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The thorn in my semester November 26, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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There are two things I hate about being a teacher.  The first is dealing with angry, threatening students.  Fortunately, I don’t run into those too often, but they are seriously unfun.  The second is dealing with students who don’t show up (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally) but still want to pass the class.  This problem is more common than the first, though, so I’ve had to learn to get used to it.

The very first semester I was teaching, as an undergrad, I had a student who missed a couple labs.  This student in particular annoyed me because it was someone I knew through other activities.  When I introduced myself to the class, he said to his neighbor, quite audibly, “She’s the teacher?!  This class is going to be SO easy.”  The department policy was that anyone who missed more than a certain number of labs would fail, but I tried to be nice and let him make it up.  When I set up a time for the first make-up lab, he showed up drunk and could barely function.  I complained to the chair, and he got upset with me.

“Why are you letting him make up the labs?  This is exactly why we have this policy in place.  Fail him.”

I was surprised how easy a decision it was for the chair.  Appalled, actually.  But the student had been a pain all semester, so I rationalized that I didn’t owe him anything.

I got a call from him over Christmas break: it was my fault that he wasn’t graduating.

I don’t take lightly to guilt trips, so any residual guilt I had about failing him disappeared in that moment.  The maneuver backfired, and I told him to take it up with the chair.

I’ve always wondered if his comment about the class being easy was an indicator that he thought he wouldn’t have to put in any effort.  I also realized that he was right: if the chair hadn’t told me to fail him, he likely would have gotten through the class easily.  That one was my fault: he accurately predicted that I was going to be much nicer than I had to be, and he was going to take advantage of that.  I try very hard not to do that any more.

I really hate every time I have to go through this with a student.  It’s not that I put a lot of faith in grades, but I would really rather that the students put in enough effort that I can at least justify passing them, even if just barely.  It’s much easier on all of us.

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1. Chris Gammell (@Chris_Gammell) - November 26, 2013

I’ve watched my sister-in-law transition from PhD grad to full time (ish) teacher like you have been. It was almost comical how much she bent over backwards at first to help students. Granted, I also was impressed by her dedication, as she was an adjunct at a community college at the time and it’s not like these students had a leg up on life. They were mostly hard working students but she got burned a couple times and went a little sour on it all. Now she is an adjunct at 3 different schools (!), so I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have time to care (which also makes me sad).

Still, I think it’s like any endeavor where the ultimate goal is the outcome and not the journey; people are going to focus on what “impeded” them from achieving the desired results (a passing grade, a degree), in your case being the one who judges that they’re being a slackass. I could just as easily hire a personal trainer and get mad at him/her for not “making me fit” while I sit at home drinking beer. An actual exacmple was when I got upset with my former drum teacher because I wasn’t improving; he quickly and rightfully pointed out my terrible practice schedule (I started practicing and voila! I got better).

I’m also interested in this topic because Contextual Electronics won’t have a grade at the end. The whole thing is pretty open ended. If people don’t finish the project, I really don’t care. I don’t give a grade and I won’t judge them for it. They’ll have lifetime access to the videos and can finish on their own time. I’m guessing that much like college classes though, the ones that care from the beginning won’t have any problem keeping up/getting through the material. And the ones who don’t keep up likely will never finish. But this is different because there is no definitive end date (simply a restriction on IP addresses they can log in from, so the log in doesn’t get passed around too much).

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