Monday, March 2, 2015

Student Smackdown: To Shame, or Not to Shame. That Is the Question

...Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of nasty Twitter comments
Or to take arms against a sea of slackers
And by opposing, end them?

OK. I'm done.

I'm not going to link to any posts.

I'm just going to put this down here and go quietly back to my brandy old-fashioned sweet and my deep-fried cheese curds.

I did the math on Saturday and 25% of my students are currently failing (between two sections of the same course).

I had to do this because our student services personnel are desperately trying to "intervene" and "help" students stay in school, because our numbers are down again this year (not a surprise given the state's overall birth rate trend) and we are facing historic budget cuts that are only going to further erode our ability to provide local access to a high-quality education.

But whatever.

Smackdown #1: You come to me during class while everyone else is working to ask "Is there anything I can do" to pass the class--you, who came to class today unprepared, with no draft and not even last Monday's assignment completed. You, who did not "get to" the short online homework assignment that was due Sunday night. No, there is nothing you can do. Drop the class because you are already missing 100 points.

Smackdown #2: You haven't been to class for two weeks. You haven't done any of the online work that is designed specifically to allow you to practice these skills without penalty. Drop the class because you are the reason I am going to start drinking in my office.

Smackdown #3: You come to class and occasionally comment. But you missed today's mandatory drafting workshop and you haven't turned in any of the the online work, again, designed to allow you to practice free of the crippling fear of grades, since the stuff is pass/fail and even your shittiest effort would be awarded the full points. Drop. The. Class.

For the other students who are flunking: Some of them have serious shit going on in their lives. And they need to deal with that shit and it might mean dropping my class so that they have time to deal. I totally understand that life happens, because it happens to me too. I have health issues and kids and a bunch of stuff going on. I get it.

They can always come back. I welcome them back. I want them to come back, because I want to see them succeed. And I can't pass them along because their lives are hard--that's what their high schools did, and it didn't do them any favors.

It's the ones who have no fucking excuse--and that's the majority of them, sadly--the ones who have the skills to pass but are just lazy (and don't come in here and tell me I don't know that they're lazy--because I see them texting on their phones despite my put-your-fucking-phone-away-it's-a-distraction policy) while I am giving directions or passing on some tidbit of knowledge that will help them pass--those are the ones who should drop and go dig ditches somewhere until they learn what real work is.

(Side note: Ditch digging is hard work, but I like doing it because it frees my mind to go out and think deep thoughts. So maybe ditch digging isn't the best example. Nor is brick-laying, which is hard and requires some knowledge of geometry and engineering for load-bearing. Dammit. None of my hard work examples are working.)

Whatever. The work for my classes is not hard. It's not designed to be. It's a required course for any degree-- but it's designed to build and hone a set of skills they already have if they're in my credit-bearing class in the first place.  The bulk of their grade is determined AFTER I've already passed along all the stuff they need to succeed at the tasks I set them.

And that fact that they fucking stare at me, fish-eyed, day after day, while I work to engage them with everything short of a stripper pole and a mirror ball--that's what is actually killing me right now.

Because I get up and do this job--just like everyone else does--with the thought that just maybe I am making the world slightly better through my efforts. But anymore, I just don't know. And now if I complain about any of this, I'm just a shitty teacher who should give my job to someone who really really cares a lot.

It might have to do with the fact that my governor seems to think I'm the same as an ISIS terrorist, but who knows?

Pass the goddamned bourbon. Please.


  1. In the face of the nannies saying tsk-tsk for sharing our classroom war stories, we've done some pretty awesome work on this blog. We can add "Drop the class because you are the reason I am going to start drinking in my office." to the list of memorable contributions. Can I get that written on a stamp for when I grade my exams? (Not that I actually would do that but it's comforting to know that it's an option.)

  2. I prefer to call it "smackdown," since it describes so well what it ought to do. The term "student shaming" is a misnomer, since you can't shame the totally shameless.

  3. This strikes me as illustrating the value of smackdowns as a means not only of venting but also of diagnosing a problem. There is something truly wrong here. It's probably not (only?) a personal/character problem in particular students, because, frankly, the degree of passivity in the face of our best efforts to scaffold, support, and otherwise nudge them gently through the process of learning is becoming all too common (and no, it's not just you; I've had several "it's not just me, then? I thought I was just becoming old and grumpy" conversations this month). Somehow, it's a systemic problem (related in some way to high-stakes testing and its effect on K-12 education, I'd guess, but I could be wrong). And we need to identify systemic solutions (and somehow keep prodding as many students along as we can in the meantime).

    The one thing that definitely won't work is to pass all these students on to the next proffie (and, eventually, an employer looking for college grads with college-level skills) without finding a way to get them to actually do the work of the class to some sort of satisfactory standard. That means failing a good many of them -- and, sadly, I'm finding more and more that failing grades (on small, low-stakes assignments when possible, on larger assignments or even the whole class when necessary) are very effective motivators for some of my most passive students. More and more, I'm seeing students step up to the plate and do solid if not spectacular work after I've handed back an effort that bore no relationship to what I'd asked for with a grade somewhere in between 0 and 65. I don't enjoy the process; among other things, since I'm reluctant to award a failing grade with no chance to revise, I end up making a good deal of extra work for myself going back to re-grade things that I've already graded once. But I see that as part of my job, even as I'm pretty annoyed to find that the student can, in fact, do what I asked for, but/and chose not to (or not to read the directions) the first time. If more and more students are going to need multiple rounds of "no; that's not what I asked for; do it again" to bring their work up to an acceptable standard, then I need fewer/smaller classes (not the more and/or larger ones with which I/we seem to be constantly threatened -- and that, by the way, might be another explanation for this phenomenon: students are used to being able to hide/get credit for pretty much any kind of work, because perfectly good but overworked and overwhelmed teachers have not been able to hold them to account in the past).

  4. I faced this sort of thing just about every day I was teaching. There were times in which I was sure they were being deliberately obtuse not only to annoy me for their own entertainment, but to see when I'd blink and pass them all. ("He can't fail the whole class, can he?")

    Unfortunately, on that last point, they were right. If I stuck to my guns, held fast to the standards expected of them in the course, and failed the lot of them, I would have been promptly fired on the spot. Since my institution was (YP^2) University (You pay! You pass!) and it accepted any organism that could fog a mirror, flunking too many would have been bad for its reputation.

    Worse yet, it would have been a black mark against my last department head who was determined to be promoted with a blemish-free record.

    No matter what I did, it was going to be *my* fault. Were the students lacking in talent? I made the material too hard. Lazy? I failed to engage them. Bored? I was poor at motivation.

    Even if I got away with failing a bunch, the dean (who hated me) would have found out and the department would have paid for it. One time, 60% of the first year class wasn't allowed to continue into second year until they cleared up course deficiencies. The dean wasn't amused and that was only time our department ever did that.