example, talking about their feelings. They are happiest with a “traditional” type of learning environment, you know, the kind we are so often encouraged to get away from nowadays. This learning type is also the most likely to question the validity of the learning styles test (trufax).
  • Doing Thinkers, whom we can call Pragmatists, or Cynics, or Business Majors (srsly, the only students I ever get of this learning type are in Business, which does make sense if you think about it). These are people whose learning is very purpose-driven, and who see value in education only if there is a specific goal. I actually have a theory that a lot of people who have this learning style probably don’t go to college because they don’t see the point of it. They are great at figuring out shortcuts, and the most direct way to achieve a specific goal they are given, but they conversely hate it when they are given tasks that are nebulous or have unclear goals. They always want to know if this thing is going to be on the test, and they are also very keen on feedback. Their weakness is a lack of patience with the system, and the fact that they can get such tunnel vision about only studying for the exam that they miss the broader picture.

So, where does all this get us? Is having a label helpful? Well, maybe.

For me, this is a tool to approach understanding how you learn, and why some things are really really hard, and others are easy. As a personal example, since I am an Egghead, I find learning tasks that start at the feeling or doing point on the cycle make me tense and annoyed.  I used to hate science and math being taught this way – one exercise I remember is having homework which asked me to measure the perimeter and diameter of a bunch of circular stuff, in order to work through equations to derive pi from first principles. This made me really, really irritated until my mother said “this is trying to get you to derive pi,” and then I was like “Oh, CHUH.” Now, this was probably a great learning activity for the kids who like to experiment and do stuff in order to figure it out, but I prefer to learn concepts first. Neither approach necessarily has merit over the other; the issue is that I found a simple task difficult because it was forcing me to learn in an uncomfortable way.

At the time, I didn’t understand this, of course. Understanding it gives me an ability as an individual learner to make choices about how I approach material. If I am presented with a situation where someone wants me to learn by doing, I can recognise that I am going to hate it and choose to suck it up, or perhaps to try to modify the task in some way to make it more palatable. I don’t think learning style ever ought to be an excuse not to learn, as in “Oh, I can’t learn by going to lectures, so I won’t” or whatever. Kolb emphasised doing all 4 things in order to really learn information, anyway.

As a teacher, I think it is valuable to know how you learn and how that stacks up against the majority of students, and this is where it can be absolutely key. A lot of academics are Eggheads. That is, they learn really well from having concepts explained to them first, as in lectures, and then they take those concepts and apply them. So they teach that way. But student populations have really changed in the last, say, 20 years, in part because primary and secondary education has started to focus on enquiry-based learning and other strategies that train students to learn by doing, and so tons of students, are Feet-Firsters. (There’s an issue here about whether learning style is nature or nurture – I think it is partly innate, but you can definitely shape it, especially in little kids, and current trends in primary and secondary education really select against thinkers, which IS a change.)

So it’s not unusual in a classroom to have a teacher who has always been a thinking/reflecting learner and students who are her polar opposite because most of them are experimenting/doing types. They think she’s a longwinded bore, or as Alison so eloquently put it “eccentric and emo”; she thinks they are dumbasses. Which is not to say they are not dumbasses and she is not a bore, but learning style may be exacerbating the problem.

On the other hand, if as a teacher I have some awareness of this (and in some classes, where there is time, and where it is relevant, I will test the class and get them to plot their results on the board so we can all see the distribution and where we are coming from), I can at least try to design some of the tasks in my classroom to appeal to a variety of learning styles. What I tend to do is give specific tasks as group work in class, and to limit the amount of time I just spend boring on about stuff. It depends on the specific class how well this works, of course.

In my comp classes, I try to take the time to get students to do the test and then talk about what it means in terms of how they learn (and write) comfortably, and how to approach “difficult” tasks. When I was working in Learning Skills, we ran workshops on this stuff for students, and I would love for it to be a regular part of a post-secondary student’s life. University ought to be about students understanding and taking charge of their own learning, after all. Most of the bitching I (and others) do about snowflakery is related to the fact that students want an individualised learning experience, but they see it as the responsibility of others to make that happen. To be fair, I don’t think most students have the tools to figure out how they learn and how to adapt the tasks they have to do to help them learn most effectively and efficiently. Professors may lack the time, the inclination and/or the tools to do anything about this.

The “broken” ones, the ones with diagnosed learning disabilities, are, perhaps perversely, the most likely to have at least encountered some of these concepts in the course of being tested and diagnosed, but that process is about diagnosis, not necessarily about learning how to learn.

And here I come full circle to my frustration about students with learning disabilities and the idea that their diagnoses ought to be kept secret from their professors, and shared only with a disability support person. I know what I am trying to teach. I know what the learning outcomes are, and what a student needs in terms of skills and knowledge to do well. I’ve got some idea about strategies to help them learn, and if I could sit them down and test them and have a conversation about learning style, I could even hone those more specifically to help the individual student. BUT. Students with learning disabilities are told that information about the way they learn and their specific challenges are private, and that I am in no position to comment on their learning in any useful way. I hate that our interaction on this topic is reduced to “Can I have extra time on exams?” and “Okay,” but privacy laws mean my hands are tied.

Metacognition is a wanky word, but it is also, I think, key to changing the weather in academic institutions. If I give my snowflakes the tools to customise their learning experiences, is that a way to actually disassemble the entitlement? Is it as simple as making students able to take control, or will they just hand the responsibility back to me and say, “I want to be in the section for to Reflectors with Red Hair”?

FYCL #23 – My Dubious Valentine

Gushing enthusiasm about Victorian social history, advising on how to enrage a Creative Anachronism person (mind the sword), venting about Google Buzz, pointing and lauging at Esquire and wounded masculinity in Superbowl ads, and failing utterly at finding a dubious sex toy for V-Day.

FYCL #23, if you are still doing the old-fashioned-y downloading of each episode, rather than subscribing with our shiny new rss or via iTunes.


Closing music was “I Enjoy Being a Girl” because it was clearly what those chaps at Esquire were listening to.

A reminder: although only the most recent 3 episodes are live in iTunes, you can always access back episodes of FYCL in our archive at

Got a question or a comment? Leave it here, email us at fyclpodder at gmail dot com, or come join our FaceBook group.

Uncharacteristically upbeat.

I have a good class this semester. There, I said it.

A couple of weeks ago, we read Italo Calvino’s story “Meiosis” which is an exercise in messing up reader expectations, and so we were talking about re-reading. The issue that sparked this was the question “Is a story which is essentially a mindfuck any good the second time, when you are aware of the mindfuckery?” (Not giving any more detail, since I do not wish to spoil the story for anyone who has not read it; if you haven’t, you totally should.)

So we were talking about reading as the sum of the textual experiences you bring to the text, and then I asked what I thought might be a harmless question, viz. “Have you ever read something you liked, and then hated it on second reading?” and one student said Twilight, and all hell broke loose, but in a good way. We spent the rest of the class discussing Twilight (which I have not read, but I can still totally discuss it), which was not the plan, but it was a great learning experience.

Not that this is a class of angels, by any stretch. This week is Heart of Darkness, and there was a notable lack of enthusiasm in class on Wednesday. I let them go early and told them to finish their darn reading by today, and we would tackle it again.

There’s an exercise I like to do with a class when there is reading that is hard, which is to give them 15 minutes at the start of class to write any questions they have about it on the board. I give them this instruction, and then I leave the room and let them get on with it. The leaving the room is key, because I find that students often have questions they think are stupid and they may be reluctant to ask them when you are looking. Writing your stupid question anonymously (or at least not in front of the prof) is easier, somehow.

So this morning, this is what I did, and I was absolutely astonished to find that before I left the room, one student had said “let’s be systematic about this,” and another one had agreed, and a third was calling for the best speller in the class to stand up and do the writing on the board. This has never happened before.

So I went and grabbed a coffee and came back, and there were a score of really good questions on the board, and the rest of the class was an energetic and intelligent discussion.

Awesome. Sometimes my job is really cool.

Also, I got to give them Howard Felperin’s awesome explanation of how Kurtz’s last words really might have been the Intended’s name, if Kurtz was speaking French, which is always good for a giggle.

Quick update and some social media comments.

The complainer from Monday came to see me (twice!) about her essay, and had perfectly pleasant interactions with me with nary a peep about whatever it was that she found so offensitive last week.

So I am bewildered. I asked my Chair, and he said she hadn’t been to see him either. I have no idea if this is a thing which has slunk quietly away, or a thing which is hiding in the bushes to pounce.

King of Flakes is very, very quiet. I think this might be because after my yelling about how much they sucked last week, my students actually lifted their game, and the presentations on Wednesday were truly awesome. KoF was probably too busy peeing his pants to think of anything to say.

In other news, I am actually using the Twitter quite a bit, if you want to follow me and see me doing daring shit like teasing John Dickerson.

Do you have gmail? Google Buzz seems to have merrily doxed everyone and assumed that you want everyone you email to know who else you email. (I wonder how many adulterers got busted yesterday and today?) I spent a bit of time today shutting it down on my personal accounts, with the help of this article.

Can I just have a quick rant here and say, I blog anonymously for obvious reasons. I have separate home and work email, and I don’t want students who google me to find a profile of me from google that tells them personal stuff about them like I spend a lot of time talking about Dubious Sex Toys. They do not need to know that. I prefer it that when they google my power word they find a few, very dull things about me.

Unlike that creepy guy on RYS who stalks his students on Facebook, I have no interest in their personal lives, and I want to discourage any reciprocal curiosity.

I work hard to make sure that I am not very interesting to google; I love it that I am helped by having the same name as an equally dull nursing prof in another country, and some nice lady from Nebraska. Let me keep my business my business, google.

I did leave Buzz on for the fyclpodder at gmail dot com address, if you want to blast us a quick comment or link, but we don’t check it nearly as often as we do our Facebook group. Of course, this may change, if everyone drops Facebook for Buzz, as the media pundits are predicting.

Edit: Okay, weh, weh, weh, I’ve been whining about a minor inconvenience, but there are some people for whom the sharing of email contacts means a serious risk of physical harm. Shame, google. Shame.

Monday Mayhem

It’s Monday. Unusually for the weather here in the Armpit of Canada, instead of being fucking cold and sunny (bearable), it is overcast, foggy and frosty. While this means the temperature is slightly warmer than brass monkeys, it feels colder. The dull greyness is making people irritable, and, apparently, bringing out the crazy.

Do tell, I hear you say. I have four instances of nonsense today.

Nonsense the first. A student who has been to only 2 or 3 other classes this semester turns up, collects her essay, and then is irritated that she failed. I have to meet with her immediately to explain myself. “Well,” I say, “you have written a plot summary rather than an essay; you have no supporting quotes, and no MLA citation. We went over this a lot in class.”

Actually, I did this new thing where I spent about 10-15 minutes in 5 classes on specific things I wanted to see in student essays, and the vast majority of students actually managed to follow directions. Of course, they went to class.

Little Miss Absent pouts. I try the direct approach. “You have been to 3 classes, 4 tops this semester, right?” She grudgingly admits that this is so. “It seems to me that you don’t really want to be in this class. You don’t seem invested.” She replies, “I DON’T want to be in this class,” and stomps out.

I foolishly assume this is case closed until later in the day when my Chair calls me into his office and asks what was up with the student who got the F. “I asked her if she had quotes and citation in her essay, and she said no,” he says. I ask if she also told him she has only been to 3 classes out of 17. “No, she didn’t mention that”. She asked, instead, to change sections. Because clearly some other professor is going to be happy to have such a dedicated student turn up half way through the semester.

Nonsense the second. The Cheater from Friday is back with a bigger apology. She wants to apologize more. I thank her, but before she can go any further, I tell her I have already mailed the report to the Cheater Police. She sits for a minute or so, trying to get some tears going, and then storms out.

I later hear that she has been down to the Cheater Police to pre-emptively complain about my injustice. Apparently she asked them if giving an F on the course for the first instance of plagiarism was not too harsh. The Cheater Police, who are diplomats, say it seems rather unusual, but that they need to have more detail on the circumstances. I say “Five assignments,” to the Chief, and she says, “Well, that certainly puts a different light on it.”

Nonsense the third. My chair, while talking to me about Little Miss Absent says some other student wants to complain to him about me. I assume it is Friday’s Cheater, but he says no, it is someone who is complaining that I attacked and humiliated her in class. When was this? (See, I do it so much that I can’t be expected to remember every instance.) Apparently it was during a class last week about medieval women. The only thing I remember from this class is some nice discussion, so I have no idea what he is talking about, except that there was one student who said something wacky about breweries, and I said that her opinion might not have been entirely fact-based. “She hasn’t talked to you?” he asked. “Nope.” Stay tuned for updates.

Nonsense the fourth. In Children’s Lit today we were talking about Fairy Tales in general, with Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel as a specific example. There was a lot of quite thoughtful discussion of adult themes in Fairy Tales (pregnancy, death, kidnapping, getting blinded by falling out of a tower, wolves as seducers, that kind of thing), and I was talking about whether one of the reasons we as a culture still like to read them is that they let us explore deep-seated fears and cultural taboos. This is about as Freudian as I get, but it’s pretty hard to discuss Rapunzel, with the locking up of the girl in the giant tower shaped like a penis, without at least a nod to psychological interpretation.

If you see what I mean.

There’s some giggling, but generally the students take it reasonably seriously and we have a good discussion. Until just before the end of class, when King of Flakes puts his hand up and says, “So what you are saying is that this is a story encouraging children to have sex. I don’t get it. This is not a good moral for a story.”

How was your Monday?

Another perfectly good life ruined.

Hot on the heels of the King of Flakes, I have a new saga.

So, the other day, I am marking essays, as is my wont. And I come to this essay written by a student who attends class but doesn’t talk, except to the girl she sits next to. Her work so far has been fine, so I figure the not-talking in class is just shyness. It happens.

This essay is okay, but there’s something a little off about it, because it is written in this weird directive voice. “You should note 3 things about the theme of the story,” which, we have talked about in class as being not the way to go about writing an interpretation. It kind of sounds like a middle-school teacher explaining the story with a “here is the correct answer” type of approach, rather than a student saying “here is my interpretation”.

Now, the student has previously handed in short assignments which were better written, so now I am confused, and I decide to give the old google a whirl, just to see what happens.

After an intensive search lasting an exhausting 30 seconds, I find that half the essay is the product of an answer (by someone identified as a teacher, oddly enough), on enotes. A further 30 second search finds the second half of the essay in another enotes answer.

The entire essay is 700 words long, 670 words of which are written by these two people on enotes. There’s been absolutely no attempt to disguise this at all; no rewording, no cunning insertion of the student’s own ideas. At least she made sure the font was all the same. Total time the student took to “write” the essay, I would estimate at 10 minutes, including the amount of time it would have taken her to format it, and do the Work Cited (which, I note, contains no reference at all to enotes).

I go home and have a few stiff drinks. I admit it. Where is that WinePal button I keep meaning to install on here?

The following morning before class, just out of curiosity, I google the 2 mini-assignments the student handed in that I have not yet returned, and one she emailed me a couple of weeks ago, that I still have in electronic form. All three of them are plagiarized in the same way – copied and pasted from internet “help” sites; one of which appears to be pay per view only.

Why didn’t I google prior to this? Well, I had no reason to suspect. Who plagiarizes a 200 word mini-assignment worth 1%? How is that a good risk?

Anyway, I go off to class and tell the students matter-of–factly that I am not handing back essays in class because  I have caught a cheater, who needs to come and confess his/her cheaterly crimes (the Sarcastic Bastard gambit). I vary it slightly, telling them they can come get their essays from me in person because I want them to look me in the eye and say they didn’t cheat.

A few of them troop upstairs, including Miss Cheater, who looks me in the eye and says “can I have my essay back?” Fixing her with a steely glare, I ask, “is that all?” “Yes”. I ask her to wait outside until all the others have their work back. She does this, making sure to whisper to her friend about me before she comes back into the room.

“So, let’s start again, did you write this essay?” I ask, and “oh, yes” is the reply. “Oh, really? How is it, then, that all these parts I have helpfully highlighted match these things from the web I have printed out and helpfully highlighted?” This of course, is the preamble to a shitload of rigamarole.

First, it can’t possibly be true. Oh ho. It just so happens that the student has handed in another mini-assignment that day. I ask if I google it, right there in front of her, will I find that it is also plagiarized? She says that it is her own work, and I can google it “if I like”. I do like, and again, after 60 seconds of exhaustive searching, up it pops. She seems surprised. I cannot work out if she is a terrific actress or a terrific idiot.

I ask her if she understands the concept that she has used in the opening sentence of the assignment. She stumbles around, clearly unable to explain the idea. I ask again, “did you write this yourself, or did you copy it from the internet?”

At this point, which is the 5th time of asking, the student finally admits that she did use enotes for “some” of the essay. She also tells me she is an Engineering student, and better at math than English. “Okay, so, as someone who is good at math, can you tell me what percentage 30 words is out of 700?” She declines to do so, and instead goes to gambit #2 repeated apologies and promises not to do it again.

I indicate that we have gone beyond the point where apologies are a remedy. Her next move is the “it was an mistake,” which really pushes me over the edge, and so I then submit to her exhibits B, C, D and E. (This, along with the piece I just googled does indeed make FIVE, instances of plagiarism). Once is a mistake; 5 times is a concerted pattern of behaviour. This triggers approach #4: tears. Yes, yes, it is very sad. She “didn’t mean to do it” and “will never do it again.”

She then offers to redo all the work. Good God, no. I point out that that isn’t really an appropriate remedy. “Did you know this was wrong when you did it?” I ask. Okay, so this next bit is pretty unbelievable, but I SWARE it is true. She says “Oh, yes, you talked about it in class on the first day.” Got that? She knew it was wrong, but she did it. FIVE TIMES.

I boggle, and then recover enough to ask the obvious question. “If you knew it was wrong, why did you do it, so many times?” She says it is because she is taking a lot of classes and is pressed for time. That’s it. Needed to cut a corner, and mine was the one she picked. This is because, she says, she never wanted to do this class with all of its reading, but at least it wasn’t a History class. O-kay.

All of the conversation up to this point has been devised in order to help me decide the size of the book I am going to throw at her. Immediate, voluntary confession would have helped her, as would any kind of statement indicating confusion about what she did or her reasons for it; failure to insult my discipline might also have been helpful. So at this point my decision about the book is, we are going the full OED.

I explain my position, and then we go round and around and around on the subject. Let me give you some flavour, and you have to imagine that all of the student’s utterances are punctuated by tears and mutterings of “Oh, my god, oh my god.”

Me: I am going to give you zero for all these assignments, and on the report I am about to send to the Plagiarism Police, I am recommending that you get an F for the course.
(This, of course opens the floodgates.)
Cheater: No, no, no! You will ruin my GPA.
Me: How am I ruining your GPA? By catching you cheating?
Cheater: You will ruin my life! You have to understand that!
Me: I hope you are not trying to make me feel guilty over something you did wrong.
Cheater: It was a mistake!
Me: I agree it was an error in judgment, but if by mistake you mean “accident”, then I don’t think that is true.
Cheater: Yes! It was an accident!
Me: Once is an accident. Five times is a seriously bad idea.
Cheater: Let me do the assignments over! You should have warned me! You didn’t warn me!
Me: You just admitted I did warn you on the first day of class not to cheat. Plus, it is in your course outline: “All work submitted must be your own”. How many warnings do you need?
Cheater: You don’t have to report me. Let’s just keep it to ourselves. I promise not to cheat any more.
Me: So, having been dishonest, you are now trying to get me to collude in being dishonest? I am obliged to report you if I catch you.
Cheater: You will ruin my GPA!
Me: Well, you did a bad thing. You need to realize that there are consequences.
Cheater: What do I do now? What if I did the assignments over?
Me: That’s not an option.
Cheater: But I need a good GPA to get into the Engineering Program.
Me: Yeah, about that. I don’t think they want students who plagiarize.
Cheater: They don’t care about that! You don’t have to do good in writing to be an Engineer! You are ruining my life!

And so on. I filled out the report, got her to sign it, explained her options, and went over the issue at least half a dozen times. It took an hour to make it clear to her there wasn’t any way out, and I really do think this was the very first time she had ever been in that situation. It does, on one level, make me deeply sorry for Generation Snow: no one ever says no, or makes sure actions have consequences, until it’s too late, and the poor little flake is in Ruined My Life territory.

Eventually I got her to leave, still sobbing and OMGing.

Professor Birkenstock, who had been shamelessly eavesdropping from across the hall came over to tell me that it had been a masterful conversation. “The thing is,” he said, “is that you just did something really good for her. Not that she will ever thank you for it.”

Bow down to the King of Flakes.

Hang on to your hats, I am about to go ballistic.

To begin at the beginning: this semester I am teaching Children’s Literature, which is a course not without its problems, said problems often involving having to hammer info into the heads of those destined to be kindergarten teachers. This semester, instead of a bunch of delicate little kindergarten teacher types, my class is made up of monumental slackers.

How do I know? Well, they don’t come to class, and they are having trouble handing work in on time. Pshaw, I hear you say. That seems par for the course. Let me elaborate. These people are such slackers that the girl who turned up stoned to the exam last semester, who is in this class, is one of the more exemplary students.

Want more evidence? A couple weeks ago, their first assignment was due. The following class, I returned the assignment to those who had handed it in (about a third of the class). A couple others handed in their work that class, which meant it was 2 days late. At the next class, a week later, a couple more straggled in. I pointed out that the majority of students were still out to lunch on Assignment 1, and now, Assignment 2 was also due.

At this point, a guy in the class, hereby christened the King of Flakes, put his hand up and asked, “When is the last possible day to hand in the assignment?” WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT, ANYWAY? I mean, quite apart from the fact that they have a course outline that says “work handed in more than 7 days late will not be marked,” which is actually the answer to his question, what the FUCK kind of question IS that?

So that was the first couple of weeks of class. Sensing the mood of these dumbasses, and knowing that this week, I was kicking it up a notch by requiring them to give a 5 minute oral presentation, I began laying the groundwork for the presentation.

I told them it was coming up. I went through the requirements – to whit, you have to get up and tell a story to the class, as if we were, say 4-6 year olds, and it should take about 5 minutes. You can retell a story you know, or tell one about your life, or make up an original, or even just memorize a book and recite it, but there will be no notes. this is about Storytelling. You can even bring props or require audience participation, just as long as you are telling a story.

Is this rocket science? No. I’ve given this assignment to classes before, and they’ve all managed to do it, some of them even do it well. There has been enjoyment and success in the past. I know it’s possible.

I asked if there were questions. I brought in a kid to tell a story to the class. (It was a great story, by the way, and I don’t say this just out of fondness for the kid.) The kid, admittedly, told her story from notes. One of the flakes noticed this, and asked if they could also use notes. I replied: “this child is 9; I think you can probably manage this task without notes.” Following the demonstration, I asked if they were clear on the task. There were nods. I asked if there were questions. No questions.

So, Monday rolls around, and off I go to class, and the first thing that is notable is that of the 16 students scheduled to tell stories, only about 8 have bothered to show. Fabulous.

The first student gets up says “When I was 5 my mom took me to the petting zoo and a goat pulled my pants down.” THE END. That’s it? Apparently so.

The second presenter had the nugget of a fantastic story about how he got left behind on a family trip. This story could have had everything, suspense, exciting action, the emotional high of the eventual reunion, even an element of humour. Instead, he got up and flatly told the bare bones of the story in about 30 seconds, with a horrible scowl on his face.

And so it went. Of course, this is the peril of setting oral presentations. Sometimes they fall flat, or are cringe-makingly awful. I continue to persevere because other times they are interesting and informative and allow students to showcase their ability to convey information in ways other than written work. However, in this case, they were mostly dire, but at least they were short. Because of the pathetic efforts and the missing students, class was over in 30 minutes instead of 90. “That’s it?” asked the King of Flakes. Like somehow this was my fault for planning badly.

Today, I spent the morning debating whether or not to say I thought the previous classed sucked. On the one hand, telling snowflakes they suck means you are labelled “mean”, but on the other, HOLY FUCKING CRAP THEY SUCK.

In addition, I’m getting a vibe that their suckitude is going to be defended by whining. I’ve had a couple of emails, and there’s this whiny tone developing. So I decide to put my cards on the table. They can suck all they want, and half-ass the class all they want, but they can’t also expect to do well. Don’t want to hand your assignments in? Fine, but don’t blame me if you get a bad mark. Don’t want to put any effort into the assignment? Fine, but don’t expect to pass.

I comment on the general suckitude of Monday’s presentations (making sure to note the 2 honourable examples). And I know some of them agree with me because a couple are nodding, and one student had been to my office to ask a question and had made a comment indicating that she thought they sucked. So, yes, it is a dressing-down, and I am hoping that it will have the effect of making the ones who wanted to do well lift their game a little.

In the midst of my rant, King of Flakes puts his hand up. “To be honest,” he says (and OH GOOD, I think), he didn’t really understand what was required until he saw other people faceplant in the previous class. How can this be? Did he not hear the explanations? Read the assignment? Listen to the demonstration? Did he make any effort to ask a question to clarify his confusion? What more did he want?

“Well,” he said, “I thought it would be easier.” Fabulous. I don’t punch him, but instead ask if he can elaborate. “It just seemed that there were easier options.” Okay, whatever. I make the point that sometimes the easy way out isn’t the way to get the best mark, and we move on.

And, mirabile dictu, the presentations today are good. There’s humour, there’s audience participation; one guy accompanies himself on the guitar, one girl brings a friend to be a prop; it’s what I was hoping for the first time.

Then we get to King of Flakes’ turn. He gets up and starts to read Green Eggs and Ham. Just read the book. Not retell the story. He’s just trying to read the fucking book to the class.

Green Eggs and Ham, I will point out, is a set book from our reading list – he didn’t even go to the library or the bookstore or, I dunno a box of books in his house; just picked up the first handy book. He doesn’t recite it, like another guy did with a different Dr Seuss book, he’s just going to READ the GODDAMN set book from the FUCKING reading list.

I say to him “you can’t just read the book; the assignment says ‘tell a story without notes’. This is not doing the assignment”. He looks at me like I am insane. See, he wants to do something easier. Rather than, you know, the set task, which I will reiterate, isn’t difficult. I tell him to cut it out. He’s determined to read the book, and the class is bewildered, and I suggest that he sit down and figure out what the fuck he thinks he’s doing, and we’ll have the next presentation while he does that.

As a result of all of this folderol, we ran out of time, and there are a couple more people left, so I have to effectively give them an extension and let them present next class. So at the end of class, I have a talk to King of Flakes. Would he like to TRY the Herculean task of memorizing Green Eggs and Ham for next class? He just looks at me like I am insane again. “I won’t be able do that.” WHAT? This is his response? “I thought you would just take marks off if I didn’t memorize it,” he explains. Well. Yes. Yes I will. All of them.

Can I just repeat something here, in case you missed it in all of the foaming of the mouth? The book it will be too onerous to memorize is Green Eggs and Ham. Yes, that Green Eggs and Ham. The one that goes:

I am Sam
Sam I am

That Sam-I-am!
That Sam-I-am!
I do not like that Sam-I-am!

Do you like
green eggs and ham?
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
I do not like
green eggs and ham.

Snowflakes, I present to you your king.