Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On Course Shopping: An Early Thirsty

Now that we are mercifully well past the add/drop date, I have what amounts to an Early Thirsty:

First, the Flava, which is a bit long but bear with me:

I teach mostly HamsterWriting, but every semester I get to teach one HamsterLit course. Lately, I am noticing a trend among students that amounts to course shopping, with a twist:

They look at the syllabus and listen to my description, then openly criticize the course right there in front of me.

Case #1: A student comes to my office during add/drop. He is a bit weird and twitchy and smells as though he doesn't bathe or do laundry regularly (an olfactory fact confirmed by visual confirmation of an old, crusty mustard stain on his hoodie). He asks about my HamsterLit for Huge SF Nerds, and I hand him the syllabus and reading list. Immediately, the criticisms begin:

"You don't have Bradbury on here." 

"No, I don't." I've spent several years developing the course theme and subthemes (What it means to be human, the  impact of technology on our lives—the moral, political, and social ramifications of our dependence on machines—a dependence as old as civilization itself. Some of the sub themes deal with the idea of progress; industrialization (and its ancillaries: capitalism and globalization); the corporatization of society; the Othering of the feminine; and a quick and dirty gloss of postmodernism. It's a survey course).

"You don't have X or Y or Z on here" 

At this point, I take the time to explain how I've built the course, how the readings and films have been carefully curated and spread out over the 15 weeks we have to do all of this. And against my better judgment (which turns out to be correct), I added Ser Stynky to the course roster.

Almost immediately, I regret adding him. 

  • He is chronically late (to a class that starts at 9:30), sometimes by nearly a full hour (for a 75 minute session). On the days he is late, which is most of them, he tends to jump into the discussion and either a) ask a question that had been answered near the beginning of the lecture or b) argue with me about some point I have already made and am reiterating to reinforce (he reads Philosophy in his spare time, but doesn't quite apprehend most of what he reads. I double majored in HamsterLit and continental Philo as an undergrad at a SLAC, so it's best not to make pronouncements  to me on Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, or Sartre if you're at all shaky on what they're arguing). 
  • He is disgusted that one of the main topics of class discussions is the Othering of the Feminine (in Frankenstein, Metropolis, No Woman Born, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," Blade Runner, etc.) and argues vehemently with his groupmates about why this isn't something we need to talk about. 

The rest of the class actively hates him. They cannot understand why I don't just kick him out, or lock him out (I cannot lock our classroom doors--both policy-wise and technically, as they only lock with a key). I teach on a small campus with no security corps. It would take the cops at least 3-5 minutes to get to our room, provided I can make it to the phone (which was installed in the classrooms six months after Virginia Tech).

This is a new experience for me, and I have been in the classroom since 1995. In the words of the immortal Jayne Cobb, he "is starting to damage my calm."

When I finally speak to someone who can intervene with his behavior, his reaction is to be offended that I am offended by his behavior. He is indignant that I cannot "get over" his being chronically an hour late to class. Obviously, he is not getting some help he sorely needs, but it's not my place to say it. I just have to keep putting up with it, and pray that though he is Ser Stynky, he is not Game-of-Thrones violently inclined.

Eventually, he gives up and goes away, failing the course.

And that's just one case. There are others.

So my Early Thirsty is this:
1) Have you ever had a student course shop, then criticize your course?
2) Have you ever had a bad feeling but ignored it to up your numbers, then regretted it?


  1. RE #1: Nope.

    RE #2: Kinda. I didn't let the guy in just to up my numbers, but he was a late-registration case who then didn't bother showing up for a week or two and missed a handful of assignments. I should've just said, "Vas? Zu vant to tek mein klazz aftur missink ze basik lektures? Hah. Zu kannot pazz mein clazz. Raus, schweinhund! Schnell!" but I was adjuncting, so I listened to the guy's (not very good) sob story, forgave half his absences, and let the guy make up the missing work. Which, of course, he turned in past the extended deadline, and was crap. And the rest of his work was crap, too, because he'd missed the fundamental lectures and never bothered to get notes from a classmate. And he turned out to be a slacker who half-assed everything in a detail-intensive writing class. And whined about the absences that I hadn't forgiven. And then trashed me on The Site Which Shall Not Be Named. NEVER AGAIN.

  2. #1: Sort-of: I teach mostly required courses, and there's only one offering per year, so it's usually take my class or leave the major. However, I often DO have students attempt to tell me what my courses SHOULD cover, instead of the stupid-ass stuff I actually cover (never mind that it's the entire disciplinary faculty that decide what is covered in the required courses). I have encountered many Ser Stynkys.
    #2: As Dr Mindbender said, yes, but not to increase my numbers. Once, to get the fucking Chair off my back I allowed 8 students without a prerequisite course into a class. (They missed the prerequisite because they had been course-shopping for an easy prof in the prerequisite, figuring they'd take it with Dr. EasyProf next semester.) I argued and argued with the Chair, who insisted that HE'D take the flak for me if they couldn't handle my class without the prerequisite. Of course they couldn't. And I got creamed in evals by both the students who DID have the pre-req (for accommodating the no-pre-req slackers), AND by the no-pre-req slackers (for being unreasonably demanding when they hadn't even SEEN the pre-req material!). Of course the Chair had no memory of his promise.

  3. #1: yes, several students (all male). They mostly were looking for an easy class and were offended that mine appeared not to be what they were hoping, but then asked to join. In about half the instances, I've added them because I had not met the cap of the course. In every single instance of those adds, I've regretted it.

    #2. Yes. And I'm now at a point where I don't ignore it. I had a situation a few years ago where the whole class hated one guy and actually complained that he was creating a hostile work environment FOR ME to HR. We got him out of the class that way. But the students took initiative. My attempts to complain to my chair and my dean yielded zip. Only when students got involved and complained did anything happen, which shows where the power lies in our structure.

  4. I have a rule. The last person to add a class is typically going to be 90% of your misery in that class. I never added to raise the numbers on purpose, but I did go over cap for a student in a basic class who begged, begged, begged to be let in, and - surprise - raised a stink about every little assignment and gave one of the worst evals I've ever received. It's not that I will never go over cap for a person again (since I have benefitted from the kindness of my own professors), but I won't if I detect a whiff of slackerhood in the request.

    1. Sounds more like a theory than a rule, but whatever.

      And, by the way, you really should choose a handle. Anonymous just doesn't cut it.

  5. #1: sorta. I teach a required course which is taught in many sections, by professors who have fairly wide leeway in deciding how to meet common course goals. At least as taught by the great majority of us, it's a pretty hard class, regardless of specific approach. The current department hypothesis for why we can't seem to offer enough seats in this course (demand for which ought to be pretty easy to predict, given that somewhere north of 95% of our graduates take it somewhere in the four semesters before they graduate) is that students repeatedly drop (or simply drop out/disappear), hoping to find an easier section (a mostly quixotic quest). So in a sense they're shopping, though perhaps unconsciously, and often well past the add/drop date. And despite the fact that I send out an email before the semester begins warning students just how time-consuming the course is (even/especially in online and hybrid formats), and distribute a detailed course schedule on the first day, I get complaints about (a) how time-consuming the course is and (b) the fact that we often have more than one thing due on a particular day.

    #2: I find that students who haven't managed to enroll in the class via the usual procedures, and have all kinds of elaborate explanations for why, and why I should make an exception for them, in most cases do not suddenly become efficient and on top of things once enrolled in the class. I usually regret force-adds (or they simply disappear; see above). However, when I issue them, it's out of sympathy, not a desire to up my numbers; that's the one advantage of teaching a required course: I don't have to worry about enrollments.

    I've had one truly scary student (and one somewhat-scary parent, much earlier in my career), but one of the scary parts was that it turned out he'd been sitting in my class thinking paranoid thoughts for about a month before I realized this fact during an office-hours conversation. I used our post-VA Tech reporting system, and he was hospitalized soon after (whether as the result of my report or the fact that he'd reached a point where it was becoming clear to friends and family, as well as to professors he decided to drop in on, that he was losing touch with reality, I'm not sure).

    I do think I'm seeing an increasing number of not exactly scary, but lost-in-their-own-worlds, hard-to-read, possibly-somewhere-on-what-used-to-be-called-the-spectrum students. Mine tend to show up in my science-writing class; I can also see how they might be drawn to science fiction (and how they might feel like experts on it, thanks to long, near-obssesssive, immersion, and resent a professor having hir own take on the subject).

    At least the rest of the class seems to be enjoying your reading list, and your take on the texts. But/and I'm glad you contacted the folks who can intervene, and that the student eventually disappeared. Having a student who sets off your spidey-sense is scary, and not something to be ignored (but also something that's hard to do much about).

  6. Isn't it called the spectrum anymore?

    I used to bend over backwards to let students into my classes. I eventually learned what we have all here learned, that the late adds are not dedicated students who desperately want to take your class because they're fascinated by the subject matter, because those students signed up for the class two months ago, duh. The late adds couldn't get into the classes they wanted to get into and are desperately looking to pick up some credits. And they have missed the first classes, and they will probably not get the notes from anyone, and they will be a pain in the ass.

    I used to offer to help them out, come by my office hours and I'll take you through it. Now, if they can register themselves late (because I haven't hit the class cap yet), and tell me they've done so, I say "The syllabus is on the website. The schedule is on the website. I recommend that you get the notes from a classmate. I don't give out my notes or power points. Let me know if you have any problems."

    I never hear from any of them again. Most of them drop.

  7. Gee, you get to have a choice?

    When I was teaching, I didn't. I was simply stuck with such students because each course in our department was required. If I voiced any objections, I'd be told that they were what I had to work with. That was particularly true when my assistant department head was temporarily in charge while the DH was away on a (career-advancing) leave.

    The ADH let in anybody who showed up, the only pre-requisite being a sufficiently tear-jerking sob story. Many of those students were academically unprepared and, as a result, became a drain not just on me, but on their colleagues because my attention was correspondingly diverted. Unfortunately, many of those students turned out to be poor performers, didn't take the hint to drop the course, make up what they were missing, and then re-apply when they were ready.

    There was one exception, though. He was a recent immigrant but his English was marginal, though I think he could have managed. The department administrators didn't recommend that he apply because of it, though. He was accepted a year later after having improved his language skills and turned out to be one of the best students we had.

  8. #1: I get passive-aggressive versions of this all the time in my World History surveys. "When will we be talking about Gerbil Warriors?" or "Will we be covering Hamster Monuments and Mythology?" and lots of "Will you be able to go into detail about the Battle of Ferrets?" In my upper-division courses I just say straight up that I assign books that I find interesting, and for topics that I don't cover in enough depth they are welcome to pick those up in their research or book review assignments.

    #2: I plead the fifth. At least I think I have a fifth around here somewhere...

  9. #1: Yup. I once had almost the entire class (about a dozen out of only 16, mind you...) come in en masse to my office unannounced to complain - I'm guessing they thought it was going to intimidate me. Nope. I'd gone through the trouble of making my course the dead-centre-average of equivalent courses at about 15 other universities; they were greatly deflated as I threw down syllabus and course pack after course pack for them to browse through to make my point, when it was clear that I was offering nothing that was in fact "harder" than what they would see in the same course at any other uni. Nearly all of them dropped the course right after this, when it was clear the course wasn't going to get any "easier". I explained this all to the Chair later on when he wondered why course enrollment nearly disappeared, and he was good with it.
    #2: Nope... and my class enrollments have remained low, limited to those truly interested in the course material rather than those shopping for an easy course...

  10. All my students are like this. They're physics majors. What's the matter, haven't you ever seen "The Big Bang Theory"? One of them had such bad social skills, he was beaten up for being socially maladjusted by M.I.T. grad students. THAT's bad!

    So, to answer your questions:

    (1) Yup, all the time.

    (2) Yup, every time #1 happened.