Tuesday, July 30, 2013

First Outraged Oscar ... now Unqualified Ursula

Bella recently brought us details of her deck and the story of Outraged Oscar. While I have certainly encountered my share of Oscars, Unqualified Ursula is a new (and growing) demographic.

From my recent experience being force-fed the recipe for the compliment sandwich, I was predictably panicked when I started getting Ursula's work. Not so many spelling errors, but deep, structural flaws in sentences and paragraphs. Big words in places they didn't belong. Homonyms flying this way and that. You could feel the effort being expended, but the outcome was incomprehensible.

I tried to be encouraging. Early grades were heavy on "A for effort, but D for execution" manipulation of the rubric. Still, Ursula pressed on and the repetition of many of the easily correctable errors began the queasy feeling in my gullet. At one point, in response to an EMail where I expressed concern and offered assistance, Ursula attempted to argue that this was a matter of cultural dissimilarity and I shouldn't be penalizing her because she knew she understood the material even if she shouldn't actually convey that understanding in an assignment.

Finally, an assignment was submitted that simply was incomprehensible. I contacted the Writing Center, attaching Ursula's name redacted assignment. "WTF can I do?" I asked, "Reviewing this assignment, the underlying issues would appear so severe that remediation simultaneous with course work seems implausible." I feared the answer.

As I waited for a response, Ursula began to notice her quickly falling grades and the delay in returning this one. "Are you saying I don't understand the materials?" she challenged, her disdain palpable even in an EMail. The bear trap in to which I had stepped began digging deeper into my leg. "Well, it certainly seems you are putting forth significant effort," I grasped for complement sandwich bread, "but the problems in presenting your thoughts make determining your understanding immensely difficult."

As the latest salvo went back-and-forth with Ursula, the Writing Center let me know they agreed about the significant challenge presented and that it surpassed their usual supportive role. But they forwarded the inquiry to the International Student Office. A few days later, the ISO essentially concurred with the Writing Center - big problem, sorry, we can't help beyond giving this standard handout of basic skill building webinars.

At this point, everything points to having to move up the academic ladder. Meanwhile, Ursula is getting angrier. The list of webinars was dismissed in hand. Reminiscent of Contingent Cass's work-study-time conundrum, "I am much too busy with family and work obligations to complete a series of workshops," Ursula asserted. But then she fires both barrels, "And why are you involving the Writing Center? Why aren't you, the instructor, helping me? Shouldn't you be instructing me on how to get my point across? I guess I misunderstood the role of the instructors here."

I was still waiting for admin's response. Remember that queasy feeling I was getting as I saw Ursula making the same mistakes? Yup ... when I reminded her that I had, indeed, provided copious feedback on all her early assignments (along with several general guidance announcements and my own library of helpful "Make your life easier by not making these common mistakes" presentations)  she admitted to having never seen them before.

But here's the coup de grĂ¢ce ... all admin could say was "perhaps we should have a conference with the student to reinforce the importance of good writing?"

After three different people read this paper and saw the same deep fundamental problems shouldn't the pressing question be: "Is Ursula prepared to work at this level?"

I wholeheartedly support giving a student who is struggling with whatever challenge -- language barrier or inflexible work schedule -- some support and flexibility. But when you get 75% of the way through a quarter and the student's work barely earns a D because it is incomprehensible, WTF will a meeting accomplish?

I can see the writing on the wall, regardless of the student's problems, their causes, possible/probable resolution, etc. ... this will all become *MY* responsibility.

Because, wouldn't you know it, once I demonstrated to Ursula that she had been getting feedback all along, now she's asking to redo her unacceptable work. No remediation has been undertaken. But she will be able to do a quick re-write of several short assignments while she is finishing the course and (let's not forget) her final paper!


  1. This makes me think of the new conundrum facing higher ed: is it better to admit unprepared students or have less students?

    1. Less students. Hands down.

      I'm not saying we should take away the opportunity for college to students who are just a little underprepared. Surely some of these students end up succeeding with enough hard work and support. But we've all had a handful of students who just weren't in a place where they'd even have a chance at being successful, at least at that point in their lives. We do them a disservice by letting them waste their own money (as well as taxpayer money) and their own time (as well as our time) flailing around in college, failing classes left and right, and missing out on the opportunity to actually be spending this time working a job and getting real work experience that might help them out in the future, instead of a handful of D's, F's, and W's and a big pile of debt.

    2. We should admit everyone we can afford to let in, and refuse to let them stay in if they don't accomplish what they need to.

      That will never, ever, ever happen, because retention is considered an end in itself.

    3. Retention is a false god, to which quality and standards are sacrificed upon the altar of faux egalitarianism. The smoke and stench from that unholy sacrifice covers up the ungainly, but undeniable, truth that not everyone can/needs/should go to college.

  2. Oh my very yes. I have two of these folks this summer session. One of them is responding to my continued "simplify, simplify, simplify" comments and the writing is reaching the realm of comprehensibility. The other...not so much. Neither of them has a language barrier to overcome.

    And I agree with ^sapphire: We keep admitting students who can't do the work because we need the tuition dollars to make up for the shortfall in the state allocation. Then we get put on notice because our drop/withdrawal rate exceeds 5%. It is an exercise in futility.

    So, A&S, I feel your pain.

  3. Aaarrrggggghhhhh. Not only is Ursula unprepared, she is a snowflake of the first order: too special and busy to get help, while also needy for the professor's time. You care about her education, enough to offer detailed feedback and seek help for her from multiple sources. If ever a case cried out for the CM motto,* this is it.

    It also sucks that you're not getting specific support from your admin.

    So you have a choice:

    A. Don't allow Ursula to resubmit the earlier assignments. Most likely she will complain to your chair and/or dean, and answering to them will eat into your limited summer time off.

    B. Allow Ursula to resubmit the earlier assignments. Most likely she will fail, and regrading them will eat into your limited summer time off.

    I vote for B as the less stressful, less time-consuming choice.

    *For Orville: "Don't care more about their education than they do."

  4. When I worked in writing centers, I would get these students occasionally. One I remember in particular, although all I remember is being utterly baffled by what he was saying. I can't remember his topic or anything, but boy those sentences were just opaque. As I was reading out loud, I would stop at the end of every sentence and ask him what he meant. He was much better at getting his point across orally, thankfully, and we revised his sentences one by one, but it was still very frustrating. I complain sometimes about students not realizing that writing and speaking usually involve different registers, but the opposite occurs too. How does that happen? How does one cultivate entirely different oral and written language skills?

    I had another student (teaching, not tutoring) once whose sentences were a little more understandable but still opaque. He was quite proud to tell me that he has won his school's creative writing award. I guess they thought if they couldn't understand it, it must be deep. God help us as the literary fiction standards trickle down into composition. (I kid ... mostly.)

    1. I think there's an appropriate level of discomfort with writing. Too little, an U get txt spk. Too much, and the composer of written communication exhibits such a plethora of apprehension, expressed in conjunction with excessive utilization of a thesaurus, that.

  5. When I first started teaching, I had the occasional student like this. Now, I have a class full of these and 2-3 who are meeting the standard.

  6. A colleague recently told me that this September we'll be meeting the first cohort whose entire education happened under No Child Left Behind. I may just start praying in the classroom.

  7. The Ursulas out there are very scary. As is the admin desire for their tuition dollars, at all costs.

    I don't have any kind of an answer for this one. Fewer students, of course. But what will that look like and how do we make it happen?