So there’s crazy, as in “hur, you so crazy” and then there’s the kind where you walk away slowly. I had three salutary examples last semester, which I shall now share with you.
This first one, I admit, I kind of poked it. This is what you don’t do, folks. So, there’s this student, let’s call her Edgy Ellen, and she asks a LOT of questions. You know, like “when you say 750 words, do you mean 750 words, or can I have 753? I can cut those 3 words if it’s a problem.” And I say, “no, that’s fine, word limits are a general guideline”.
Another time, when I had my students evaluating source materials, she sent me an email about the essay on the 123Write My Essay For Me site I had sent them to. “It says you have to pay to see the whole essay. Did you mean to send us to this site? Do I have to pay to complete the assignment? I don’t think I can complete the assignment without paying, but I don’t think you should make us pay. Are you sure you want me to pay?” and so on. The question I had asked was “would you use material from this site in your essay? Why/why not?” Which, I pointed out, was clearly answerable without paying, since she had essentially answered the question in her email. I was punished for this puckish japery by another set of questions in a subsequent email. “What do you mean I answered your question with my question? You still didn’t say whether I should pay or not. What do I need to put in my answer? I can’t see the list of Works Cited for this essay, so how do I decide?”
Following this barrage, I read some of her work, which really was very good; interesting ideas, mostly well-written, that kind of thing, but she continued with the tightly-wound questions. At this point, I made a serious tactical error. I suggested that the student relax. I said “You are doing fine, and I think you just need to relax a little.” OMG. Well, then I got an email saying, “What do you mean relax? Do you think I am anxious? Did you mean to make me self-conscious about my anxiety? What if I need to ask a question? Can I still ask questions?” Then we had to have a MEETING.
At this meeting, the student chided me about “attacking her personally” and “suggesting she had an anxiety disorder” and “being insensitive to her disability” (what disability? Being a psycho? Where’s the paperwork?). I had to spend half an hour explaining to her that I see a lot of students (mostly, but not all, female) who get really worried about the quality of their work, and what I was trying to communicate, from my perspective, was that she was doing fine, and that she didn’t need to be so worried, and YES, she could still ask me questions, but that she could also trust her own judgement, because she seemed to be DOING FINE.
In my other class, I had Martha the Mormon, who managed to work her mormonity into every single thing she wrote, and occasionally into class discussion as well. After a while, I was getting pretty tired of it, but before I could say anything, she had this massive outburst in class, where she said, “IN MY OTHER CLASS MY PROFESSOR SAID A SWEAR AND WHEN I OBJECTED SHE SAID WE ARE AT UNIVERSITY AND WE ARE ALL ADULTS AND IT IS OKAY TO SWEAR AND IF IT IS OKAY TO SWEAR THEN I THINK IT IS OKAY TO TALK ABOUT MY RELIGION AND PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE OFFENDED BY MY TALKING ABOUT MY RELIGION IF I WANT TO BECAUSE WE ARE ALL ADULTS AND SWEARING IS OKAY.”
Tempted as I was to respond, “well bugger me,” or “no one in this class told you to shut the fuck up about being a Mormon,” I held my tongue, and suffered silently through a presentation about how reading the Bible was more important than reading her textbooks, and 1500 words on how she was keeping herself pure for marriage.
The universe rewarded me for my patience in this wise: Last week I saw Martha sitting on a sofa with a boy (who I know from a previous class is NOT in any way a Mormon), and he had his hand quite firmly on her ass, and she seemed to be quite comfortable with the position of said hand. I made eye contact, at which point she went red as a beet. A laugh not unlike that of Mrs Krabopple’s may have escaped my lips.
The last, and craziest, was Bus Girl. Bus Girl had a generally quite chippy attitude, often interrupting me in class. One time, when she interrupted me mid-sentence, I said “Yes, I will get to your issue in a minute,” and she responded, “Well, you don’t have to be RUDE.” So there was this history of contentiousness. To be fair, I had her tagged as belligerent rather than certifiable.
So, then we were in the lab preparing for an in-class writing assignment, and I offered the students the option to come up with their own topic. “Pick something you can take a firm opinion on,” was my instruction. Various ideas were tossed around, and then someone came up with “Transit,” in other words “Catching the Bus SUCKS,” which was a theme with instant popular appeal. There was a chorus of groans, which I took to mean general assent to the topic.
Bus Girl said “This is not fair. What if you have never taken the bus in this city?” I responded by offering her the opportunity to think of an alternate topic, and gave the room another 5 minutes to brainstorm. At this point, I called for suggestions. Bus Girl had none. I called for a vote on the topics suggested, and the bus topic won with a huge majority, Bus Girl abstaining. She made some more mooing noises about unfairness, and I pointed out that she had had ample time to think of an alternative. I refrained from pointing out that she had used her brainstorming time to complain, rather than think, and thus deserved the consequences.
I gave the class the rest of the instructions for their task, and set them to work. Bus Girl sat at her computer for a few minutes, then abruptly stormed out of the room. O-kay.
Class continued; the peaceful clickity-click of keyboards occasionally interrupted by quiet conversation as students consulted one another on why Mr Spellcheck persisted in putting a squiggly line under “definately” and “relateable”. I sat at the teacher’s desk on the high chair, doing important pop culture research (aka reading Gawker), and occasionally casting my eye across the room to ask “is that hand up to ask a question, or are you just stretching?” Peace reigned; work was getting done.
Some time later, Bus Girl appeared in the glass panel of the door, gesturing to me to come outside. I obliged. She looked agitated, and, on closer inspection, somewhat cried on.
“I feel like I owe you an apology,” she said, and I did not disagree. “The thing is, I have PTSD, and this is one of my triggers.”
SO MANY QUESTIONS, dear reader. I feel you may also be asking them. This, what? The BUS? Or being disagreed with? If it’s the BUS, then what kind of trauma does a person get into on a bus? Was the bus in Afghanistan? I am sure you can think of several more.
Unfortunately, I cannot supply you with further details. Seeing the crazy, I declined to poke it. Instead, I said “It sounds like you need to go to Student Counselling right now. You go do that, and I will excuse the assignment.”
On Monday, my students had an Important Due Date for a Thing they had to do. This is a date that was in the course outline they have had since the very first day of term (or in the case of Flakey McFlakerson, the 4th class when he eventually rolled up; a long time, regardless). The syllabus is very clear that this particular Thing is Important with a capital I, and that it has to happen with no excuses, absent being hit by a bus.
After class on Monday, I emailed them about class on Wednesday, also congratulating them for having completed the Thing. I then had the following email exchange with Flakey McF.
FMcF: Oh, hey Mrs LadWhatter, I thought the Thing was on Wednesday.
Me: Nope. It says in the syllabus Monday, and Monday was when it was.
FMcF: Are you sure you didn’t change the date? I am pretty sure it was Wednesday.
Me: Nope. [Thinking, given that you are the guy who told me on 5 separate occasions at the start of term that you had “no idea what I am supposed to do” I am going with you are an idiot.]
FMcF: Well, it so happens that I missed class today because I was at the hospital.
Me: Sorry to hear that. Hope you feel better. Show me some documentation, and we can talk about making up the assignment.
FMcF: Oh, yeah, it wasn’t me that was in hospital, I was there because I had to take my kid.
Me, startled at the sudden appearance of a child not previously mentioned: Okay, well, again, documentation, and we can deal.
FMcF: So, you are saying I have to go back to the hospital and get a note or something?
Me: No, I am cool with you getting a zero. If you want to make up the marks, you are going to have to show me some documentation.
FMcF: Okay, well, I think in that case you should give me full marks even though I haven’t actually done the Thing. And also, I want a make-up assignment.
Me: Yeah, that’s not what will happen, but again, I am not negotiating until I see a doctor’s note.
Some time passes. The next day, I get another email.
FMcF: So I went to the hospital and asked them for a note and they said they don’t do that.
Me: ORLY. Okay, well, too bad then.
FMcF: Given that I tried to get the note, I think you should give me the marks. Or I could write an essay.
At this point, I made a phone call to the mother of a school friend of my kid’s.
Me: So, I called the GM of the hospital, and she says yes they do give notes, and if you are having trouble, give her a call and she will make sure you get one. Her number is [redacted].
FMcF: RADIO SILENCE.
My timetable this semester sucks and blows. In addition to containing a class that meets twice a week at the ungodly hour of 8 in the fucking AM, on other days, my classes are arranged in such a way as to exactly overlap the time when my best chums are free, and vice versa. So, apart from a little passing chat with the hardy souls who are around at 7:45am, I generally don’t get much time for social interaction with my colleagues.
However, this last week, in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity, I agreed to take a couple of classes for a colleague. Taking classes for someone else is often a really frustrating experience; students tend to assume there will be nothing of value offered, so they may or may not show up, and then the ones who do pay only halfhearted attention, preferring to play Facebook games, or chat amongst themselves. “How is this different to normal classes?” I hear you ask, to which I would answer that it is not different in substance, but more a matter of degree.
When you take a class for someone else, you don’t have any authority, so basically, your only option is to be entertaining enough to capture the attention of jaded slackers who feel like they did you a favour for turning up. It was in this wise, then, that I approached my task, but events conspired to make it fairly entertaining. First, because my colleague had set me up with movie clips to show, which helped with entertainment value, second because the class was stacked with students I knew, who were more kindly disposed towards me, and third because it was a topic I know well, and can be amusing about without great effort. In other words, all I had to do was show up and make snarky comments about the fight scenes in Excalibur.
None of this is much worth recounting, except that at the start of class, I had the following exchange with some random Mormon girl. (I am guessing about the Mormon part, but you will no doubt understand my reasoning.)
RMG: I can’t see this movie.
Me: Do you have a visual disability? Can you sit in the front row?
RMG: No, I mean I can’t see this movie. It is rated R.
Me [looking at the box]: Is it?
RMG: Yes, I looked on the internet.
Me [thinking, dude, if you went on the internet, I am betting you were exposed to worse stuff than is in a movie rated R in the US in 1981, but whatever]: Well, okay, but I am not really understanding the reasoning here. This is a senior university class, so I doubt you are under age.
RMG [like this is a trump card]: It’s for religious reasons.
Me: Okay, then, but watching clips and talking about them is what we are doing in the class, so, I guess you are going to miss class.
RMG: Can I get the discussion questions?
[NB: m’colleague had provided a cunning sheet with a couple discussion questions and a space for students to fill in their names, so that she could tell who had come to class.]
Me: Yes, but I can’t see how you are going to answer them.
RMG: I will just put my name on it, so I can get credit for attendance.
Me: But you are not attending. You just said you were not staying for the class.
RMG: I came to class. I can’t stay for religious reasons.
Me: Did you discuss this with Prof Wenttoaconference?
RMG: Oh, I guess that would have been an idea, but no.
Me: Well, I have no authority here. You need to talk to Prof Wtac. I know what I would say, but it’s not my call.
RMG: I think you should tell her I was here and that I talked to you.
Me: Oh, I will.
So the rest of us had fun watching the clips, and, my has this movie really not aged well. I think we were supposed to be taking all the symbolism seriously, and shit, but they all kept giggling, and I can’t say I blame them. When we got to the mortal fight between Arthur and Mordred, the giggles turned to open guffaws.
I tried to chide them for heartlessness and lack of appreciation for cinematic doohickery, but not very convincingly.
But I digress.
The fact that I was filling in for these classes meant I was hanging around for a couple of hours on the relevant days, and instead of occupying my time fruitfully, doing marking, I wandered the halls, chatting. This gave me a chance to catch up with one of my chummier colleagues.
This colleague was bemoaning the behaviour of a particular student who was in her Freshman Comp class. “He’s just so rude,” she said, describing how he came late to every class he showed up for, declined to participate in classroom discussion and activities, generally acted like the class was beneath him, and argued with her at every turn.
“The other day, I assigned students some questions to answer in pairs, and this guy pulled out some Literary Theory book that wasn’t a text from the class, and just started reading it, while his partner was sitting there wondering what to do. So I went up to them and asked if they were done, and he made some comment about knowing the answers already. I suggested that he might want to give a bit more thought to the task, and in any case to put the book away, which he declined, and then I kind of lost it and told him if he felt the class was so beneath him he could leave. Then I went to help someone else, and I heard him say to his partner, ‘I guess it is my fault you were subjected to that tirade.'”
My chum said she had been tempted to throw him out, but hadn’t, although god knows why. We talked some more, and I shared with her my similar experience with Arrogant Asshole last Spring, during which I mentioned the program he was in. “Isn’t it typical,” I said, “of students in that particular professional program, that they act all above learning how to actually write.” (The program in question being one that starts with J and ends in “ournalism”, dear reader. And I know, this is an unfair generalization based on the behaviour of a limited number of people, but before you write mean comments, read on.) “This guy is in that program, too,” remarked my friend. “I was thinking of talking to the co-ordinator about him, because I wanted to know if they have program standards of student behaviour.” I remarked that since the program co-ordinator is himself an extremely arrogant asshole, the answer to this question might not be best answered by him. We chatted on, and she gave me another couple examples of the student’s behaviour, during which she (accidentally) let slip the student’s name.
“THAT’S HIM!” I cried. “Arrogant Asshole! The very same!” After which we boggled at the fact that someone who failed a class because of acting like a douchebag could take the class again without in any way moderating his behaviour. Actually, when I come to think about it, he’s been failing classes for at least 3 years now, which might explain why he told my friend he was a second year student, and didn’t mention he’d taken this very class at least once before.
One moral of this story, I confess, is that 2 guys can give an entire professional program a bad name for assholery.
The other is colleagues are awesome. But I knew that already.
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.”
My very first ever blog post was inspired by a student malapropism, so it’s pretty true to say that students’ struggles to mash words into sentences is part of the bread and butter of blogging for me. That, and swears, of course.
Lately, I’ve seen a rash of students talking about things being “close nit” or even “closenit”, and once “close nitt” (fancy-ass hypercorrection?) which makes me ponder their absolute lack of understanding of the concept of etymology, to say nothing of their ability to relate the meaning of that particular term to its spelling. Being a wag and a trickster, the first time I saw it, I asked if the student thought the term had something to do with lice, which went down about as well as one would expect.
In a related incident, I had one essay that talked about a person being a “gun ho”. Vivid, eh?
Usually, although not always, when I correct misapprehensions about word usage, students are nice enough about it, say “okay” and move on to mutilate new and different words. Last week, I encountered fascinatingly stubborn resistance. Let me regale you.
I have this student, and she’s definitely up on the high end of the business student stereotype scale, which means (for those of you who have had the pleasure not to encounter such a type), that she is extremely literal, very determined to follow directions exactly, determined that following exactly the exact directions will earn an A, upset when there are no exact directions which will allow this process to occur, and argumentative about all the above. In addition, she’s pretty resistant to new information, and ever so slightly ESL. (To clarify: I understand ESL is like pregnant, and either you are or you aren’t, but generally her English is very good, although also tending to the absolutely literal.) Let us, for the purposes of this exercise, call her Dogged Dora.
The task I had given was to write an analysis of one of a selection of essays. Dogged Dora chose to write about the one written by Margaret Wente, who is insightfully described by one blogger as “the Globe and Mail’s resident imbecile”. A quick review of her recent columns reveals that she wrote one on Valentine’s Day entitled “Why Romantic Love is Overrated,” dear GOD, she is a hack. But I digress. Here in the Empire, teachers of Freshman Comp often fall back on Wente’s essays for these kinds of tasks because they are both dire (lots of easy things for students to comment on) and help to up our percentage of required contain Kanadian kontent. In short, of the list of choices which were better-written and more interesting, Wente was the softball.
Among the stupid things she does in this piece, Wente makes a statement which more than one student described as “racist against Europeans”. That is, she says, “Fortunately, we do a whole lot better than the Europeans. They are the world’s worst cheapskates,” from which you can extrapolate a pretty good picture of the Wente oeuvre. Now, there’s plenty to criticize in that statement, and students can and do call her on generalizing, and using inflammatory vocab and similar.
Dogged Dora, I suspect fooling around with Mr Thesaurus, came up with the word “indiscreet” to describe Wente’s word choice in this sentence. When I marked her essay, I commented on this and said it wasn’t quite the right nuance of meaning, since indiscreet tends to refer to revealing secrets. No big deal, just something to take note of. Everyone moves on, right? Wrong.
See, Dora did a solid job on this task and earned, as a result, the mark Business students hate most – an A-. So naturally she had to move on to Stage 2 of getting a grade – bargaining. Most of my other comments she found acceptable, but this thing about the word, she got really hung up on it. “I looked it up in the dictionary,” she told me, “and it means saying stuff you shouldn’t say. Like Wente shouldn’t say this about Europeans.” I conceded that while that was true, “indiscreet” meant more revealing secrets or things that should be kept private. “Exactly,” said Dora, “if she’s racist against Europeans, she should keep that a secret.” Well, yes, but no. I tried again to explain, and Dora again just couldn’t see the difference in the shade of meaning. All “stuff you shouldn’t say” is in the same category. We were there for 10 minutes on this thing, with Dora digging her heels in harder and harder, and me giving examples of indiscretions, and getting nowhere. I eventually stopped it by saying “look, it was a minor point, and not the main issue with your essay.” So then, Dora was able to move on, not because we came to an understanding, but because I had let her know that this particular error hadn’t been worth marks. “You are still wrong,” she muttered.
Now, it becomes clear that in large part the problem is that she hasn’t encountered the word before, and really, the dictionary definitions (especially in the stupid-ass dictionary.com that all students insist on using even though we have online subscriptions to the OED and half a dozen other good dictionaries and they are only a click away, arg, rant) don’t really do a good job of explaining the shades of meaning of words. You learn that by reading and hearing people with good vocabularies talk. Which she doesn’t do, and let me say, this is in no way about her being ESL or a Business student, although they may be contributing factors.
Let me bookend this with another example from last semester. My students were workshopping thesis statements for their essays, and one student put hers up, and it contained, correctly, if a little hyperbolically, the word “profoundly”. A be-hatted guy who was not generally a dumbass stuck his hand up to comment, and said “you can’t just make up words,” indicating that “profoundly” was the one he had trouble with. “It’s a word,” said the female student, to which I concurred. “Can you explain what it means?” I asked her, and she gave him a solid explanation.
“Huh,” he said.
Not much. Same old, same old, which I guess is an explanation. Last semester, I had a lot of students, and they were pretty much the usual, and yeah. Let me catch you up.
Remember Neddy? He turned up in one of my colleagues classes, which I managed to find out by accident. I could not resist asking about how he had been, to which she replied “he is very keen, and he asks good questions, and he persists until he gets the answer”. Anything about crazy shit he says in class? Nope. Anything about how he can’t string an idea into a paragraph? Again, nope. “Of course,” she says, “he does have accommodations for his learning disability”. Nice that things are working out for him, and I get a fist pump for knowing it wasn’t just me.
Last semester I tried out some new technology in the classroom, and this caused a crazy-ass student who was doing badly to report me to all kinds of authorities. The logical fallacy here was that her disliking my method of taking attendance had anything to do with her inability to think. Lest you accuse me of harshness, I will illustrate by the following example: when asked the most interesting thing about herself, said student responded “I went on holiday to Mexico.” ORLY. Did you encounter Mexican culture and thus broaden your mind? “No, we stayed at a resort. She then dropped the class, because I was “teaching it at the wrong level”.
This semester we have an exciting new agreement about hiring that means I now get yelled at by a committee when my student evaluations aren’t high enough. Evaluations are being taken MOAR seriously. I need to work harder to get good evaluations. I have to take this seriously. Except, fuck me, I find it hard to take seriously the comments of jerkwads, snowflakes and dickholes who use the evaluations as a platform to complain about general curriculum requirements over which I have no control, my personal appearance, my accent, and the fact that they were stupid enough to voluntarily sign up for an 8am class that they find “too early”.
This brings us to the present. It’s Reading Week. All of my classes were supposed to give me essay proposals last week, so that they could be working on their essays this week. My amazing Children’s Lit class (srsly, this class is made up of geniuses, eg the guy who wrote an essay arguing that Hop on Pop teaches kids important science facts like Newton’s 3rd Law, which it totally does, just think about it) all had proposals in hand which they showed me on the designated day. The point of the exercise was for me to tweak them a little where needed, give suggestions and send them off. Mission accomplished.
In all the other classes, very few students remembered or bothered to do this. The instructions to all the classes were the same, except, no, I lie, I don’t think I reminded the Good Class. So I’ve had a few emails about it. Well, I’ve had a few emails from a few students, and 25 from this one guy. I am beginning to suspect he doesn’t want to write the essay. Because he suggests a topic, and I say “yes” or “no” or “this would work if you narrowed it down to x”. And then he sends a new email with a new topic. JUST PICK A FUCKING TOPIC, ALREADY, I wish to cry. But no, this dipshit gets to evaluate me, so I have to be responsive to his needs.
So, I’m back. Thanks to everyone who in any way nagged me or reminded me that I have a blog, and a special shoutout to Sarcastic Bastard, who really needs to write a guest post about teaching creative writing in drag.