Category Archives: stupidity

PlayDoh, Part deux.

When I last left you, I was hovering on the brink of asking Miss PlayDohPants (hereinafter PDP) if she was mental, but restraining myself, on the grounds that “Are you brain damaged?” is not the kind of question that will have a happy answer. Of course, as you have all guessed, SHE WAS. Here’s how I found out.

It was the night before midterms, and I got a long email, full of fairly correctly put together sentences. At least from a grammatical point of view. From a containing information that had a grasp on university policy, the law, and reality, not so much. According to the email, Miss PDP normally (now here’s an interesting keyword, indicating, for those playing along at home, that this was not her first, nor even her second semester at university, and thus the “I don’t know the rules for accommodations” excuse could not be legitimately on the table) had accommodations for her unspecified mental disability. The email explained that she had not applied for accommodation because of “reasons”, said reasons being alleged in the email to be something to do with being on the wait list for the class before semester started. The email went on to suggest that since paperwork was tedious, and time had passed, and OH YES, the midterm was the next day, I could just go ahead and give the student double time for the assignment, on my own recognizance, as it were.

OH HELL NO. Readers, you know me. I don’t violate provincial law, as a general rule, for people I like, let alone students who disrupt my class with their PlayDohitry. I replied to the email pointing out that while the waitlist reasons might have prevented Miss PDP from completing her paperwork before semester started, she was now, evidently, in the class, and had been for 3 weeks, and whatever the holdup on filling in the goddamned web form was, it was in no way shape or form my problem. I also pointed out that university policy prohibited me from taking unilateral action, a position I still maintain, regardless of what idiotic actions may or may not have been taken subsequently by the fuckwad dean and his douchebag lackeys. But I get ahead of myself. To be clear, I declined the invitation to constitute myself as a mental health professional and/or disability advisor with godly powers to dispense accommodations absent any documentation. Professional conduct, dontcha know.

Miss PDP’s initial response was to email the Disability Office’s Admin person asking her to make me do it. The Disability Office Admin, a woman who, like me, makes her toast by breathing on it, promptly told Miss PDP to either fill in the requisite forms or go fuck herself. (I may have paraphrased the last part.)

Miss PDP turned up in the lab the next day to write her midterm. During this time, I invited all students to come get their MLA citation checked. Many did; Miss PDP declined. This fact will become relevant later.

At the end of the class, Miss PDP approached me with – mirabile dictu – her disability form. Do you see that? It had taken less than 12 hours to generate the required paperwork. Because I am a bitch who takes into account that the “P” in FOIP stands for “privacy”, I declined to discuss the paperwork in front of the class. I did have a burning need to discuss her disability, too, starting with the question – what the fuck is up with the motherfucking PlayDoh? “Bring it to me in my office hour,” I said, “because I won’t discuss this in public, for your privacy.” Miss PDP waited until the end of class, when she approached me in the hallway. “Nope,” I said again, “the hallway is not a place where I will discuss this. For privacy reasons.” She retreated.

When I got home, I had an email asking me what the three reasons were that I refused to sign her stupid form. This, gentle readers, is the level of comprehension we are talking about in every single one of my interactions with the student. “Not three reasons,” I replied, “privacy reasons. Come see me in my office hour tomorrow.”

I held out not a huge amount of hope that she would come and see me, and I don’t think she would have, except that the deadline for getting accommodations on the final exam was looming, and the Disability Office Admin person’s response to late requests for final exam accommodations was likely to be “go fuck yourself sideways”. I started the conversation by asking, perhaps foolishly, for a clarification about what the hell had taken so long with the paperwork. Miss PDP said it was “reasons”; reasons this time being defined as her grandmother, or possibly her mother being ill. Still not seeing the connection, I decided to move on, rather than dwell on the confusing.

It is my general practice, on these occasions, to go through the list of accommodations, and inquire, insofar as the law allows me, into what kind of help students require. This is why I also have a hard line on the “in private” part of the discussion. Experience has taught me that students with accommodations don’t really want to discuss them in front of people, and sometimes presenting the forms in public is a way not to have a conversation. They brush professors off with a “I just need extra time on exams,” and a lot of profs just sign the forms and shoo the students away. I get that. I know that’s common practice, but it doesn’t make it ethical. My response to that crap is “bullshit, you don’t just have ADD for 2 weeks of the year.”

So, rather than just signing the form, which made Miss PDP annoyed at me immediately, I took the time to read it. Which, possibly, in hindsight, was a mistake. Because there on the form it says that I am granting the student permission to record my classes. I have a problem with this, which has to do with running my classes as discussions, and usually I decline these requests after talking to students about whether they really need to record me. Mostly, they don’t. So I asked, just out of curiosity, if Miss PDP has BEEN RECORDING WITHOUT PERMISSION. “Oh yes,” she said blithely.

At this point, I did kind of lose my shit. I asked her about why she hadn’t told me, and first she said she did (astute readers will be starting to notice that this person is a liar liar pants on fire). Then we get into it a little more, and she revealed that she knew full well there are circumstances in which recording is not ethical, and that I am apparently supposed to trust her PlayDoh fiddling, word-find doing ass with making these determinations, and not even bother my pretty little head with knowing that she is doing it at all. I stopped the meeting at this point and refused to converse with her on this topic further unless her Disability Advisor was present. Also, possibly my lawyer, and some guy who might be inclined to rough her up.

After she left, I had an exchange with the university FOIP Dude, who, when asked about students recording in class said “they have to get the form signed, and then it’s okay.” I pointed out that the form had not been signed, and that it was well into week 4 of semester, and what was the sitch with regard to the unauthorized recording. “They can’t record unless they have the form,” he said. Because clearly, in the lawyerverse, there’s some kind of paper-related physics that disables the recording device. We went round and round on this for about 10 minutes, during which he asserted that no recording was possible absent the form signage. “What if she DID?” I asked. “There’s a FORM,” he replied. Okay. No help there.

Amazingly for someone who took 3 weeks to mention that she needed accommodations, Miss PlayDoh only took 30 minutes to let her Disability Advisor know that she needed a meeting with me and the advisor after class the following day. If you are suspecting the dread hand of some puppetmaster behind many of these actions, you are as astute as I expect my readers to be. There was indeed a puppetmaster, and he was to loom large in Part 3.

Lazy is the New Stupid.

I’ve been saying this for a while, and now it’s totally turning into a koan. Let me illustrate with some examples.

Exhibit 1: Sighing Saul

Last semester I had this student, let’s call him Sighing Saul, who was doing terribly in the weekly writing assignments. I was getting really frustrated because every week, I’d write the same kinds of things on his paper, like “saying the article is ‘fucking stupid’ isn’t really appropriate, especially if you aren’t providing evidence of its fucking stupidity.” The next week, there would be the same mistakes. Anyhoo, week 6 or 7 rolls around, and suddenly Saul storms out of the room, muttering something about “fucking bullshit”.

A couple of classes later he comes up to me, muttering something about how I “may have noticed” his tantrum of the previous week, to which I admit that, yes, it might have been something I saw out of the corner of my eye. Well, says Saul, he hadn’t actually bothered to look at the feedback on his first 6 assignments, so that was why it came as a bit of a shock to him that he was failing. Got that, everyone? LOOKING AT HIS GRADE WAS TOO MUCH WORK.

Shortly after this discussion, Saul came to see me about his research essay, which was “too hard”. After about 15 minutes during which I made suggestions about ways he could approach the task, during which time Saul sighed heavily, rolled his eyes and then sighed gustily, I said, “Look, this actually does require some effort on your part. You have to think about it and do some reading.” His response was to drop the class. Better luck next time, Saul.

Exhibit 2: Chatty Charlie and Yakkity Matt

Both these guys have the same MO; they talk a lot in class, and clearly have decent ideas, but when it comes to sitting down and doing any actual work, they prefer to bail. Charlie sent me at least 24 emails proposing topics for his essay, searching for one, and I quote “that would be easier to write”. When I finally snapped and told him to pick one from the list of his suggestions I had already approved, he dropped the class.

Matt mysteriously forgot to hand in the first couple of assignments, plagiarized the third, and pulled a “I forgot to send it to you” which was debunked by google docs for the 4th. I am still waiting for his most recent assignment, but I am not holding my breath.

The thing about both of these guys is, they are seniors who are still getting tripped up by Freshman Comp. They are clearly both capable, intellectually, of doing the work; in fact, it should be easy for them. Dropping my class solves the problem temporarily, but they are both running out of time. Charlie told me this was his “last semester”. Not anymore.

Exhibit 3: Slackerman

I know, these examples I have given you are nothing new, just part of a regular pattern of snowflakery. Perhaps this is true, but this last guy, this one takes all the cake, and eats it. Except that’s probably too much effort.

Slackerman didn’t do the first couple of low-stakes assignments. Then, just when I was about to write him off as someone who was going to fail for not handing in any work, he produced a 150 word paragraph, for an assignment where the requirement was a 750 word essay. It was kind of a half-assed 150 words, mind you, not some fancy-ass soul-of-wit type thing, either. I (kindly, I thought) gave him 1/10.

Slackerman emailed me about his grade, begging for me to “at least give me 2/10” on the grounds that, I SWARE I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, he “tried real hard”. Got that? Producing 20% of the required work for the assignment constitutes, in his world, “trying real hard”. Leaving aside the absurdity of the notion that effort rather than results should be rewarded, how in hell can that pathetic amount of effort be considered sufficient? It took every ounce of self control for me not to write back “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” but I managed it, instead providing some temperate comments about the requirements for university being rather more rigorous than those he had perhaps encountered at school. No response.

For his next effort, a 2000 word research paper, Slackerman produced one page (approx 300 words) of text. Appended to it was a note explaining that his computer had “done something” to his essay, and that this was all he could produce. I emailed him, pointing out that if he took a day to try to fix the computer problem, the late penalty of 3% would be a better bet than letting the 300 words stand as the whole essay, since he was forfeiting considerably more marks with this incomplete piece of work.

His response? “No, I’m good.”

Neddy vs the MLA

Right, so, I mentioned that Neddy was unhappy with his grade because he “thought he did better” on his essay than the D he earned, and I didn’t want to discuss it with him pediconference-style on my way to my next class, even though he walked right along and kept asking me to tell him what was wrong with his citation, and I kept saying “I am not discussing this right now”. Eventually, like the next day, he came to see me in my office hour.

Now, the task that Neddy’s class was set was not rocket science. It was “analyse a picture book”. Just to put that out there. We spent 2 classes talking about words and concepts for analysing illustrations, and 2 classes talking about, among other things, MLA, citation, writing paragraphs with supporting evidence in them, and ways to talk about language and vocabulary in literature.

Did Neddy’s essay show evidence of any of this? You know it did not. It was basically a list of all the things that came into his head until he got to the end of the second page, at which point he “constructed” a “works cited”, and that was it.

I spent some time explaining to Neddy that the colour of the pictures in a book is not an example of “sentence structure,” and various things of that ilk. Neddy’s response was basically to dismiss all my comments, rather as he does in class, when he comes out with something really bizarre and then when asked to explain his position, says “well, that’s what I think.” I’ve been banging on in all my classes about how, sure, literature interpretation is subjective to a degree, but that doesn’t mean you get to make shit up. You still need to support your dumbass assertions.

At one point when Neddy was contradicting me, I tried, gently to suggest that part of the problem was that he appeared “resistant to new information”. Which I then had to explain, citing examples from class (yes, the whole “kids” thing came up again, and yes, he said “well, I still don’t think you should say kids are crap”).

15 minutes went by and I was trying to wind it up because there were other students waiting to see me, but we still hadn’t got into the issue of his wildly non-standard citation for the book. The book, I need to inform you, was a SET TEXT. We had been over, in class, how to construct a works cited for this text, so I was rather startled by Neddy’s offering, which had a different publisher and date of publication than the standard, and also the words “Electronic Print” at the end.

I pointed out these flaws to Neddy, asking what “Electronic Print” meant. ”

Well, he explained, he got the book from a collection, rather than a stand alone book. I expressed mild surprise, but agreed it was plausible that such a collection existed. The book is a pretty standard children’s classic, and there are treasuries of Children’s Lit, and similar.

This, however, did not explain the use of “Electronic Print” for the medium.

Well, he explained, the thing was, he had an electronic book, rather than the physical copy. When pressed, he admitted that by “electronic book” he meant “PDF my buddy gave because he scanned the book out of the collection he had.”

Several questions popped into my head, but I asked the first one that occurred to me which was why on earth Neddy had gone to such lengths, rather than purchasing the book, which was a REQUIRED TEXT, from the bookstore. (Said book costs around $10, for those of you who are about to interrupt with a rant about textbook costs.)

Well, he explained, there were no copies of the book in the library, that he could find. Ignoring, the obvious opportunity to remark that I doubted he could find his ass with both hands, I addressed the book-buying issue directly. “This does not answer my question about why you have not bought the set texts for the class!” I said, rather emphatically. Neddy looked at me as if I were mental. Apparently, the idea that you buy required texts is some kind of crazy professorial fantasy. No one does that, dude.

Fine, whatever.

Getting back, then, to the issue at hand, I asked him again to explain exactly what kind of source he had. “My buddy scanned it and sent me the PDF,” he said, and again complained that MLA wasn’t clear on how to cite such an object.

“The MLA is not in the business of supporting your piracy. That’s why.” I explained, rather forcefully (according to Sarcastic Bastard, who was in the room, and offered later colour commentary, I was getting “rather loud”.) “What you did violates copyright, and MLA is about avoiding doing stuff like that.”

Neddy was not prepared to acknowledge that he had pirated the book. “It’s just the same as if my buddy borrowed me the book.” I suggested that since borrowing the book would a) have not created a new copy and b) have not created a problem with determining the medium, as a book would have remained “Print,” that this was not actually the case. (As I am sure you recognise, dear reader, some one a little more savvy would have managed to pretend the PDF WAS the original, thus cunningly fooling me with authentic-looking citation.)

Naturally, Neddy resisted my position, at which point I started waving around the Plagiarism Police’s manifesto on Good Student Behaviour. Neddy allowed that I might have a point, but more in the manner of a person tolerating someone with a medical condition than in a true spirit of concession.

I suspect this is not over. The moral of the story is: “You, sir, are too stupid to be a pirate.”

Introducing Nervous Neddy.

I say “introducing” because I have the feeling he is a developing story. I was going to write about him last week, and now there’s twice as much material. Let’s start with the background.

You know those people who are a bit nervous, and so then they say stupid shit, and stand a bit too close to you, and this makes you a bit nervous as well, just by rubbing their aura up against yours? Neddy is one of those.

Once  he made a stupid remark in class and everyone stared at him, and then he came up to me at the end of class and asked if I knew why people were looking at him weird. Do you know how hard this question is to answer?

He’s got just a whiff of the ‘berger about him, too (although, since I know this really really really ‘bergerish berger elsewhere on the internets, my whole ‘berger standard has changed radically, in the direction of tolerance). In addition to the nervous part, Neddy has a couple of extra zesty layers on top of an already difficult personality. One, he’s a fucking moron, and TWO, he has no idea that he is a moron. This leads to scenarios like the following:

Me: So, these essays you just wrote, class, that I am handing back, I wish to point out some common errors, in the hope that you will stop making them.
Class: Okay, we will indulge you by pretending to listen.
Me: So, this is children’s literature, and in essays, when we write about children, let’s refrain from referring to them as “kids”.
Class: Okay, seems fair.
Nervous Neddy: Why?
Me (Socratically): Why do you think?
NN: No, really I have no idea.
Me: Class?
Class: It’s slang. We shouldn’t put slang in an essay, and those of us who did are kind of embarrassedly going “doh,” right now.
NN: How is it slang?
Me: How do you mean, “how is it slang?” “Kids” is an informal term for children.
NN: They mean the same thing. I don’t see the problem.
Me: Class?
Class: “Kids” technically means “baby goats”. Saying it for children is informal, and we don’t use informal language in an essay.
NN: I never heard this meaning for kids before. Therefore, it doesn’t count. I am refusing to acknowledge this point, and maintain that it is fine to say “kids” in an essay.
Me (searching for an equivalent): It’s a slang word like “crap”. You wouldn’t use a word like “crap” in an essay, would you? (After I say this, I have a flash of a second where I realize this is by no means a given.)
NN: Why are you saying kids are crap?
Omnes: BOGGLE. (Discussion continues for another 4 minutes.)
Me: “Kids” is slang. Don’t use it. End of discussion.

We then proceded to have another  round over my next point, which is that “relatable” doesn’t mean what they think it means.

So, then I give their essays back, saying “I have a class immediately after this one, as you know, so I don’t have time to talk to you about your essays right now. Come see me in my office hour.” Class ends, and I am packing up, and Neddy comes up to me. “I think I did better than this in my essay,” he says. To which I respond, “Neddy, I just said I don’t have time to talk about this because I have another class RIGHT NOW, and I have to go to my other class RIGHT NOW.” And I start walking out the door, and he starts following me, asking about the comments I made on his paper.

I jump cowardly in to the elevator and tell him to come see me in my office hour. Which he does, and that, dear readers, is a long story for another day.

Fuck you. Fuck all you all.

I nearly went over the edge today. I know you want to hear about it.

So, I am in class, explaining to the class my marking rubric, which I have used for several semesters now, where I let students use the rubric to predict their grades and they get a bonus if they get a bulls-eye.

As a pedagogical exercise, this is designed to show students what I am valuing and how I am marking, and also to get them to do a bit of reflection and self-assessment. Of course, it’s also a way in to having a “what makes a good paper” discussion in class. Generally, it works pretty well, and between 3-6 students a class actually manage to get the bonus.

Today, I explain the bonus and go through the rubric, and then this giant asshole puts his hand up and says “Yes, but how do we know you won’t look at our score and then change yours?”

EXCUSE ME? I looked at him and said “Are you sure you want to be asking that?”, to which he said “Yes, it’s a legitimate question.” A few lesser assholes chimed in. One wanted to suggest that I give the bonus mark if they got within the ballpark: no, because that is way easier – you have to earn the damn bonus. Then Asshole 1 and his buddy start going on about how they think they need a “guarantee” that I will stick to the rubric.

I have to admit, I was at the point of being so angry I wasn’t coherent. “This sounds like you are accusing me of cheating,” I said. “I presented this rubric as a way to help you understand how I am marking.”

Yeah, they understand that, but profs mark differently (DUH, I just gave you MY rubric, you moron), and how do they know I will stick to what I said?

Well, I dunno? Trust? Understanding that I am a professional? I said if they thought it was some kind of trap, they could opt out of the rubric exercise, but no, that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted, I think, a promise that they could have the bonus. Which I wasn’t going to give.

I suggested that the way they were talking made it sound like they thought I was out to get them, and that their assumption that I would act unprofessionally was unfounded and unflattering, but there were at least 4 of them who insisted that voicing this kind of distrust was not disrespectful.

What it came down to, for them, was that “all profs mark subjectively” and that any moves I was making to make my approach as transparent and objective as possible was somehow suspect. IF YOU REALLY BELIEVE I MARK SUBJECTIVELY, WHY ARE YOU PISSING ME OFF? I screamed, in my head.

Some of it must have shown on my face, because a student in the front row said, “Can we move on?” Which was a nice lifeline. So I tried to move on, but I found myself close to tears of rage. I had to leave the room. I’ve never done that before. Honest to god, I said “I need a minute,” and went out into the hallway.

A couple of the female students came out to see if I was okay. I wasn’t going to cry, but I think they thought I might. I said “I just need a minute so I don’t yell at everyone,” I told them. So I counted to 10, and went back in, and ignored the assholes who were snickering, and pulled up my damn big girl pants, and taught them about editing their papers.

But I feel like I went somewhere new today. Not even Pineapple Boy made me feel this kind of despair.

Failure on the internets.

So, this semester I am teaching a hip, new class which is essentially composition with a “new media” focus, or, in other words, “writing online”. Now, this is a writing class, not a computer class, so there’s not a high requirement for technical ability. But, you know, we (the people who developed the course) assumed that students who enrolled in the class would read the title and the course description, both of which clearly indicate the nature of the class, and self-select accordingly. I know, dear reader, I can hear you falling off your chair as you chortle heartily at our naivete.

It’s been hilarious so far, if you find that kind of thing hilarious. Let me present to you, then, some of my experiences, in the form of a list, entitled: “Signs you may not be suited to doing an online writing class”.

  • You don’t know how to turn on your own laptop, and have to ask for assistance in a stage whisper, which halts all other discussion.
  • You sign up for a gmail account, get onto the prof’s contact list, and then forget your password.
  • Your solution to forgetting your password is to sign up for a new gmail account.
  • You forget the password for that one, too.
  • Instead of going to the courseware page you are given:, you decide to go to the google, and find the home page of the courseware, and try to sign in there.
  • You actually manage to sign into the home page of the courseware,, but you then cause great confusion to everyone by complaining bitterly that you can’t find the group for your class. This is only resolved when you take some screenshots and send them to your prof.
  • You do the same idiotic thing as the previous student, but you don’t know how to take a screenshot. Luckily someone else was almost, but not quite as stupid as you, and this eventually solves your problem.
  • It takes a back-and-forth exchange, during which you send 4 emails, for you to figure out how to post a reply to a thread on the courseware forum.
  • In one of the emails, you explain that you have written your reply in MSWord, but do not know how to upload it to the forum.
  • After you – finally! – successfully make this post, you send another email, asking how to start a new forum thread.
  • You get a twitter account, but can’t figure out how to follow someone. You don’t see the point of twitter, since nothing happens.
  • You identify yourself as someone who is slow with computers, and by slow you mean “it took me 2 weeks to reply to the semester startup email.”
  • When you are told in your computer lab class, to close down Internet Exploder and use Firefox instead, you burst into tears because you “don’t know how to do that”.
  • You send a message to the prof asking if “doing all this online stuff is really necessary” because you “prefer not to do any of your schoolwork online”.

Don’t believe what you read.

In my infinite and devious wisdom, I made up an assignment that tests, sorry, ENCOURAGES and DEVELOPS students’ abilities to assess what they read online.

It includes a number of traps for heffalumps, such as directing them to a site which expresses an opinion that they probably agree with is credible when it has no sources. It asks if a badly designed, ugly website is credible, and if the think the Nation is transparent about its sources and authors.

One of the basic traps is one labelled “Is expressing an opinion you disagree with the same as not being a credible source?” It is distressing, but no longer amazing to me how many of them tumble in. “Kate Harding is a feminist, so she cannot be a credible source.” AUGH. “Naomi Klein does not like capitalism, so she might have misreported her interview with Michael Moore.” (This even though you can CLICK to listen to the full audio of the interview.) Kill me now.

My concern here is how much they are relying on the google to find them information, bypassing gatekeepers like librarians and peer-reviewers in journals. I know this seems topsy-turvy, but I try to explain that going through a database where you can check the box for “Peer-reviewed only” is a much more efficient way of evaluating information than going to google, finding some random site, and then trying to figure out, say, who the heck Juan Cole is.

Of course, trying to figure it out is the first step in becoming a critical thinker, so if they actually did that, I would be reasonably happy. In this current group, however, I have FIVE students who told me, unequivocally, that has no information about Chomsky.

Seriously? That site should totally be taken down for false advertising, then. One guy, a little smarter and a whole lot more arrogant than the others, went to wikipedia for what must have been 5 seconds and concluded that Chomsky was a “philosopher of sorts”.

Would any of them use any writing by Chomsky in an essay? Of course not, and not for the obvious reason that it is unlikely they could understand one word in three of what he says. It’s because he is an ANARCHIST, and that makes him unreliable.

Fox News, on the other hand, is totally fine, because it says right there on the website that it is “fair and balanced”.

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.]

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.