Sunday, July 11, 2010

In which The Arrogant Student gets earnest (and a bit less arrogant)

Seriously, I warned you. I don't want to hear shit about how this isn't satirical enough or funny enough or whatever you were looking for. My regular assholery (whether you like it or not) will continue anon. Below, though, is a long-winded, self-indulgent post that gets around to the teaching of snowflakes only after some tedious ranting about, ah, who cares, you've probably stopped reading already.

The Arrogant Student is a persona, a caricature of an unfortunate personality trait — but one that helps me fit in a little in my current environment. I am a graduate student at a US R1 university, in a top-10 program in my field. When I think about that, I feel a little proud, but even more, I feel humbled and grateful. I very well could have never earned a BA, much less have been admitted here.

See, I was something of a flake myself once. Way back in high school, I was one of those damnable students who was precocious and engaged (at least when I was in class) but also never did any homework (but still aced the exams) and was more than a little flippant. But at the time, I was also suffering from depression and an anxiety disorder. My teachers, friends, and family realized what was up, even as I didn't. So I got a lot of sympathy and coddling at school. I had grades entered into gradebooks for exams I never took, was offered extra opportunities to complete work when it was obvious my as-yet-undiagnosed mental health conditions made me unable to finish, and had my flippancy go unsanctioned. Except for having my arrogance tolerated, I never asked for any of it; it was handed to me because my teachers wanted me to do the work (or get the grades) they knew I was capable of. And also perhaps because it was easier to cheat for me than to get past my arrogance and help me.

None of this ever made me respect my teachers or my school. In fact, I felt outright derision for them. The teachers I respected were the few who didn't let me get away with being an asshole. Now, though, my feelings are mixed. It's hard to ponder counterfactuals. I'm grateful for the sympathy of my teachers, and I realize they wanted to help me. But if I weren't so coddled, perhaps I would have failed sooner and therefore gotten help sooner and not have suffered for so many years. Then again, perhaps I wouldn't be where I am now (and I am very happy here).

In college, my depression and anxiety worsened. I spent a few years floundering before I dropped out and found a decent therapist. I worked for a bit and found the opportunities available to me limited and depressing. Eventually, I went back to school. This time, without the burden of my previous psychiatric condition, I excelled. The rewards I got were actually earned, and I respected my instructors.

It felt great to finally get grades that were both good and deserved. But this feeling was mixed with another — gratitude. I knew that I might not have had that second opportunity (or even the first) if it weren't for having parents who were able and willing to bear the burden of my initial failures, my expensive (not covered by insurance) therapy, and my return to school. I took my second chance at university very seriously because I felt that it was something rare and special, and because I really wanted access to better jobs.

Obviously, at some point, I decided to apply to graduate school. Some fool thought I was good enough despite the horror of my undergraduate transcripts, so I was admitted. And here I am, quite amazed at the difference in my life in only a few years.

And here I teach the snowflakes. I am new at this, and perhaps I have it better than others, but I can feel myself burning out already. As I mentioned in a previous post, I used to love teaching. I still do, but I am afraid that the snowflakes will make me hate it. Having been a contemptuous asshole for most of my life, I empathize a little with them, especially the ones who clearly are suffering. But I refuse to coddle them. I won't do for them what my teachers did for me. I won't offer them outs that engender the kind of shitty attitude I had for so long or that enable the denial of or lack of treatment for the depression and anxiety I recognize in many of my students. And those who are not suffering, who are merely ungrateful and lazy, I want to hate them for it, but I don't. I really just want them to learn and succeed. I'm not sure how long that will last, though. It's already slipping away as they break my heart little by little. I don't really want to be a miserable, angry, or resentful academic (assuming there's a job out there for me), but I'm beginning to think it's inevitable. Is it?


  1. I don't really want to be a miserable, angry, or resentful academic (assuming there's a job out there for me), but I'm beginning to think it's inevitable. Is it?


    Welcome to The Meanest Professor Ever's reality, kiddo.

    It's only gonna get worse, so be sure to look after yourself first before you look after anyone else.

  2. I'd say no. You will be fine if you don't get over-involved, and don't let your ego get tied up in their success, failure, cheating or mark-grubbing. These are all up to THEM; they have nothing to do with you.

    Your job is to facilitate learning the subject for those in your class who are willing and capable of taking advantage of the opportunity. That's all. You work hard, we all work hard, doing our best to teach those who want to learn. But there our duty ends. The ones who want to do end-runs - it's their problem, not yours. Don't let it get to you. They have issues and they aren't your issues. The real world will hit them one day soon.

    Do your best to help the ones that are really trying, but flailing. Refer those with medical or psychological problems (depression is wildly common among undergrads) to campus health or campus counselling; you aren't qualified to deal with their issues, but others are. Accept any documented excuse (that is, note from doctor/counsellor/similar authority) without argument; it will save you a lot of grief and offload the responsibility to the experts to whom it properly belongs.

    Concentrate on the students who are trying, who are interested. Don't think ill of the ones who, for one reason or another, don't seem to be. Laziness is a common problem among undergrads, but lousy time-management and consequent complete overwhelm are also very common, and when they're just coming out of high school, where their teachers all but blew their noses for them, it's not surprising that it takes them awhile to find their feet. You can see this, and be gentle and respectful of students who are genuinely going through a hard time (and that's most of them), and still be tough as nails, set and maintain firm boundaries.

    And you are dead right that maintaining those boundaries is in the short as well as the long term the very best thing you can do for them. You can be kind and still refuse to bend the rules.

    And if you do those things you won't burn out.

  3. Except that I'm not teaching yet, I could have written your post.

    I watch the (less experienced) professors around me break their hearts on my fellow students, and I'm doing what I can right now to steel myself against the eventuality.

    Please, be assured, it's a broken system. Education in the US is not designed to output hard working, interested, engaged and curious people. It took seven years of working at dead-end jobs for me to get myself back to college to take it much more seriously the second time around. We need people like you to teach us. Please don't give up.

  4. Let me also say that some students (like me) let their professors know how much their efforts mean to them. And I know at my university there are brilliant, hardworking, interesting, dedicated and kindhearted professors. I've had the immense luck to experience many of them, and I adore them all. I try to let them know as often as possible and polite. It is a good thing to educate. It is a good thing to expand knowledge and use it to change people's lives. That's why *I* want to teach. You'll find people who want to learn, they just may be few and far between.

  5. Yeah, your story is a good lesson for professors: Don't. Take. It. Personally.

    But for me the hardest thing is protecting the education of the ones who do try from the slackers and a-holes, who are often ruining it for more than just themselves. It's a full-time job, shutting up the unprepared babblers, doing reading quizzes so we can have a decent discussion, not accepting late work because it sends the responsible ones a sh*tty message, telling those who wanted last-minute miracles that I refuse to sell short the ones who worked all semester, creating cheat-proof assignments, and so on. Lordy. Fifteen years ago, I just taught.

  6. Let this comfort you: As miserable as they are making things for you, these losers are screwing themselves even worse. Unless their Daddies have a trust fund set aside, your students will suffer more for their incompetence, arrogance and deceit than you are suffering now.

    Picture one of those motivational posters with that sentiment underneath a picture of a student's report with a big, red "F" on it. Doesn't that make your day a bit brighter? I works for me.

  7. I realize I didn't make it very clear in my post, so I wanted to add that I didn't engage in any of the grade-grubbing, entitled behavior that is common of many snowflakes. When I failed, I knew why, accepted it, and didn't make a peep to my profs. Just, y'know, I want to save a little face here.

    @MPE: Oh, I definitely take care of myself first. And second. And third. But can't I take care of them just a little? Or is the only solution a bottle of gin and some angry, pseudonymous ranting on a blog?

    @MA: Thank you. It's hard for me, now, to see the students who just don't care pissing away their opportunities as if said opportunities didn't mean anything. And I don't want to think I can't do anything for them. "Maintaining those boundaries is in the short as well as the long term the very best thing you can do for them." That is good to hear.

    @ALG: I'll add that my experiences with my classmates after returning to undergraduate did prepare me somewhat for teaching later. But just wait until you read your first round of undergraduate essays. You probably won't be able to grade them the first try. Just have a box tissues and bottle of your beverage of choice at hand while you read them all. For what it's worth, these kinds of stories seem common enough among graduate students (at least in my field), despite what the grubbers over at The Grad Cafe might say. Also, I feel I ought to say that the returning students in my classes were gems. The difference in attitude was very obvious, even without their explicitly saying anything. Teaching them was a pleasure.

    @MB: I face a mostly different set of problems than the ones you name, but I found the other side of the college classroom shocking, nonetheless. It never occurred to me to do things my students do (mostly plagiarism, bizarre absence excuses, grade grubbing, endless pointless email, etc.), so I had no idea how either how common these things were or how much time they took up.

    @BB: Thank you and amen. I was thinking of hanging a poster of the RYS penguin in my office next semester, but I like your idea better.

  8. *laugh* Oh. No. I've edited an undergrad journal for the last few years. If the essays are at all on par with most of our submissions, then it will be a trying time for me, and more specifically for my husband, because I don't drink until the work is done. Not even one drink with dinner. The temptation is too great. Though if they're worse...well I might just succumb. However, I did receive a four line love poem as a submission this last year that made me want to gouge my eyes out. *sigh* Good times...

  9. They're worse. Much worse. I promise. You are probably looking at the top 10%. I'm serious about not grading them the first time through. Read them, revise your rubric, cry a little over your compromised standards. Then grade them, and, still, a shocking number will fail.

    I don't teach composition courses, but I still teach composition every semester. And academic honesty. And grammar. All on top of the "course content" proper. And I usually teach sophomores--y'know, students who have passed the freshman writing requirement and had another semester or two of college-level coursework (almost all of which requires writing). Still, they don't know or refuse to accept that they have to include an introduction, or that they should write in paragraphs rather than bulleted lists, or that copying and pasting from Wikipedia not only is plagiarism but also doesn't fulfill their scholarly sources requirement. And those are just the obvious, gross problems. Deeper than that is the confused, inconsistent, and/or incoherent thinking that becomes apparent through subtler cues such as paragraphing.

  10. Oh, Arrogant're already me!

    Please be careful. Some people in academia really turn a blind eye to how bad some undergrads are and the grad students are often on the front-line handling them!

    It's no longer just a handful of them per course. It's often 50-75% of any class population with these deep, deep problems.

    I am still a bit stunned by my first bullet-points-as-essay submission. The girl was smart too!

    Oh, and never, EVER tell them you revise your rubric after reading a few submissions. An entire class turned on me after I told them that. They apparently failed to grasp it RAISED their grades in the end. Or they were offended I revealed they had actually done poorer than they thought. They all think they're brilliant!


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