Saturday, June 18, 2011

Corollary to Murphy’s Law: Some Students’ Needs will Expand to Fill the Space Available

Dear Conferencing Clara—

I’m glad that you find face to face meetings a useful supplement to the work in our online class. I agree, which is why I scheduled several face to face office hours this term (all of which you took advantage of), as well as the week of one-on-one conferences, with face to face option, we just completed. I’m also happy to answer emails, including the many you’ve sent (most of which did, in fact, ask legitimate questions; I do appreciate how seriously you’ve taken the class, and how hard you’ve worked).

But when I post a list of conference times online with more open slots than students, I don’t intend for all the extra slots be claimed, and definitely not by one student, especially one who’s already doing quite well. Nor do I appreciate it when a student seems to be deliberately signing up for the slots that precede an empty slot, then assuming she can stay beyond the appointed end time. I’m especially perturbed by such behavior when I’ve filled in the empty slots with notations such as “lunch,” and “break,” to emphasize that I do occasionally need a breather during these intense conferencing days. I’ve done my best to be polite and helpful and still get you out the door more or less on time, but you don’t seem to read social cues very well (or, rather, you notice me looking at my watch, and ask if someone else is coming, but when I say that we do need to wind things up, you just keep asking questions. Short of walking out the door myself and hoping you follow, I’m not quite sure what to do).

But the last straw was when I opened my door late this evening, after the final online conference, to head to the bathroom, and found you waiting outside, wanting to ask me “a few more questions.” Apparently you had once again consulted the conference schedule, and (more or less correctly) judged when I would be done. I apologize for lying and saying I needed to be somewhere, but I was really, really tired, and hungry, and perilously close to cranky and/or weepy, and didn’t know any other way to get you to leave. Hopefully you didn’t hang around campus and notice that, many hours later, there was still a light in my office window. On the other hand, if you did, then I’m really feeling stalked.

And now my inbox holds an email, time-stamped 1 a.m., asking for another conference on Monday. Okay, but I’m going to schedule it late in the day, right before someone else’s conference, and on Monday I really do have to leave by a certain hour. If I send you an email scheduling the conference, maybe you could leave me alone for at least 24 hours over the weekend? Please?

Yours in exhaustion (and more than a bit of exasperation),


P.S. You might be interested to know that you’ve spent more one-on-one time with me in the last week than I spent during any month with my undergraduate thesis advisor (and that includes the month I turned in the thesis). In fact, you’ve probably spent more time with me, total, than I spent with one of my dissertation advisors, but that’s another story.


  1. Let me guess: adult, non-traditional student.

  2. Actually, no, in this case, though I recognize the type. I can usually figure out how to calm them down (and wean them off the every-office-hour visits) after a week or two.

    This student is traditional age, but speaks/writes English as a second language (but is at the stage where that is apparent only in small things: the occasional problem with an article or subject/verb agreement or tense). The ESL issue is probably part of it, but I think there also may be something like mild Asperger's or OCD going on (this student has also caught every typo or other slight discrepancy in directions, due dates, etc. in my handouts -- which is actually sort of handy, but most students just think, "oh, she said Wed. 21 June here, but Wed. is the 22nd; since things are always due on Wednesdays, she must mean the 22nd, especially since that's what the calendar says." This student checks, which is fine, and gives me a chance to correct the mistake, but now that it's come down to explaining orally every word I wrote in a comment bubble on her draft, it's getting to be a bit much).

  3. Hm. Sometimes I think we teach at the same place, CC, and if we do, I bet I know this student.

  4. @F&T: I think we might be on different coasts (but I, like Frankity, still want to come over and play at your place). The type, however, seems to be ubiquitous and cross-cultural -- though fortunately not, at least in my experience, terribly common; I get a student like this probably every other year or so. Thank goodness for that, since dealing with her is getting exhausting. One advantage of my rather monotonous teaching schedule: she won't be taking another class with me, since she's going to pass this one, and it's almost the only one I teach.

  5. Since I typically teach 8 am classes and live in a different city than Main U and commute, and typically get to campus between six and six thirty to miss traffic. I usually grade or put the finishing touches on my lectures before I go to class. A few semesters ago, I had a student in my 10 am class that somehow discovered that I got to campus early. The first few weeks he came by once a week to talk about class for a few minutes. Odd, but not alarming. Then he started coming every day we had class (3x a week). Then he started staying over an hour every day. That lasted for a week and a half before it creeped me out way too much. I stopped answering my door when he knocked. Typically I wouldn't do that, but no other students were coming by at 6:30 (really no one else, not even the janitors, were there that damn early) so I don't think I missed out on anything. After two weeks of getting no answer when he knocked, he stopped coming around. Creepy...

  6. I am not sure anyone else would do this. Maybe it makes me a bad teacher/person. But I simply cannot dedicate that much time to a single student. I have in my syllabus that each student is entitled to one 30 minute appointment per week, unless something unexpected and urgent arises. Of course, this particular rule rarely has to be enforced, but for students like this one, it comes in handy. My particular college has a very high population of students with mental illnesses. So maybe that is why, after a few years here, I developed that policy. Prior to becoming a full timer here, I think I would have been horrified at such a note on someone's syllabus.....

  7. Oh, I think I had a Conferencing Clara in class every quarter. She's an English Language Learner who hasn't yet learned that the number of times she meets with me doesn't always guarantee a better grade. MY Clara kept showing up asking for more help but never implemented the advice offered... And then demanded to know why she'd received a C- when she'd come to see me five times.

    She's the reason I instituted a 'max' on the number of conferences students could have with me. I then instructed her to use the services of the Writing Lab, just like any other student, if she needed more than the two conferences I was willing to offer. I hope your needy student learns to respect your time. Mine never did. She finally moved on to a colleague, and I'd see her waiting in the halls for my colleague...

  8. I also have the problem of students ONLY filling in the LAST DAY of conferences and leaving the first five days fairly empty. Then I get a slew of "Do you have time to meet with me today since our paper is due tomorrow" requests when there are clearly no more slots available. That always raises my blood pressure.

  9. @Chloe: I've had one of those, in similar circumstances. Losing the advantage of getting up so early -- that lovely quiet hour or two in which to gather your thoughts and get some work done while you're fresh and alert -- really hurts. I've also noticed that students tend to run roughshod over my attempts to reserve 30 minutes or so to gather my thoughts before class; even if my office hours are scheduled after class, or end half an hour before, once they realize in my office just beforehand (which is pretty much a necessity given the unpredictability of traffic in our area), they show up.

    @Bella (and Cynic): sounds like good policy to me. If this phenomenon becomes more common, I may add something similar to my own syllabus. I think our writing center instituted a limit on the number of sessions per student per term, because they were being deluged with frequent-repeat visitors, mostly but not exclusively English language learners.

    @Cynic: that sounds familiar, too, though scheduling the last day of conferences on Friday definitely cut it down a bit this time. Thursday was the deluge day, and some people who claimed to be desperate to get in on Thursday weren't interested at all in Friday, even though I was offering virtual options.

    Update: I've had one email (in addition the conference-scheduling one) from Clara this weekend, asking a reasonable question. I guess that isn't too bad, especially given that we've almost reached the end of the term. I intend to go incommunicado, at least to students, for a week or so as soon as grades are in. I can't wait. Tacking a summer term on the end of spring term is tough enough, and dealing with Clara has added an extra fillip of exhaustion.

  10. I like to go to my professor's every possible office hour to show that we are friends.

  11. @Bella: Thanks for the new line in my syllabus!

    @Anastasia: Thanks for making me spew my late-night bowl of cereal.

  12. I know I'm late to the party, but I feel compelled to comment.

    I deal with online students at my institution. I deal with almost ALL the online students at my institution. I deal almost exclusively with online students at my institution. Some students should not attempt online courses. It sounds like you've spent as much (or more) time with Clara as you would in a face-to-face class. We've touched on the veracity of "learning styles" here before, but some just can't/don't/won't get it unless they hear it.

  13. I schedule my office hours for AFTER class, and I tell my students firmly that I may or may not be in my office before class, but if I am, I will not answer the door, because I will be frantically preparing their lecture. A couple of them will try anyway, but I don't answer the door. Fortunately there is no glass panel in the door, and it does lock, so they have no way of knowing if I'm in there, or miles away speeding around corners on 2 wheels trying to get to class on time.


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