Sunday, April 17, 2016

Another Day for the DERP

A CM Playlet from OPH.

[Lights up. Panquehue, Bryndza, and Ogre are seated around a table. Panquehue is poking some keys on a laptop computer, which she slides towards the center of the table.]

Panquehue: The Diagnostic Educational Review Panel gathers today to deliberate the case of one Stewart Dent, who had taken a leave of absence for undisclosed personal reasons. Mr. Dent now wishes to come off of LOA, but the wrinkle is that before he took leave, he had also accumulated enough course failures to merit dismissal from the program. Had Stu not gone on LOA, the DERP would have been responsible for determining if he should be dismissed, and had we ruled for dismissal, he'd have been eligible for appeal. The provost has charged the DERP with interviewing Mr. Dent to assess his academic fitness for return from LOA, a function which by the way is already in our charter. The provost's interest regards whether dismissal, and more specifically the inevitable appeal, might be avoided.

Ogre: [aside to Bryndza] She's even more, ah, "official" than usual today.

Bryndza: The word "grandiloquent" comes to mind.

Panquehue: Quiet, you two. I'm recording this. Now I have to start over. [Pokes key on laptop.] The DERP gathers on this day of uh... mierda! What day is it? [Pokes key on laptop.]

Bryndza: If we're talking about a student in academic trouble, it's probably one ending in "y".

Ogre: Which is also how these sessions so often end. Why? Why is there a minimum GPA for the degree?

Bryndza: Why can't I just keep repeating every course till I squeak by with a D?

Ogre: Why don't you like me? Whyyyyyy?

Panquehue: I think I liked you better on speakerphone.

Ogre: I do have a face for radio, or so I've been told.

Bryndza: No, darling, I think she means this: [pokes Ogre's nose with index finger] MUTE!

Ogre: Heh! That worked at my end, too.

Panquehue: Oh? So now we know that we had your "full attention" while you were "working from home."

Ogre: A couple things. First, I always called you, not vice versa, and this speakerphone has no caller ID display, so you can't prove I wasn't in my assigned seat on campus. Second, I can sense your "air quotes" even through the phone.

Panquehue: Fair enough, but as interesting as this has become, we'd better get back on track. [Pokes key on laptop.] We of the DERP are here to… double shit!! [Pokes key on laptop.] Now I keep losing my train of thought.

Ogre: How about we just skip the recording? I'll write it up after we're done, and you all can look it over and approve.

Bryndza: Works for me.

Panquehue: Yeah, fine. [Slaps laptop shut. Stands and opens door, revealing a student sitting in chair in the hallway.] Stu? You can some in now.

Stewart: Thanks. [Stands, enters.]

Panquehue: [Closes door, sits.] You know everybody here.

Stewart: Yeah. Hi.

Ogre: Hello, Stu.

Bryndza: Hi. So, you're asking to return from your leave of absence?

Stewart: Right.

Bryndza: And while you were on leave, what have you done regarding your academic situation?

Stewart: Well, I gave it a great deal of thought, and I decided that I really want to finish the program.

Panquehue: And?

Stewart: And what?

Panquehue: You mean that's it?

Stewart: Was there supposed to be more?

Ogre: Well, you tell us. Should there be more?

Stewart: I don't understand. That's what I asked you.

Bryndza: What we mean is, you haven't addressed your string of course failures.

Stewart: What does that have to do with it?

Bryndza: Well, for one, they make you eligible for dismissal from the program.

Stewart: But that was before I took the leave. The statute of limitations has run out.

Panquehue: That's not how it works.

Stewart: Probation lasts one semester and I was on LOA the whole Fall semester!

Panquehue: And probation applies to a semester of actual matriculation, not leave.

Stewart: Well, nobody told me that.

Bryndza: You can review that part of the handbook later. But we really need to discuss your preparedness to return.

Stewart: I said I'm ready. That's why I'm here. You asked to meet with me.

Bryndza: It's not that simple. How do we know that you won't just accrue more failures?

Stewart: Because that was in the past and it will be different going forward.

Panquehue: Different in what way?

Stewart: Different from how it went in the past.

Ogre: [Lifts face from palm.] Here's what we were looking for. When I asked you to tell us if there should be more to your answer, I was looking for you to have put yourself in our place. I wanted you to have thought about what someone in our place would want to see in order to be convinced that someone in your place was going to turn it around.

Stewart: I don't understand.

Ogre: Let's try it this way. I'll be you, and you'll be us. Role play.

Stewart: O.K.

Ogre: So, I've been away from school for the better part of a year and now I'm ready to come back.

Stewart: O.K., great. Welcome back.

Ogre: I just had to say so and that's all it took? Wow, thanks! But, before you really let me come back, aren't you worried about my academic record?

Stewart: Uh, O.K. I'm worried about your academic record.

Ogre: Yeah, I am too. I'm worried I'll lapse into the same patterns as before and I'll just fail again.

Stewart: Well, then, just don't do those same things again.

Ogre: Good! But what are those things I should not do?

Stewart: Well, like, I mean, how about, don't not ask for help from the tutors till it's too late.

Ogre: O.K., you're saying I should go to the tutors and get help when I need it?

Stewart: Yeah, you can't expect that you'll pass the exam based off of just the stuff you understand. Those missed points add up fast.

Panquehue: But last time I went to the tutors the day before the exam, they weren't able to help me enough and I failed anyway.

Stewart: You should be going to them well in advance of the exam. They'll even tell you that themselves. It's not just about exams. Any time you fall behind in your understanding, it makes it harder to learn new material, so the problem keeps getting worse if you don't deal with it as soon as it happens.

Panquehue: A-HA! Yes! But the tutors are just students themselves and they weren't so good at explaining some of the particular stuff I was having trouble with.

Stewart: So go to the professor.

Panquehue: But my job is during her office hours.

Stewart: Then reschedule your hours or make an appointment for another time.

Bryndza: I'm working my maximum work-study hours but it cuts into my study time too much. I'm having to stay up late to get everything done.

Stewart: Explain the situation to your boss. Work-study supervisors understand that academics have to be your priority. Work out a weekly schedule that leaves you enough time to get all your studying done.

Bryndza: But if I cut back my hours, I'll have less pocket money for meals and movies and stuff.

Stewart: Well, maybe you can cut down on luxuries, or economize on necessities. Get the cheap regular coffee instead of five-dollar mocha lattes. Bring your own lunch instead of buying fast food. Go to free movies and plays sponsored by student organizations, or read books you borrow from the library. Or how about study? That's free and you're supposed to do that anyway.

Bryndza: But what if that's not enough and I can't cut back any more hours at work and still pay all my bills and I still can't get all my studying done?

Stewart: Then maybe you can't handle that much of a course load on top of working. So maybe don't register for so many credits.

Ogre: But that will delay my graduation! I've got to graduate on time!

Stewart: Look, your graduation is already delayed by the leave you took, and if you flunk out it will be delayed even further. You got to work it out so it's doable for you, or the decision will be taken from you.

Ogre: O.K., I get it. So, could you summarize the major things I should do again?

Stewart: Yeah. Don't procrastinate getting help. Work out a schedule that balances work, school, and life. And now I add, maybe do some study-skills workshops to help with that, in case the tricks you used in high school aren't enough anymore.

Ogre: There! That's what we were looking for! That's what a plan of attack looks like! How much of that stuff have you already done?

Stewart: You mean me as a student?

Ogre: Yeah, we're done with the role play now.

Stewart: Not much of it. I went to the tutors once or twice, right before midterms or finals, so you nailed that one.

Bryndza: We've seen that before, many times, with many students.

Panquehue: So many that we made a spreadsheet to crossmatch the tutor logs with exam schedules.

Stewart: Whoah! That's kind of creepy, big-brother stuff.

Panquehue: Well, of course, we could go back to how we used to do it and just look at transcripts, and based on those numbers alone decide there's no hope and cut you loose. We think it's better that we gather some data that can tell us if there is anything more that can be done, don't you?

Stewart: Yes, absolutely! So, I have a plan now, and I can come back in the summer, right?

Bryndza: We're not quite done. Your plan---it assumes all you have is school, work, and a bit of time for, ah, entertainment. What about the unexpected? What about if things, maybe something big comes up? Such as, what about whatever made you decide to take the LOA? Is that still a factor, or has it been resolved?

Stewart: Yeah, that's way over. Part of it was I had to find a new place to live that wasn't with my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend. It was kind of complicated.

Bryndza: Wow.

Stewart: We dated through high school. We chose to come here to be together, got an apartment together, the whole nine yards. But people change, I guess, and, uh... [unintelligible mumble]

Bryndza: I'm guessing it's still a bit raw.

Stewart: Yeah, but I've been working it through. My other friends tell me that I should date again, there's other fish in the sea, all that stuff. But I'm not ready yet. I'm just gonna take it easy for now, not go out of my way to look. Besides, I think I'd be more of a catch myself if I had my shit together, uh, if you'll pardon the expression.

Ogre: No problem. I'm still getting my shit together. Different shit, but shit nonetheless.

Panquehue: Yes, as we grow older, we are each regularly given new shit, and we're always in the process of getting it together.

Stewart: Really? You guys? I thought you had it all figured out.

Ogre: We've had lots of practice in making it look that way. We get better and better at it, and you know? On the whole, it's not a bad deal. Much better than the alternative.

Bryndza: Sometimes, the trick is to see what other people are doing who seem to have their shit together, and then do those things.

Stewart: I think I'll try some of that.

Bryndza: And there's another thing. We don't do it alone. We reach out to each other when it gets heavy. But sometimes we need even more, and there's nothing wrong with that. You mentioned you had friends. If you need more than that, you know about the services available at Student Appeasement, right?

Stewart: Yeah, I had to talk to them to arrange the LOA. I probably could have went to them sooner.

Bryndza: O.K., good. Don't hesitate if you need it. We're not saying you have to go now, we're not even saying we think you should…

Ogre: The relevant question is only whether you think you should go…

Panquehue: And no, we don't have access to their logs. It's totally confidential.

Stewart: I understand. So I can come back in the summer, right?

Bryndza: That's really for the provost to decide. We'll be reporting to him about this meeting. Then you'll hear from him, probably in a few days. Meantime, you should re-familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures in the handbook, to plan for any eventuality.

Stewart: Then I should go now?

Bryndza: Yes. Thank you for your time.

Stewart: [Rises and moves towards door.] Thank you. I hope to see you again.

Panquehue: That would be nice.

Stewart: Open or shut?

Panquehue: Shut, please.

[Stewart shuts the door behind him.]

Panquehue: Well, what do you think.

Bryndza: I'm not sure.

Panquehue: Ten years I have been doing this, and I'm never sure.

Ogre: If we could ever be a hundred percent sure, I'd take that information to admissions so that we could prevent these things before they even got in the door. But then I think about the ones we never see in this room because they never got in trouble, and how they'd have been denied the opportunity to come here if we drew a line at the wrong place. Uh, so that is to say, I can live with some uncertainty.

Panquehue: O.K., so, let's list what we know. He had a life event, which seems to be mostly resolved. He has a plan for what to do differently from before he went on leave…

Ogre: I'd say that was more our plan than his.

Panquehue: True, but kids these days are more and more unable to come up with a viable plan.

Bryndza: Everything's been planned and scheduled for them up till now. They just show up where they're told, fill in the blanks, check the boxes…

Ogre: I'm not sure I'll be able to live with this trend.

Panquehue: Well, get used to it.

[The conversation lulls.]

Bryndza: O.K., so, I vote "clear to return on probation."

Ogre: Yeah, that's where I'm headed, too.

Panquehue: Let's make it three. [Yawns.] Not as late in the day as I thought. And hey! New clock!

Ogre: Old clock. New battery.

Bryndza: Stilton finally fixed it?

Ogre: He passed it along to me. It had been in his garage, untouched, until a few weeks ago.

Bryndza: He's been pretty busy. Have you seen him today?

Ogre: He's on his way to visit his son. Didn't have any classes till Monday, and he and Gudrun just decided, fuck it, let's take a trip.

Panquehue: Good for them! There's more to life than these ivied halls.

Bryndza: There is, for example, beer.

Ogre: Amen to both.


Trace the reports of the DERP here at CM in reverse chronology from this link.


  1. Always a treat to get an update from the DERP. I'm on a DERP-like committee. This captures the feeling quite nicely: a mixture of compassion and frustration.

  2. I love it when OPH talks DERPy.

  3. The side conversations are exactly what I say to my colleagues. This is spot on. And congratulations are due to the student who sounds like he actually is getting his shit together.

  4. Nice pedagogical technique. I'm sure it wouldn't work every time, or with every student, but it seems to have worked in this case. Of course I'm still not sure if he'll get it together this time, either, but his responses (and the very fact that he caught on to the role reversal) are, as Ben says, promising.

    Also: "as we grow older, we are each regularly given new shit, and we're always in the process of getting it together."

    So very true. Also the being able to lean on others, and find appropriate help when needed, parts. These are much more useful definitions of adulthood than the ones many of our students seem to have been given, or to have inferred from the combined messages of parents, school personnel, etc., etc. It reminds me of this piece, which I think I've linked here before:

  5. I've got a couple advisees who remind me of Stu. I'd count this as a win with any one of them.

    Doesn't mean they'd all actually manage to clean up their acts, but even framing it as their mess to clear would be a step.

    Oh, and let's hear it for all things DERP.

    1. Yes, we'll have to wait and see if Stu's reformation is enduring.

  6. @Anonymous, I think there are more than one of you commenting here. A few of the "regulars" have stated that they are in DERP-like committees. @EC1 is one of those regulars. Are you another?

    @Ben, while I haven't transcribed the event verbatim (lest it be instantly recognizable to its participants), I am glad that the critical essence came through in my paraphrased/edited version.

    The side conversations are surely part of what makes these encounters tolerable. Other than those who gather at CM and my colleagues on the DERP, I can think of few who can simultaneously challenge and amuse me so consistently and deeply. That's probably why I have allowed myself to be remain on the panel for another term, time suck though it is. And of course, I keep coming back here.

    @Cassandra, Harper Lee wrote, "Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to...", and I confess some trepidation at starting the role-playing exercise, for I could not be sure where it would take us. We did, however, have the escape hatch of reverting to direct question and conversation; plus, it was Stewart's case to lose, not mine.

    In previous sessions, we've seen a spectrum of preparedness from students asking to return from LOA. Some arrived with bullet-point lists (written or oral) of strategies they'd try in order to ensure their success. Others didn't seem to have given the matter any thought (Stewart initially looked like one of those). The middle group may have thought about what they'd do differently on returning but hadn't prepared to make a formal case to the DERP. (We're considering whether the student handbook is explicit enough on this point.)

    Members of the DERP have expressed that they felt most confident about students who had considered what their audience would be at these sessions, and who'd come with an "elevator pitch". Thus was the inspiration for the student's switching places with his audience as reported here. I'm not sure I'll try it again, but maybe I will if I again become frustrated by the rut the conversation has fallen into.

    The WaPo article you link to is quite interesting (and it in turn links to, which seems to be run by a kindred spirit in the K-12 realm). The topic of failure, resilience, do-overs, and permanent consequences intersects with recent conversations on CM. Let's see if I can herd my fleeting feline thoughts into coherence.

    On one hand, we frequently vent here about students who seem to have no ability to figure things out for themselves. They badger us in person or through email to help them understand what they could likely find in the syllabus, the assignment prompt, etc., and we lament their lack of independence.

    On the other hand, we have students who never ask for help despite their (obviously in hindsight) needing it. And now here's this DERP both frustrated that a student hasn't independently produced what they wanted from him, and telling him that they get help from each other all the time. Are they talking out of both sides of their mouths?

    I think I see the resolution to my cognitive dissonance: context and perspective. Knowing the why, when, where, and how to ask for help are learned skills. But I'm not sure I know how to teach them.