Monday, November 1, 2010


Every semester I get a diva (or, I suppose, a divo, depending upon the gender). The diva is different from the ordinary snowflake or even the super-keener in that the student is not only eager to please but also to show the proffie how incredibly "deep," "sensitive," or "insightful" he or she is. Much drama ensues when the instructor fails to recognize the profound inner light emanating from said diva. Perhaps we get more of these in the humanities since some of my colleagues will eat up this crap and ask for seconds.

My diva this semester is Serious Sergio. Sergio began the term by emailing me that it was "imperitive" we meet in person even though the course he's in is online. I enjoy meeting my online students and encourage them to come in, so we scheduled an appointment. He showed up fifteen minutes early and was already badgering my colleagues about where I could possibly be when I arrived right on time.

Our conversation consisted of his telling me that I was going to be "shocked" at his writing because he was so "honest, even blatant" in the way he expressed his opinions. He said that he likes to "think deeply" and "present provocative ideas." I just smiled and listened. I told him if he could provide textual and critical evidence to support his opinions, he was free to express them. He was also free to disagree with his classmates and me as long as he did so respectfully and again provided evidence for his refutations.

When he introduced himself to the class, he informed everyone that although Sergio was his given name, he in fact liked to be called Zeus because he thinks that name is much more appropriate given his personality. Shortly after that, he began work in the course. His bold opinions were underwhelming, to be kind. It was more of the same old tripe unless you count forgetting basic rules of capitalization, sentence structure, paragraphing, and use of ellipses as original thought. His idea of being provocative was to tell the class that Story X was remarkably like an anime series he'd watched and then post links to all 21 episodes so we could all watch them and discuss the themes as they relate to all the other course material. When he started to get his grades back, he wrote me telling me he was "crushed," asking, "What did i do wrong?" He called my office begging to speak with me. I told him that since we were dealing with writing, it would be easier to go over it either in person or online rather than by phone, but since he insisted, I gave it my best shot.

After I reviewed all his mistakes and offered him some good ideas about how to delve deeper into the text and do effective revising and editing, he got very quiet. He sulked for three days and didn't log into the course at all. Then he didn't do the last two assignments. When I went into the office today, he'd left a tearful message asking me to call him. As I prepared to do so, I logged into class. He'd emailed me there telling me, "i am regretful to inform you that as of today I have dropped this course, you're curiculum is not compatable with my needs."

So Sergio is no longer my problem, at least until my year-end stats come out and my chair gives me the earnest speech about "what you could have done to save this student." It's been my experience that almost every time a student wants to spend an enormous amount of time with me convincing me of his or her uniqueness, that student ends up dropping anyway or contesting the grade at the end. Why is it that the ones who are high maintenance are always the ones who end up biting you in the butt even after you put in the extra effort?


  1. You got to teach Devo? I am jealous.

    Mathsquatch out.

  2. (Puts flowerpot on head)
    Are we not flakes?

  3. "God made man, but a monkey supplied the glue..."
    - "Jocko Homo", Devo

  4. I had a similar case in an online class. He didn't announce his brilliance in advance, but simply plunged in. His writing in the online conferences was completely incoherent. He used long, broken sentences and constantly inserted words that didn't quite mean what he thought they meant. It read as if a Chinese intellectual had put his contributions through a translating program. Since the student had a "foreign"-sounding name, I think that might actually have been at least part of what was going on. Anyway, when I wrote him about it, asking him to strive for clarity and say what he means in simple words, in a straightforward manner, he told me that he was very intelligent and wrote at such a high level of reasoning that not everybody could be expected to understand what he was saying.

  5. OH, dude. DUDE. I had this kid. But he also wanted to have sexytimes on the basis of his brilliance.

    I wonder if talking to the student's dean (if it's possible) would help. I did this with sexytimes student in the form of visiting the dean (NOT writing an email) and outlining my concerns regarding the individual's learning style. The Dean told me that I was "not the only one complaining" and that I "shouldn't worry" about the student. Instead, I should do what you had done--provide constructive criticism and document said criticism. Said Dean also offered to notify my chair of the problems with the student. I did not mention the offer of sexytimes to the Dean since I figured that would just make things more complicated.

    That Dean was a freaking saint.

  6. "i am regretful to inform you that as of today I have dropped this course, you're curiculum is not compatable with my needs."

    One day I will walk into a classroom and say, "I've decided not to teach any of you. My teaching is not compatible with your desire not to learn anything."

    Then I'll go get drunk.

  7. Wow, I wonder if my professors have gone these ordeals every time I've dropped a class because I hated it. I don't make a big dramatic scene about it; I just drop the class and e-mail the professor a polite note not to expect me the following week, without specifying why I dropped (generally it's because of their boring 'lectures' that are merely the entire textbook reproduced as slides, which they read aloud while the class snoozes). It never occurred to me that they would have to endure a "why-didn't-you-save-this-student" conversation with the dean. Not that I'd stop dropping classes if I don't like them, but it doesn't seem fair that the professor should be grilled about my dropping, even if they are bad teachers.

    Does having a lot of dropped students on the roster reflect poorly (if unfairly) on the professor, in the eyes of the dean et. al.?

  8. At my institution they know the faculty-wide drop-rate, and they don't worry about the drop-rate in any individual class unless it's wildly higher than the overall average; and even then they won't necessarily blame the instructor, since it's quite possibly the course that's the problem.

    If 3 instructors teach the same course, and they all have high drop rates, it's time to figure out what's going on with the course. Maybe it's just, you know, difficult because it has to be, and students who aren't dedicated drop it once they realise what they're in for. If we only lose 30% of the students in an Intro To Complicated Spellcasting, for example, it was a good term. If we lose 30% in Preliminary Basketweaving, on the other hand, there's something seriously wrong.

    If one instructor routinely has extremely high drop rates no matter what class they teach, however, the issue is the instructor, and discussions would occur. If the instructor was an adjunct, and didn't have a long-term contract, a consistent extremely high drop-rate would likely affect their being re-hired. But the drop rate would be considered relative to the faculty rate, and relative to the rate when other people teach the same course, and relative, also, to any changes that might have affected things (did we change to a really lame textbook? would be the first question we'd ask.)

  9. At Large Urban Community College, we have been given a target rate. Any course which consistently fails to meet that target rate as an average is deemed "high risk," and we are required to look at ways to bring it up. Every single "gatekeeper" course (the ones all students are required to take) falls into the high-risk category. While English isn't as bad as some, pretty much all of our courses average anywhere from 5% to 25% below that target.

    We also have a "one more student" campaign. We are constantly asked, "What could you have done to save one more student in your course?" Some departments are more hard core about this than others. My chair happens to be a Kool-Aid drinking fool who buys into this. She knows we can't save 'em all, yet she will pick a random student on a roster and ask a faculty member, "What about this one? Is there anything you could have done to save this student?" If we have a particularly bad class, we get asked what we should have done differently.

    And don't get me started on the requests we get to call students to ask them to pay their bills so classes will make. We're told it's "strictly optional," but if we choose not to, we're told, "You don't get to complain about your schedule changing at the last minute." When I went into this, I never in a million years thought I'd have to harass students into paying their tuition and coming to class under threat of my teaching six freshman comp sections. I never thought I'd be held personally accountable for drops. It is a different time with statistics and the almighty dollar co-piloting the higher education plane.

    And thanks for the Devo laugh. It makes me want to take a whip to my office and keep it there as a prop!

  10. No, Patty, it usually isn't a big deal at all.

    In fact, I usually don't even get a note from students who drop. They just disappear. Usually, I don't even think about it. No big deal. When students write a short note explaining why they dropped, I appreciate it: family priorities, don't like the class, unexpected job obligations - whatever. When they critisize the class in that context, it is not anonymous and usually constructive. But it looks like this particular incident was an event in this student's life and the student made sure the prof took notice.

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  12. In the physical sciences and engineering, we do have a sub-species of this breed. It's often referred to as the "Male Student Egomaniac," although females of the species have also been sighted in recent years. We had several posts about them on RYS, including these:

    As noted in these posts, a particularly annoying variant is the specimen who is ALL MOUTH. I really can't bear pretension when it's based on limited talent.

    There’s one in my physics department now, a different specimen than the one I wrote about in my RYS post mentioned above. This new one registered for two of my classes: Elementary Astronomy for Non-Majors and Intro to Astrophysics for Physics Majors. With both, he decided after a week or so it wouldn’t “fit” his “needs.”

    With the first, he actually asked me, “What kind of class is this, anyway?” I answered, “I told you: a course mainly for students not majoring in science.” This, and the question of why take a class like this, are discussed in detail during the first two days of class. I know he was there and awake, so I really don’t know why he still didn’t know this.

    He then asked to take the rest of the class by examination only. I agreed, since he was clearly bored. He got a B, fair and square.

    He dropped the second class entirely. Again he was acting bored. Again, he was extensively knowledgeable of the subject only in his imagination.

    I hear he’s been doing good work in the experimental high-energy physics group. I say fine, let him get on with it, preferably far from me. However, he recently asked to do an independent study project with me on cosmology (which is the study of the origin of the Universe: it ties in nicely with high-energy physics, but that’s a long story).

    I flat-out told him no, because he hadn’t finished the first two courses he’d undertaken with me. I didn’t want to knock myself out in making up a course just for him, since he’s given me every reason to expect he’ll decide he doesn’t like it, and drop it mid-semester.

    And that was that!

  13. God I love Devo! They were the soundtrack of my youth!

    Anyway, I WISH WISH WISH we could CHOOSE to drop students like in the old days. Now, we're stuck with them...

    There are a couple of little retention programs in effect at my CC, but I couldn't care less about them. I don't try to "save" any of my students. That's THEIR job--to "save" themselves.

    Where the fuck is human initiative anymore?

    It's not my job to "save" you or anyone else.


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