Thursday, December 02, 2004

Dealing with Students

I was reading Bitch, PhD's post about empathizing with students and it got me thinking about my dealings with my students this semester. It's been eye-opening in some ways.

As I mentioned, it's my first semester teaching full time. I didn't expect students to all be perfect little learners, but I was surprised at how passive some were, how they expected me to solve their problems and concede to their sometimes odd arguments and excuses. I had my share of "my computer crashed" and "my car broke down" and "I've been so sick this semester" excuses, and while I am not naive enough to believe them all, I really struggled to discern between the legit problems and the liars.

And I had some who were flat-out lazy and didn't seem to care if I knew this. Some of the comments students made about attendance left me, literally, speechless. Students would try to verify that they had been counted that day (I use a sign-in sheet in large classes), and when I mentioned that there was no attendance sheet that day, a student said "I could've stayed in bed!" Another, coming in late to class as I was dismissing it early, said she was sorry she was late but "there was a sale at Limited."

I'm not making that last one up.

In my screenwriting class, I was working with small groups of students on their scripts, advising this one student that his script had no direction because he simply hadn't taken any time to think through what the script was about. As I was giving him some advice about where he might go with the concept, he replied, "well, it's not like I'm going to finish it."

It's not like this was a big surprise. So fine, he was going to submit what he needed to submit, and he wouldn't ever look at the script again, but to come right out and say this to your professor just seems, well, odd. Brazen, perhaps. Then he e-mailed me recently begging to get into one of my spring classes that required my permission for entry. What the hell? I told him to come by my office and talk to me about it. Haven't seen him since (not even in class).

I think I was too laid back about tardiness and absences this semester. This is because I was just trying to keep up with my lectures and etc. So it was hard for me to worry about the absences, but when they got out of hand, and when latecomers were becoming a problem, I couldn't deal with it effectively because I hadn't set up expectations ahead of time.

Live and learn...


At 9:36 AM, Blogger AiE said...

Yes, it can be amazing how brazen students are. For me, one of the most important insights I had about being a professor was that most students are not like me. I was always hard-working, engaged, and really into all my courses. Of course, this is not the case for the vast majority of students. Essentially, I think most profs have to learn how to teach people that are very much unlike ourselves.

I only taught for two years, but I eventually gave up trying to "discern between legit problems and liars." I allowed a certain number of absences and didn't distinguished between excused vs. unexcused. I tried to empower students to be adults and decide for themselves how to prioritize their lives. Hearing all the excuses made me feel more like their mom, and I hated that. Some of my irritation may have been due to my being young and female, and my perception that students treated me much differently than my older male colleagues. But as I've read people's posts, I think it's a more universal problem than I assumed.

In some classes, I didn't have any official # of absences allowed, but instead docked chronic absenteeism through very low participation grades. I found this to be effective, especially since it (hopefully) think about their participation in the classroom, rather than just showing up 'cause it's required.

And isn't it weird how students you have a terrible time with and/or who seem miserable in your class and/or who get a low grade keep signing up for more of your classes? Students, they are a mystery.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger chutry said...

I agree with "Exile" that I find it easier not to distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. You get four absences. Period. Ends a lot of those excuses. I'm also sympathetic to Bitch PhD's obseervation that stuents have lives outside our classroom, and if a student is willing to trade a "D" for a trip to Hawaii, that's cool. Enjoy the trip. But I get a little impatient when students expect me to allow them to make up all their work when they go to Hawaii or the fraternity party or the sale at the Limited.

Now if the sale was at Barnes and Noble, that would make sense.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Manorama said...

So sympathize with this! Was observed Wed. and got a great write-up, but when the observer and I talked face to face, he told me that when they were doing group work, one student was shooting off insults about the class, the grading, his fellow students, me, etc. whenever I wasn't on that side of the room. The observer said it was obvious the student was doing it so he (the observer) could hear. The student hadn't come to ME, of course, with any questions about the grading system or help with the class. Instead he has this passive aggressive shit going on where he tries to sabotage my observation (didn't work, punk!). The thing is, I don't know how many times I've reached out to this guy. In conferences, e-mail, and in class, etc. Some students do not seem to realize that their grade is THEIR responsibility, and boo-hooing about the class or bitching about the teacher is not going to help. I am usually very sympathetic and try to be there as much as possible for students who are anxious about their work, even if they are "passive," but when it's mean-spirited like this...not too much more you can do but make yourself available and then watch as they sink their own ship.

I like chutry's comment about Barnes & Noble :)

At 7:21 PM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...

Some kind of masochistic streak in them? Maybe they're subconsciously looking for a parent figure to punish them for their lazy behavior/attitudes?

I don't know, but I am always surprised when students come and tell me how much they liked my class. They always seem to be the ones who are silent observers or who appear bored. One student was amazed when he found out it was my first semester teaching full-time. I'm not saying it's because I am such a great teacher (but of course, it didn't make me feel too bad that someone was saying so). This was another student who consistently turned stuff in late and appeared to be bored. On the other hand, towards the end of the semester, he was more engaged and interested and was working hard to get caught up.

I'm rambling...

At 10:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across your blog through a google search. I'm an MFA student in creative writing at the Univ. of Arizona, and I was wondering - where is it that you teach? There aren't too many schools that offer an MFA in screenwriting, and that being a second interest of mine, I'm curious. I've read most of your posts and I want to place you in California, but I'm probably way off...

At 8:16 AM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...


I'd rather not say where I teach, but it's not in California. And to clarify, we actually aren't offering an MFA in Screenwriting here yet (it's in process and will be added in the next year or two). I HAVE an MFA in Screenwriting, and teach undergrad and grad courses (in an M.A. program) in that area.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger AiE said...

So, what are your plans for the break? Are you writing and/or in preproduction?

At 2:59 AM, Blogger Terminaldegree said...

Hi to the "other" terminaldegree out there in blogworld!

One of my colleagues got the following excuse from a student: "I can't come to my lesson tomorrow. I have to get my eyebrows waxed."

As Dave Barry would say, I Am Not Making This Up. The kid actually paid an extra fee (around $200 per semester) for individual instruction--and was willing to forfeit the time and the grade in order to preserve her perfectly arched eyebrows!

My first term teaching was interesting in many of the same ways that you mentioned. I had a LOT of late papers and finally got sick of it. In my second term, I explained to the class (with humor tossed in so that I wouldn't sound like a total tightass) that I did NOT like late papers, the penalties were severe, and perpetual offenders would find themselves Very Far Out Of My Good Graces (which is somewhere in Kansas, probably). My motto about papers became "be on time, or don't bother." I then promised them that as long as they held to this standard, I would hold to a similar standard, keeping papers no longer than 2 weeks and returning tests by the following class meeting.

I just looked back at my old syllabi. The first term, I wrote, "late papers will not receive full credit." (I was copying a colleague's syllabus, and that's what he'd written. Either he's a nicer person than I am, or kids don't walk all over him because he's older, bigger, and gruffer.) By the next term, I changed this statement to read, "late papers, if accepted at all, will receive no more than half credit, and will leave the professor with an unfavorable impression of the student's dedication to his/her studies."

That's all it took. Papers came in on time. There were a few crisis situations (including a school-wide lockdown when a fugitive hid on campus!) that led to some late work, but because everyone else was organized, I was able to deal humanely with the few exceptions. :)

Just my two cents.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...

Exile -- I decided to answer your questions in a new post. And thanks for asking. I have been reading your blog with great interest lately, especially your situation with EFB and Filmmaker. I hope you're doing ok with all that.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...

Hi TerminalDegree! Yes, I found your blog not long after I named my own, so I hooe you don't feel I am treading on your territory :-)

I am getting a lot tougher with lateness next term. My syllabi are worded much more clearly on that, and I think I just have a better sense of what they need to be told. I like your wording -- if they only realized how annoyed we are as we start grading papers that are turned in late, they'd think twice. It's like a strike or two against you before I even start reading! I try to be objective about it, but I never feel bad about taking off points for lateness.

At least the "Limited" student was honest with her excuse, like your eyebrow girl. I don't know whether to be refreshed by the lack of a horrible excuse or shocked that they think this excuse, even if true, would be deemed acceptable.

At 8:38 PM, Blogger Terminaldegree said...

Tread away--I didn't coin the term. :)

I think you'll like the results when you get tougher, as long as you leave room for compassion (but it sounds like you will!). And feel free to borrow any of my wording.

Another thing I've learned (from teaching elementary school kids, by the way) is that everyone loves to be praised for "doing the right thing." So every time I have 100% of the class turn in work on time, I thank them for being such a responsible, hardworking class. (I'm not above bringing cookies to class, either!) I was worried at first that college students would think I was patronizing them, but they like being complimented and appreciated. (Makes sense--I like those things, too!) :)


Post a Comment

<< Home