Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Something more serious, which I hope will stimulate a lively discussion


There was a nice young woman student in my large, general-ed astronomy class. She had a boyfriend who, the couple times I saw him, talked to her in a way that struck me as abrupt and not very respectful. It wasn’t yelling, but only because it wasn’t loud. Early in the semester, he disappeared from class, except for exams. I don’t require attendance, and she may have been taking notes, turning in homework, and collecting graded homework for him.

One day, she came to class with a black eye. She also had her arm in a sling. It was on the same side as the black eye, the kind of injury one might get from warding off a blow.

I said and did nothing, thinking it was none of my business, since I had no proof of wrongdoing by anyone. Did I do the right thing?



Another time, I had a physics grad student who was a real dunderhead. He squandered a prime scientific opportunity for himself, came close to doing the same for me, came close to wrecking the observatory, and consistently turned in work that was clearly the least he could get by with, probably because it was the best his limited intellect could do.

I hear he’s been hired by the local community college as an instructor of introductory physics. Ordinarily I like the local community college, since they usually do fine work.  I’m dismayed this time, though, since I'll get his students in my upper-level physics classes. Even worse, there’s a much smarter, more knowledgeable, and more effective instructor of intro physics in the area who I know is looking for work.

So far, I have said and done nothing, thinking it’s none of my business, since who the local community college hires is up to them. Am I doing the right thing?

12 comments:

  1. I work (in person, anyway) with minors (high school students), and we have "mandatory reporting" laws if we suspect abuse. I'm sure that doesn't apply the same way to a college students, but maybe you could inquire of health or legal services what steps you could reasonably take in the event of this sort of concern cropping up again? In a way, it's nice to have the "I'm sorry, I had no choice but to file a report" excuse, because it saves us from exactly the dilemna that you're facing. As for the physicist, I'd hesitate to criticize someone unless you can have a quiet, private word with someone you trust; the school may well find out what they need to know on their own. Meantime, there's no reason not to do everything in your power to promote the better person.

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    1. Or I may just be full of shit and three beers and a shot of Jaeger has made me think that I can give Froderick useful advice!

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    2. Thanks for your advice, particularly since Froderick is a science geek with minimal social skills, as I'm sure Hiram or Kimmie will be glad to tell you.

      If it's advice you want, Jaegermeister is the devil's own juice. Ewwwwww...

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    3. I know, it's gross, but it takes me where I want to be!

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    4. My school has a reporting system where notions like "Sally was sporting a shiner and I suspected her boyfriend" (and less dire things like "Bob is usually a good students, but he'd been distracted and not keeping up lately" of "I overheard a comment in the hall to the effect that Carol lost her apartment and is couch surfing") can be collected by alleged professionals, who then make the hard decisions for you.

      Given that the hard decisions are hard I'm always happy to dump the load on someone else.

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    1. Since it's likely I may be yelled at for this one, I think the title is about right.

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  3. I'm not sure what one *can* do in the first instance, unless the student somehow gives you an opening (and then the best you can probably do is a hand-off to campus or community counseling/domestic violence services, depending on which you believe to be more reliable. I'm increasingly inclined to think that inter-student violence is best reported off-campus, since counseling services in many places seem to be pretty dysfunctional in how they handle such things. Not that off-campus services are necessarily better, but at least there's no conflict of interest over keeping the crime stats down, providing a "learning experience" for the perpetrator, etc., etc.).

    However, the only time a student *did* give me an opening of the kind, I had no idea whether she might actually be in trouble, or was being overly dramatic, or offering snowflakey excuses, because I'd never met her in person (she was an online student). So when she said she "didn't know what her father would do" if she didn't pass the class, I wrote back and told her that that was the sort of statement that was hard to interpret over email, but that, just in case she actually thought he might react violently, I'd suggest making plans for getting to safety, and here was some contact info for a couple of places that might help with that. I can't remember what happened after that; I think she disappeared again (she'd been mostly invisible/incommunicado anyway). So I still don't know if she was being dramatic, or actually in possible trouble, but I gave her the best advice I could (and called her on the dramatics if that's what it was). But to circle back 'round to the question (finally!) she gave me an opening.

    In the second case, if I had some idea of the cc's evaluation/renewal schedule (and/or a pretty good sense of how long it would take the walking disaster's true nature to reveal itself), I'd be tempted to send an email to someone I knew at the cc recommending the competent guy (but saying nothing unless asked about the other one) at a possibly-opportune moment.

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    1. And one can't, of course, rule out the possibility that your young lady got her black eye and injured arm serving as a goalie in soccer or hockey, or playing roller derby, or whatever, and would have been delighted to tell you all about it had you asked. One also can't rule out the possibility that a young man with a black eye or other injury is being abused by his girlfriend (or boyfriend). The odds of each possibility being the actual explanation do, of course, vary by gender, but still, one can't assume.

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    2. I don't know whether this would work, but the hockey/soccer angle might offer a chance to create an opening. You could ask something like "You OK? been moonlighting for the Sharks? [insert local sports franchise as appropriate]".

      If there's a sports war-story to tell, she'll probably be happy to tell it. If she looks like a deer in the headlights and mumbles something about walking into a door, you might feel more justified in having a quiet word with someone trained to handle the situation.

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  4. Again CC is spot on Frod. The first instance, I would probably ask what happen, but then I have smaller classes and well it is in nature. Hell I asked a student about a nasty, gigantic bruise on hir leg! In this same vein though, I had a student this semester disappear. She disappeared and I emailed. She told me about her home situation (bad) and I suggested dropping the class and retaking when her life was more stable. She did not drop and I have not heard from her. I often wonder if I could have done more?

    Situation 2: Hope for the best and lobby for the much better instructor as much as you can.

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    1. Regarding situation 2, the local community college might give me a response of "Who asked you?" since they never have asked me what I think about whom they hire, nor am I an official adviser to them or on any sort of committee they would ask. I might have received a similar and worse response from intervening in situation 1, since accusing anyone of a crime without proof can itself be a crime.

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