Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sometimes they are better than I am.

Sometimes positive stories are not for college misery.

For those who question the process I used to alter names and details, keep in mind that I do the exact same thing for flakey smackdown posts, yet no one ever complains then.


She began the term with a bang, writing twice as much as I required in our online forums and answering about half her classmates' contributions with insightful replies. I gave her full credit and loved how she pushed our class discussion forward.

Then she began submitting response papers, each one a beautiful synthesis of my lectures, the reading, and our lab work. For a soldier, her contributions were impressive. I scoured each one for plagiarism, but they all came out clean. She just liked my course and loved online learning.

One time she had another obligation and wouldn't make a deadline. Did she flake out and try to make excuses? She emailed me ahead of time, and only asked for a two hour extension. Which meant that I would have her work when I went to grade all of her classmates' work, so no extra effort needed on my part. What a student. I gave her the extension.

Then today I received this email, slightly altered to protect her identity:

Ms Monkey,

I hope you are doing well today. I wanted to email you so I could apologize for having not come to class all week long. I've missed the work, but duty calls and I was on a mission. I'm afraid it was not very successful.

While on the mission, we were ambushed. Our convoy was blown up. I came to a few days later, just this morning, and found out that I am the only survivor of the incident out of a mission of twelve. I know that I am lucky to be alive. I am about to be loaded on a plane to the US so I may have surgery on my legs. I'm trying to focus on the fact that I lived while my friends -- good people, strong people -- have died.

I am looking at physical therapy to recover from my injuries. Once I am out of surgery and able to stay awake through the pain meds, I hope to use my college experience as a motivator to get me through the next few months. Is it possible for me to stay in your course and get a small extension? I have enjoyed your class so much and I believe college would be an ideal distraction from laying in a hospital all day. If you are unable to give me an extension, I completely understand and I will of course accept any points taken off for my lateness. I'm sorry I was unable to email you before Sunday's deadline.

Please keep in touch and I will email you after surgery. Thank you for your support and academic advice.

Student Soldier

We talk a lot about misery here, and there is indeed enough misery to share. But sometimes I come across students who are better than I am. Stronger than I am. More aware and polite than I would be in the same situation. She gives me chills. Godspeed.


  1. Wow. She has more responsibility in her little finger than most undergrads could come up with combined.

  2. During peacetime, I used to advocate the military as a good place for snowflakes to grow up, quickly. I don't anymore, because there's too great of a chance of the former student coming under fire. It's not all useful job and leadership training, you know. God bless and keep the brave people in the service of the United States of America.

  3. I love the story, AM. I've had a fair share of young men and women who have left this region for stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can't tell you how many keep in touch, ask about things to read, and tell me they'll be back.

    Last year a young man came back after three tours; he was not the same. He had lost something, some part of his kindness and empathy. He was still a good student, and still did well in my class, but he was harder and colder. I have mixed emotions about the military - my grandfather and father were military men. And I, much to their dismay, was not.

  4. Damn. Wish that was my student. I had a student who had three major brain surgeries in one term but still managed to push forward and earn an A. I would offer more time to compete work but he only wanted a couple of days. His papers were well written and well thought out, after major brain trauma. I often wonder what he would have been capable of before that. He was the best student I ever had.

  5. Very touching and sad story. That's a REAL reason to not be able to continue, not the sorry, pathetically shitty excuses we routinely get. I'm hoping very hard that she keeps up her motivation and focus.

  6. Two comments were removed from this thread this afternoon for rules violations.

  7. Sorry to say it, but assuming you didn't obscure the timeline (i.e., you really got this today), I think she's flaking out on you. Eleven US or coalition deaths in one incident would be front-page news; and even eleven combined coalition/Afghan deaths will lead to a story -- and there are none showing up for my searches. The Defense Department announces deaths in Afghanistan quite quickly via press releases, and there's nothing relevant in the last month.

    Sorry to drag this down, but as an ex-academic now working for the military and usually the only civilian in the room, I can tell you that there are a lot of snowflakes in this business as well -- however well they may obey instructions/orders during the non-flaky times.

    1. My initial thought too was that the story was a lie concocted by a flaky student who pulled the pity card to excuse her late work. But then I chided myself for being too cynical and didn't say anything.

    2. Hey Cog, maybe you should trust that among the details I changed were the exact number of people killed.

    3. Cog's point, AM, is that the story--as you posted it, which, remember, is all we have to go on--stretches the boundaries of credulity. So, yes, I trust that you've obscured details, and yes, I trust that you feel sufficiently confident in this e-mail exchange's truthfulness to have posted it here and to hold the student up as an example for others, but no. the story you've posted doesn't make sense. the gender identifier is problematic, as is the timeline and the description of events.

      And honestly, I read lines like, "For a soldier, her contributions were impressive" and I am tempted to stop right there - what does that even mean?

      I want very badly to believe this - but it just rings false to me. Perhaps I've received one too many e-mails from former students' and colleagues' family members and friends about injuries and missions-gone-wrong . . . and it's always from family and friends.

      I suppose this is the danger of anonymizing and obscuring detail. When it's done, it does run the risk of being identified as snowflakery because the details aren't quite right.

    4. You guys really suck sometimes.

      I have been in touch with multiple people about this situation. This is a thing that happened. But before those people got in contact with me, relaying official communication, the student contacted me first, and that impressed the hell out of me.

      Second, I work at a Blue Ribbon uni, and we have about 90% military students. I have a lot of experience with the military. I had a student killed at Fort Hood in 2009. I have friends who work as academics at West Point. There are some difficulties involving returning from tour and getting back into school, so when someone with R1 potential comes across my shitty uni's roster, I take notice. That's all.

      I have no idea why you guys are being dicks about this.

    5. ALSO I didn't change her gender. I thought it would be too obvious.

    6. AM, It's because we are a sad bunch of cynical bastards. If Jesus Christ himself missed a Saturday morning class, we would demand a note from His Father saying that he was actually busy rising from the dead.

      I also wanted to comment that you should check to make sure the story was true. You clearly expressed your admiration for the student but didn't mention that you had received official notification. I didn't say anything because other people had already brought it up and I reasoned that students in active duty probably get all sorts of verification for these things as standard procedure.

      My concern, and maybe that of others, was that you were being manipulated. It was not intended to cast aspersions on your student or others who serve in the military or in combat zones. Your comments here show that our suspicions about your student's truthfulness are misplaced.

    7. AM, please don't worry about it. Your post is great.

    8. PS - AM, if you've also been long-time RYS as well, then you'd also recall the posts where military/active-duty students spewed their own brand of flakery, including tall tales, to get out of assignments. Hence the [not-totally-out-of-the-blue...] skepticism of some here about the story.
      If you want to use blunt language to get your point across in your rebuttal, I'll engage in it too: have a cup of tea and a fuckin' chill pill.

    9. PS - AM, if you've also been long-time RYS as well, then you'd also recall the posts where military/active-duty students spewed their own brand of flakery, including tall tales, to get out of assignments. Hence the [not-totally-out-of-the-blue...] skepticism of some here about the story.
      If you want to use blunt language to get your point across in your rebuttal, I'll engage in it too: have a cup of tea and a fuckin' chill pill.

    10. Because some folks don't seem to understand where my trigger finger is on this issue, we are RIGHT now at a point where community members are no longer conversing and are starting to snipe a bit.

      I don't think it's useful at this point. I've been chatting with a number of longtime RYS/CM folks about this, and people seem to want there to be a more clear delineation of what constitutes allowable behavior.

      And I think this thread is teetering right there, right now. I'm sorry, Poopiehead, to use you as an object lesson, but in a discussion, "Have a cup of tea and a fuckin' chill pill" is the sort of thing that really reads as "Fuck you."

      Don't anyone quit the page over this, okay? I mean there are only 3 of us left.

      Seriously, I'm just pulling back the curtain a bit.

    11. I've been with RYS and CM since 2007; no one will chase me away. Especially when I've got Beaker Ben on my side. :)

      I suspect I could have written this better and more convincingly. At the time I constructed it (out of multiple emails) I was focusing on obscuring details but in that process I made it into something hard to swallow.

      Just take it at face value, guys. It's a true story and I hope we can breathe easy knowing there's at least one such person out there.

    12. When it's fictionalized to the point that bullshit detectors go crazy for the people who know what they're talking about, then the emotional impact is lost, "no really, trust me!" notwithstanding.

      As Grumpy Sergeant says, neither media blackout nor "fog of war" could make this more realistic. But as it's apparently largely made up, I won't belabor the point.

      Maybe I'm just sick of listening to the Sailors and Marines on the other side of the wall talk about where they're buying their essays from. Presumably it's not necessary for me to add a "but of course not all military personnel are like that!" disclaimer here.

      As a random side note, since someone else pointed it out -- I hate the "respectfully"/"very respectfully"/"r"/"v/r"/"v/r/s" etc. thing. Everyone in the business does it all the time, so it's not a matter of politeness. Even after all these years I feel ridiculous if I stop to think what I just typed before my name, but any email within the military would look wrong without it. Blech.

    13. To be fair to Prof. Poopiehead, AM did start with the vulgarity and name calling here. Doubting students' excuses is par for the course on this site, so we can hardly be blamed for being skeptical. Collectively, we've seen it all.

    14. For my part, I'm sorry for my reply, despite my feeling at the time that I was simply giving back equally to what the CM community was receiving from AM. I guess I was, well, utterly flabbergasted at AM's replies and angered that AM had decided to move to throwing cuss words around - I've been a long time reader of RYS and CM and figured that AM had a wayyy thicker skin compared to what was being displayed here on this thread. I should have taken my own advice and had a cup of tea [that part of my reply was sincere; things are always calmer after having a nice cup of tea...].

    15. And, PP, I thank you for saying that. I truly wasn't trying to go after you, but that thread had started to devolve in a way that often generates a fair amount of mail to me. Things work until they don't, and once any kind of heated language comes up, the discussion or the issue takes a back seat. That's when people become angry; that's when I start getting asked: "Aren't you going to do something about So-n-So?

  8. I'm sorry to say that I, too, found myself thinking along the skeptical lines of ComplexCog. I've been teaching active duty military personnel for years. I've learned that there is a blackout period when a soldier from the student's base is killed in action. This may not apply in this student's case, but she's almost too forthcoming to seem credible. Another thing I've learned, though, it's that it's very easy to obtain verification of an injury, unexpected deployment, or communication blackout/failure.

    I've had both great and terrible experiences with soldiers, and the terrible includes a soldier deployed in a combat zone who lied about an IED attack on his base's fiber-optic system to obtain an extension. Almost accidentally, I discovered that his claim that he hadn't been able to log into the course all week was patently false. The soldier then had his commanding officer send me a five-paragraph e-mail berating me in scathing language for my lack of patriotism, for questioning a soldier's "honor" and for undermining his morale and efforts to "better" himself through education.

    It's because of this that my Spidey-Sense starts a-tingling when the cliches start flying.

  9. My experiences with military (and ex-military) students have been varied, but generally better than those with the average student, especially when it comes to taking responsibility (and also signing off emails appropriately; the "respectfully" or "very respectfully" is, in my experience, typical, and always nice to see). My most memorable case was a young man who'd arrived home only to have his fiancee break up with him (she didn't want to do it while he was deployed, but didn't want to continue the relationship in person either). He coped (or, rather, didn't) by drinking, and ended up with a DUI charge (no injuries to him or anyone else, thankfully). So he rode his bike to our 8 a.m. class all fall and into an early, cold, winter (many of my students disappear for weeks on end if/when their cars break down, even if they live within a few blocks of a bus line). He still wasn't coping too well, and eventually sought treatment for alcohol abuse, a prerequisite for the PTSD treatment he also needed. When an opening in the substance abuse program popped up just at the end of the semester, he asked for an incomplete, got one, and finished up his final paper about six weeks later -- not the best one I ever got by far, but definitely passing (if I'd known he was suffering from PTSD, I wouldn't have let him choose that as a topic; on the other hand, when he chose it, he didn't know himself, or at least hadn't admitted it *to* himself). That was one of the very few cases in which I've had a student actually finish an incomplete. I haven't seen him since, and couldn't even remember his name without looking it up, but I do think of him from time to time, and hope he's doing well.

    I don't believe he was able to take incompletes in all his classes, and that meant that he lost some of his already-extremely-limited VA college benefits. I believe that the updated GI Bill has helped fix that situation; for a while, the size of the actual benefit relative to the risks many soldiers took, often at least in part in response to the posters promising an all-expenses-paid education that plastered campus bulletin boards, was a real scandal.

  10. One thing that is being taken on faith here should not be. Do not imagine for an instance that the media is given the necessary information to report an exact number of casualties on a given day.

    There is such a clusterfuck of death and injury during the long haul that official numbers of casualties, dates, locations, etc. cannot be trusted. The fog of war, my friends. It would be comforting if all that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan was properly, correctly, and timely reported. But you have to understand it is not.

    My brother was officialy dead for 3 months during Desert Storm, killed along with 2 other Army men, only to show up at an airbase in the US on leave, stunning the shit out of his family. My insight into this issue comes from many long talks with him, two sets of reports, some official, and some real.

    I don't think the x=x rationale some of you are seeking in AM's story is useful in this circumstance.

  11. A reader wishes to make this comment anonymously:

    "For a soldier, her contributions were impressive. I scoured each one
    for plagiarism, but they all came out clean. She just liked my course
    and loved online learning."

    I have been a deployed soldier taking online courses. Really, it is
    kind of insulting that good submissions from a soldier are a surprise
    for you. Hopefully you scoured the other students' admissions as much
    as you did hers. I don't wish to say more about it because of my next

    I have been a deployed soldier. Her story sounds completely, utterly
    false. That she would say that is so outrageous I can barely speak.
    Ask for her "LOD," her Line of Duty form. That's the equivalent of a
    doctor's note. If she's really now in the US it won't take very long
    for someone to do it for her. Look at the her unit, go on the
    Internet to locate the unit's contact info, then find out who her
    Commander is. Then send an email to the Commander telling him/her how
    supportive you are and include her email. See what happens. Would
    be best if you avoided mentioning how surprised you are that she did
    well in the first place, her being a soldier and all.

    It is beyond the time period for any media blackout. Also, if the
    media doesn't report, and incident like that would be reported by the
    insurgents and would be reported on anyway.

    V/r, Grumpy_Sergeant

    P.S. to Vietcong

    "and the gender identifier is problematic."

    No, it isn't. Women have been killed in combat in Iraq and
    Afghanistan. Combat can start when an enemy decides to detonate an
    IED regardless of what some DoD memo says. Or look up the story of
    the 507th Maintenance Company in 2003.

  12. @Anonymous - "problematic" doesn't mean "false."

    I'm well aware that women are participating in, injured and killed in combat - currently for OEF, the number seems to be around 35 American military women killed. In Iraq, total casualty estimates are around 400--in the 80s. Others estimate that somewhere between 2-3% of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are women.

    But, if we're going to talk about women in combat, perhaps the 507th isn't the best place to make our claims--the media coverage of and Pentagon's exploitation of the Jessica Lynch narrative is deeply problematic in this regard. In that particular instance, by my quick count, 19 of the casualties in that engagement were men, 3 women.

    But . . . that's really neither here nor there. It's not beyond the realm of possibility - and AM has repeatedly reassured us that the story checks out - but it still remains a low-probability story on the face of it (as you recognize in your comment above) and the gender dimension makes it even more so.

    1. Okay, so this story checks out. Why, then, is it so important to keep insisting that you're still "right"?

      You're not right. The story checks out. There's no point to continuing to insist that women aren't really in combat. The end.

  13. My students are mostly military. A look back over my previous posts will uncover a lot of making fun of student writing and making fun of the administration, but almost nothing about the "flaky" attitudes so commonly reported on this blog. It really is the case that they usually just do their jobs and take their lumps without complaint.

  14. I have had quite a few ex-military (and some on active duty who get called up 2/3 of the way through the semester). To a one, they have been forthright, hardworking, and diligent. Some of them (a goodly number) have been women--at least one of whom had seen combat.

    AM, thank you for sharing this story. I hope this woman recovers and is able to complete the coursework. Her situation makes the other excuses you'll get utterly worthless. Google "your excuse is invalid" and look at the image that comes up.

    1. Ha! I posted that image here once. Took some flak for it, too. But that was sort of what I was going for when I posted this story: a sort of raising-the-bar for snowflakes proper.

      I feel bad for having made a blanket statement about soldiers. I've posted before about my work with military universities and how it differs from the rest of my students. What I should have said was "For a student at my remedial university..."

      But I've already taken credit for a poorly designed post. To the drinking games!


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