Thursday, July 29, 2010

Does “Dallas” Start with a “D”?

“Yes,” I calmly replied to the student I’ve been tutoring for over two years now. She lives right next to it, but can't spell it. A 23-year-old ESL student who is highly sheltered by her family (and still lives at home), she had just been kicked out of my college’s nursing program after absurdly, astoundingly, getting accepted.

Her basic verbal skills are excellent, and I can understand nearly every word she says, though a bit of her grammar is faulty. Her writing skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, on the other hand, are abysmal. Yet here she is, plugging away on her Associate’s degree, having earned about 90 credits (out of 60!) and withdrawing from or failing another 30. Her father pays for it all, so she just keeps hammering away at it, failing, dropping, withdrawing, passing, but never applying for her degree that she "earned" about a year ago.

Clearly, she’s afraid of what she’ll do after graduation, so she continues our mutual torture (as well as my pay). I went through the same prolonged adolescence, too, so maybe she's actually becoming acculturated! Psychologists call it an "adjustment reaction to adulthood," AKA "failure to launch."

Yes, I helped her with the baffling paperwork to get into the nursing program, and to my shock she got accepted as an alternate, complaining about the three months she had to wait, while many wait two and a half years to get in, all the while working crap jobs to make ends meet.

After her acceptance, I started to throw tantrums in private, just ranting and ranting about the absurdity of her being in a program WAY above her head, about her ignorance, her immaturity, her stubbornness, her self-delusion. “She will NEVER, EVER, EVER BE A NURSE!” I would yell to the heavens. I was sure that she wouldn’t last more than a semester, maybe a semester and a half, and I prayed that someone, somehow, would put up a wall and stop this academic zombie. I tried to calm the hell down and have faith that the merciful end was near and that cosmic justice would ensue.

And so it did. The day came, and she told me she was “out of the program,” apparently not wanting to face the shame of telling me that she got booted.

I know her departure wasn't her choice, based on her questions during our tutoring sessions, like “What does ‘cast’ mean?” She has lived here for seven years, went to jr. high and high school here, and is now a U.S. citizen, and she doesn’t know what a cast is? She never encountered that basic information on TV, in high school, in real life, in a conversation, in seven fucking years of American residency? And among a slew of other inadequacies, she also has huge trouble with syringe measurements. Cubic centimeter? Liter? Milliliter? Are they really that different? What's an "increment?" That’s a tad troubling for an aspiring nurse.*

The problems she has have many causes: Her family only speaks their native language in the home (proving that they're not very serious about her education, in my opinion); she’s not very smart; she has horrible organizational skills (though we’ve improved them); she’s awfully coddled and sheltered by her parents, and can’t even find her way around our suburb; and lastly, she’s really lazy. She is, however, very determined, thought that's actually more of a liability than an asset at this point.

She squeaked her way through a two-year degree she doesn’t deserve. She snuck into a nursing program she was 100% unqualified for and then got kicked out. Now, she’s trying to get into a different nursing program to save face. I’m not even sure if she has any idea what nursing really entails, other than having some vague notion that it’s about helping people, and that she likes the sound of that. Her ignorance seriously disturbs me, and I want to give her the benefit of my many regrettable mistakes and wrong turns.

I’ve pondered for a long time about just breaking the news to her, telling her that she’s not nurse material, that she should just take her two-year degree and work at Wal-Mart, but I can’t be that harsh. I’ve urged her to study harder and smarter, suggested that she get a job, and even suggested joining the army if the nursing fantasy doesn’t work out. My friends say that it’s not my job to tell her what she can’t do. I partially disagree with that idealistic horse shit, because if someone doesn’t tell her to quit, she’ll continue on her absurd path and waste her time and her father’s money until the bitter end, which she is already doing. Others would argue that she needs to find her limits on her own, the hard way, and that her failures are all learning experiences that I shouldn’t take away from her.

The cold, brutal fact is that college is NOT for everyone. Would you tell any of your students to just quit, or would you let them wallow in their own failures for years? You could argue that defining hopeless cases is purely subjective, but why can’t you just offer a student your educated opinion about the appropriateness of them being in college? Who the hell would know better than a teacher? Ethically, should you have to wait for them to ask you your opinion before you provide it?

If you were about to fall off of a cliff, or if you were unknowingly drinking poison every day of your life, would you want anyone to tell you?

I sure would, and I'd be pissed off if they didn't tell me.

No cookies for them. No cookies for ANY of them.

*Another illustration of her cerebral wattage: On a multiple-choice exam, with answers "A" through "E," she was directed to circle the letter next to the correct answer. She knew that the correct answer was, for example, "C," but didn't know whether to circle "B" or "D," since they were both NEXT TO the correct answer.


  1. You really have the tag thing down!

  2. Your footnote reminds me of an answer one of our grad students wrote on an exam. The question was, "Can you explain ... blah blah blah." She didn't know the answer so she wrote, "No."

    She complained, half in jest, that she got it correct. She really didn't know the answer, making her response an accurate answer to the question.

  3. She seems like a rather special case, most times constant course failure and being kicked out of programs is enough to clue in even the dullest bulbs that college is not for them. Maybe she wants to quit but her parents will not let her. And yes, if I was too stupid to relaize I was wasting my time reaching for a goal that was unreachable, I would want some to tell me.

  4. This is a really fascinating story. It's a case that I wouldn't be likely to encounter at the university where I teach, at least given the courses I'm in charge of, but it's important to remember that these kinds of things can happen too. I feel for everyone involved: the student, you, and her parents too.

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  6. I see students like this all the time. Not necessarily ones who won't give up even after years, but students who want careers requiring lots of intelligence when they have apparent IQs of, say, 85. They are working as Personal Care Assistants, for example, and want to be nurses. I see LOTS Of them. EVERY SEMESTER. And gues what? College Comp is one of the courses they have to take that they will NEVER be able to (probably) pass, one of the courses they have to take that will teach them about the impossibility of attaining that dream they have. They CERTAINLY won't get the A that the competitive program they are looking for requires. And they are well informed enough to know they need that A to get into nursing school--- let me tell you!

    It is very sad. And very frustrating. Because no, I don't consider it part of my job to tell people outright they cannot acheive their dreams. But what is WRONG with our society that WE keep telling people a ridiculous LIE?


  7. This is a difficult problem. What would happen to you, if you were to tell your student what you want to tell her, and she goes screaming to your higher-ups that you're "not helpful"? And yet, at the same time, those higher-ups yammer incessantly about improving student quality. And yet, without missing a beat, they howl about increasing retention and enrollment. I am disinclined to tell any student "you'll never make it": I was told this more than enough times, from grade school onward, and now I'm an astronomer with tenure. On the other hand, I've had students in my physics classes who were so incompetent and so dishonest, I've wanted to beg them not to become engineers, because they'd be a source of public danger. My solution has been to grade appropriately, and to argue hard when these grades are contested. One D that I gave lowered the GPA of one loser, about whom another faculty said, "He never should have been allowed to get that far," to where he had to leave the program. Of course, that was the same department in which the department head repeatedly yelled at me for working my students hard: it's a tough problem.

    Mercifully, my present university has a computerized prerequisite-checking system, and when I was department chair, I made sure to enter into it plenty of instances of, "Must have passed with a C or higher." My university also has a new rule that students may only re-take courses twice, but a loophole is that if they drop the course before the end of the term, it doesn't count as one of their three tries. I've had one weasel try to cheat his way through my physics class since Spring of 2004: he's now being forced to go back and take all the prerequisites, but I dread that I'll see him again in 10 or 12 years. When this happens, I will as always make it clear to him that the only way he's going to pass my course is by doing the homework and taking and passing the exams. Just when exactly is the money going to run out for this fool?

  8. My school lies to students. They lure them like sheep into a Nursing program and then, once their performance (after considerably screw-ups) proves lacking, they give the ol' academic reaming - a hearty farewell and a bill.

    So, out of 40 in a cohort - all of whom think they would make stellar nurses - say, 15 of them actually get a chance to go for a license.

    All the same, I look at some of the students and think, "if this was MY nurse, I would F*&king throttle her"

  9. You know? I'm not really positive that "you'll never make it" is ever accurate. Seriously.

    Maybe I've been brought up by the "you can be anything you want" lie, but "you'll never make it" still strikes me as overly harsh and not necessarily true.

    I do, however, support this: "You'll never make it WITHOUT MAJOR, MAJOR CHANGES." I think that's fair. Or "Based on what you're currently capable of, you won't make it SOON." Also fair.

    Will this nursing student change overnight? No. But will she change over the course of the next five or ten years and become someone who might succeed in her nursing program? Maybe. Change is gradual, but it can come. People grow, people learn. She hasn't yet, but she still might.

    As long as she doesn't burn through all her parents' money in the mean time.

  10. How about you talk to the father?

    Let him know that, while you've been happily taking his money these last couple of years, you've also been writing anonymous blog posts about his pea-brained daughter's hilarious shenanigans? Also make it clear that the daughter's failure was more or less pre-ordained, since her ignorance and immaturity (coupled with his---the father's---backward insistence on speaking his own language), had effectively hobbled any chances she might have had of rising above that cesspit of misacculturated nobodies that is Walmart.

    If you conclude by expressing the extent of your rejoicing when you discovered that your student had finally been recognized as the failure you always knew her to be, then I think the problem will solve itself, at least as far as your involvement is concerned.

  11. Is this really true, all of it? I'm usually good at spotting hyperbole and this feels awfully contrived. I know there dumb-as-rocks students everywhere, but this feels like an amalgam of every bad student the writer ever had.

  12. Ruby, maybe I'm jaded. Actually, no, I'm jaded-I'm jaded!

    BUT, I cannot help but wonder if you'd write the same thing after walking a few years in my shoes. I really can't.

    Do you think Charley from "Flowers for Algernon" could have been anything he wanted to be, if only he worked hard enough? Really? How many IQ points does it take to make that all-American assumption a reality? What about the people who just did not receive enough credits in their hands for this round in life? They are out there. And some of them don't want to accept that they might not be able to do everything that other folks can do. But they can't.

    Don't worry, I'd NEVER say that to a person. I'm not sure I'm doing them any favors, but I want to keep my job, and my college wants to keep taking their money.

  13. Are you sure she actually got into the program? If I had a student like this, my first thought at hearing her say she got in would be "uh huh, sure you did." To be accepted into the nursing program where I teach (community college) students have to have straight A's and be especially hard working, as nursing is a very competitive field. I would be surprised if your program there is very different than ours. Students like the one you described might not even be encouraged to apply, and would definitely not be accepted. However, I also see many who naively state their intention to apply, and are still hanging around a few years later, taking and retaking classes, without any sense of direction. Your student sounds like one of those...

  14. Unfortunately, the "you can do anything if you put your mind to it and work hard enough" mantra is so deeply engrained in many young brains that it's hard to talk them out of it.
    I know of a college using the slogan "Dream it--be it" for their marketing. Good thing I don't work in their marketing department, or I'd be coming up with things like "Don't dream it unless it's within your possibilities" and "There's no guarantee that you're going to be it or make it."

  15. Tell you what: why don't you just resign as her tutor? It'll be better for you, since it'll save you the frustration of working with her, and she can't help but be better off with someone with more confidence in her potential, even if she has none. You can always use the old "I'm too heavily scheduled this semester" excuse. And please, don't tell her, "You'll never make it": the only way she'll ever really come to terms with this on her own.

  16. Hey No Cookies. You're an asshole. Wish I could deliver the message personally, but I suppose via the comments you obviously never read will do. You're generic, superficial, biased, privileged, sheltered, closed minded, and immoral (according to MY standards). I would call you a misanthrope, but you're not even that. You're another manufactured complainer, playing the part of the "disdainful teacher." Just another unorginal, insipid human who waits eagerly to have something to complain about, because the only way for them to feel like an accomplished, valuable human being is to complain about those they perceive to be beneath them. But I suspect that even they have more insight and creativity in their underprivileged minds than you will ever have in your fucking flickering, cobwebbed brain--even if they are too lazy or preoccupied to bother learning how to articulate it.

    Fuck you.

  17. When I said biased, I really meant to say bigoted. But the man is obviously biased as well. So far he's made personal judgments about single mothers, people who still live with their parents, financially underprivileged people, and now foreigners. It's one thing to complain about behavioral problems, laziness, and bad attitudes, but it's another to make personal judgments and assumptions about people's circumstances. This man is a self rightous asshole.

  18. Irisesintheocean: The Internet forgives all wrongs as long as one is funny; the man -is- that.

    No Cookies: If I were you and I were interested in resolving the problem you describe in a manner that would give me moral and emotional catharsis (I do understand that complaining about it and pocketing the money may in fact be preferable, all joking aside), my path would be a visit to the girl's father during which, at some point, I resigned my tutoring position in person and gave candid reasons for doing so.

  19. While the student may have preferred to be a nurse instead, the fact is that she will at least get some sort of degrees. In some families, this is a social requirement the same way high school is a must for most people. Thus, what you may see as failure may still be partial success. However, 7 years is not such a long time. I can see this student becoming more proficient in English (after all, by your own admission, her English is not so bad even though she does not know words like "cast"). She may also become better as a student. She may still not get the career of her choice, but she may be able to improve. In my province (I'm in Canada), most Bachelor's Degrees take 3 years but a community college of sorts (called Cégep) is required after high school and before university. That college education takes 2 or 3 years, so overall, a degree takes 5 years or longer, although the Cégep part is generally easier. Maybe this student would have benefited from that kind of system. She's just a few years behind in terms of language skills and academically, and possibly psychologically, but she can still grow into a fully competent adult, or at least as competent as most degree holders.


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