Friday, January 28, 2011

The Contemplative Cynic Sends Us, "When the Snowflakes Are Our Colleagues."

To hear my students tell it, I'm like really, really old 'n' stuff because I'm no longer in my twenties. But I'm not too old to recognize that sometimes a career in teaching isn't the best match for some of my less-disciplined, easily-distracted, narcissistic colleagues who spend more time ruminating about themselves than about any required subject matter.

As I walked towards my office, I passed a Basket-Weaving classroom this morning, where I heard a colleague--whom I have labeled "Coffee Colleague" because of her insistence on carrying a Starbucks coffee travel mug with her everywhere--describing, in great detail and at greater volume than necessary, the angst she had faced because the fancy half-caf-latte-cappuccino maker she'd received for her wedding four years ago had chosen this morning to give up the java by burbling its last. To hear her tell it, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming, and the Renaissance Reformation were all occurring in her kitchen. And on purpose. Said fancy European appliance had carefully chosen today to torture her with its inability to froth forth.

Loitering by the drinking fountain next to her classroom allowed me to both eavesdrop and rehydrate myself. At this point, had it been my class, I would have canned the chit-chat and started in on the lecture or the day's activities. Clearly, the lack of caffeinated courage had also diminished my colleague's common sense, because she then started to seek suggestions from students about the best coffee source on or near the campus. Not once did she glance at the clock behind her at her cell phone or watch to see if perhaps 12 minutes of self gratifying grumbling was enough to get the point across and start the lecture already.

Minute 13 ticked by... what had started as a sad saga about the coffee machine now launched into a memory of best coffee-shop-grading experiences. The mere fact that she grades her students' work at a coffee shop when she has... um... had... a coffee maker at home, irritated me. Why would someone go to a coffee shop to BUY coffee and grade student work on a table the size of a large pizza when they could spread out at home with coffee they'd already paid for? And why was the lecture not starting?

Minute 15 and Coffee Colleague finally pulled out her lecture notes and attempted to gain some level of control from the class by saying, "OK, let's take out a piece of paper to do a quiz."

'Aaaaaaand, we're finally starting class,' I thought. But no...

"Question One: What is the best coffee you've ever had?" she asked. I kid you not! Were I a student in the class, I would have been gleeful because this was a question I would have signed, sealed, and nailed to the door in triplicate to affirm my knowledge of something insignificant that a professor would deem legitimate.

Were I a less snoopy colleague, I would have sidled away and pretended I hadn't loitered for 15 minutes outside her classroom. Instead, I chose to remain. And I chose to listen as the first 20 minutes of class were taken up by Coffee Colleague's personal agenda of the day.

My bladder decided for me that standing next to the humming water fountain for 20 minutes was enough to incite someone to write a blog about their creepy colleague who eavesdropped on their class, so I made my way to the restroom, and then to my office, where I sipped my own home-made cup of brew and planned a real quiz for my class.

Incidentally, when class was over, Coffee Colleague thought it might brighten my day to come and share with me the tragedy that was her morning. I listened, all the while slurping my coffee a little louder than necessary...


  1. I don't mind a little rapport or chit-chat before class that happens to go into the first 30 seconds or minute of class. We can comment on the weather or the school's sports team for a moment. I will often start history classes with a snippet from the news that somehow relates to what we are studying. Not every word said in class has to focus directly on the test. But this coffee saga sounds ridiculous.

    And this is precisely the shit I can't stand on student papers. Do we like it when the first two paragraphs of the term paper is autobiographical meta-discourse about the circumstances surrounding the research and writing? No: "It was really hard to find material on this subject, so I asked the librarian and he told me..." "There was nothing online for this subject, so I got two books..." "My great uncle fought in WW2 and told me all about how the Japanese treated American POWs. That matched pretty closely what a documentary was saying just last night on the history channel. Well, that is what this paper is going to be about." Even that kind of drivel is more on-topic than your colleague.

  2. "Coffee" is now apparently an interest/hobby worthy of being listed by a student on an introductory questionnaire. It showed up on several I received this semester. I was thinking more along the lines of sports or debate or saving the whales/political prisoners/small businesspeople threatened by taxes when I asked the question.

    This post makes me feel better about not being very good at chitchat, autobiographical or not. Thanks.

  3. Hm. Is there any chance you're exaggerating just a little? Was it really 20 minutes of chat? Was there another quiz question, and she was just using this as a funny opener to loosen the students up? Any possibility that you're a little envious of the rapport she has with her students? I'm not a coffee-talk kind of proffie, myself, but in a far-away galaxy, where my students didn't do the reading (ever) or didn't understand a word of it if they did, I found myself turning into one of these people. When your carefully crafted lecture is met with drool, open admissions of incomprehension, and written responses that take dada to a new level, frankly, you lose your conviction that anything you say will make an impression and you stop trying to say it. I started telling funny stories about historical figures and making comparisons to pop culture. I turned into someone I'm not, just to try to escape that feeling of utter hopelessness. I left, and am now blessed with fabulous students, at least 20% of whom could kick my ass anytime, but who thankfully restrain themselves in the mistaken belief that I have something to teach them. There are people who work really well under my former circumstances, who have infinite patience and are better people than I. Perhaps you're one. Perhaps your colleague is not. Or maybe she really is the self-indulgent fool you're making her seem. I dunno.

  4. "And this is precisely the shit I can't stand on student papers. Do we like it when the first two paragraphs of the term paper is autobiographical meta-discourse about the circumstances surrounding the research and writing?"

    It's something that I was literally required to do in high school. Ever heard of an "I-Search paper"? In this hilariously babyish format, you have to include sections like "What I already know" and "what I want to know" (first person is an absolute must) in addition to the actual paper, which goes in the section "What I found out". Maybe these students think that every paper they ever write is supposed to be in I-Search format?

  5. @Claire - Shocking. Those kinds of autobiographical meta-narratives aren't all that common, but I do get several per year. I figured it was just what came naturally to those particular students, or what they thought was interesting, or what they were used to on Facebook, or most likely their way of filling space without addressing the core issues. I never considered the possibility that they were actually being taught to write that way on purpose.

    Maybe, just for laughs, I'll teach a whole cohort of my own little basketweavers something absurd too, just to see how it makes its way up through the system like capillary action. "Okay, class, as you probably already know, it is customary to copy-paste the entire source you are citing into the body of the footnote. This is easy to do for online sources. Then, within the footnote, you highlight the spot you got the information from so that the reader can see the information you are using in context. This helps future social scientists trace your claims back to the primary sources. So in your term papers, when you cite an article from a journal, you post the whole article into the footnote. With books, it is enough to just post the chapter you are using..."

  6. @Cass, I wish this WERE an exercise in hyperbole, but sadly, students have even begun to complain (well, maybe only two, and they are both older than Coffee Colleague) that too much of class time is spent on Coffee Colleague's narcissistic monologuing about her life. There isn't much beyond that going on. The only reason I'm not more annoyed is that I don't teach in her Dept. and don't have to have her students next semester when they're supposed to know this s**t already.

    @Claire: for real?!! You mean I could be teaching MY students to ramble about themselves for no reason in the first 3 paragraphs & some teacher somewhere would applaud?!!!

  7. @Cass: I know the hustle and dance you speak of when you see the glazed looks and notice that 79% of the class has no clue what class they are even sitting in. Any strategies work best for you?

  8. I once witnessed a male colleague in his fifties spend the first ten minutes of a fifty minute class chatting with the pretty, nineteen year old, female student in the front row.

  9. As someone with lots of friends with procrastination problems, I can tell you that people choose to "work" at a coffee shop because it is more distracting than sitting in your office alone, and rewards your desire to see people, listen to music, buy a few extra scones and cupcakes, etc. You go home after 5 hours feeling like "hey! I just put in 5 hours!" But really the amount of work they do could be done in my office in about 60 minutes.

    It's like the grad student study groups that study for 20 minutes and then reward themselves with a four-hour visit to a pub.

  10. @Claire -- I'm touring kindergartens, and posters with these "I-Search" columns are on many a wall, filled with background, questions, and observations about frogs, fossils, pizza, and so on. But age 9, you ought to be just writing up your findings. Seriously. It's called a report, and we started them in 3rd grade. Analytic term paper in 5th. In what hell did you have to go to high school?

  11. Ooops, "But BY age 9." I always do this when I'm falling-over tired.

  12. This 'I-Search' method sounds like what I would say to a 6-year-old if I was trying to explain the process of writing a dissertation proposal. All well and good, of course -- but how did it filter up to high-school-level instruction?

  13. Oh, *sigh*, CC: thanks for asking. You have more faith that anything I was doing was "working" than I do. I guess it depends on how you define "works." If you're asking how I got good evals and got the students to like me and maybe even got them to evince mild interest in my field, well, that's pretty easy: be passionate about your field, convey your enthusiasm in class, and tell them about strange events or people related to your field. Be funny, if you can. Be self-deprecating. That's it. Don't kid yourself: it's a personality contest. I did *like* my students, too, even if I was also frustrated by their lack of commitment, and I think that helps.

    If by "work" you mean: allowed them to develop or advance analytic skills, gave them a data-set large enough to allow them a basic working knowledge of the field, or helped them write well, then I've got nothing. If you want those things to happen, you've got to get students who can meet you half-way. They have to be both marginally capable and willing to put some time into the class. I hope you have some of these folks! (And even in that far-away galaxy, I had some who were capable and some who were willing to put some time in. There was almost no overlap between the two groups.) If you don't, well... I was talking to a math proffie once, and he said to me: "well, you know, some of them will get it, and some of them won't." This is probably not a revelation to you, but it sure was to me: I think it's the most profound and freeing thing anyone's ever said to me about teaching, and I think it's true for all disciplines.

    Really, I agree with you that no amount of dead-eyed staring excuses you from giving a class your all, and Coffee Colleague sounds like a twit, but I guess I can understand the temptation...

  14. @Cass, Thanks! It's always a balancing act for me to try to gain attention and not be too goofy while staying on track with the lesson and actually getting through the lecture. I have pretty good rapport with students, but don't always know how to engage the unengageable... and now, I will just tell myself that "some will get it and some won't." I always feel like it's MY JOB to make sure they ALL get it. And if they aren't, I must be deficient, in some way.

    As a follow-up: I heard that Coffee Colleague's time on campus is actually limited and contracts might won't be renewed next year. Apparently, I am not the only person who has loitered in the hallway and noticed that nothing much is happening in class. Then again, campus gossip sometimes is just that: gossip.

  15. I *know* that feeling CC! I think it's a humanities-specific disease that's spread relatively recently, and has infected our students too... They, too, often feel like it's OUR JOB to make sure they get it. And also that the nature of the humanities makes it possible for everyone to get it. (I'll give you that "getting it" in humanities has a wider range of manifestations, but not that it's possible for everyone to "get it.") It's partly our job, fer sure, but it's also theirs. Most of them know that... Give Coffee Colleague a nice smoochy send-off!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.