Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Homework and the Very Important Snowflake. Sent in by Peter K.

I thought I had the homework thing figured out, what with twenty years of teaching and all, but Very Important Snowflake just presented me with a new conundrum!

E-mail from V.I.S., on Saturday:

A few questions in regards to homework 1 and I was hoping that you could help me. Just let me know what time is best for you on Tuesday.

Homework 1 was due last Friday, but I’m letting them turn it in on Wednesday, since we had bad weather. I e-mail back:

Dear V.I.S., I am not normally on campus on Tuesdays. Maybe we can try this by email first? Let me know which problems you’re having trouble with, and I’ll give you some hints to get started.

By Monday night, not a tweet had been heard from V.I.S. Now, there’s background: this snowflake took the prerequisite class with me, and often came to my office hours for `help’. In practice this meant I solved the homework problems, snowflake took notes and turned them in. (I used to object to that when I was young and na├»ve, but now I realize these are the students who care.) Clearly more of the same is expected, and I'd be happy to help. Incidentally, the “very important” acknowledges the fact that Snowflake is active in student organizations.

My second reply, on Monday night:

Not having heard from you, I assume you still want to meet on Tuesday. So I’ll be in my office in the afternoon to meet with you, but I need two things from you: first, please send me an email by 12 noon, confirming you will be there at 2PM. Second, please include in your email the numbers of the homework problems you need help with.

On Tuesday morning, V.I.S. replied to say meeting at 2 was not possible. I offered to meet later on Tuesday (I did go to my office anyway), and still don't have a reply.

Q: Was there a better way to handle this? How do you handle flakes who make appointments and don't show up, or don't respond to email exchanges they initiate?

(I'll let you know what happened in the comments.)

- Peter K. 
[not in any way related to the moderator,
because a wiseacre already asked...]


  1. So, is Peter, like, your son or husband or something? (I never read italics.)

  2. Leslie, how are you and Peter related?

  3. What's the nature of your relationship?

  4. So, he didn't respond to an e-mail exchange that HE initiated, and you went to campus anyway? Dude.

  5. Of course there was a better way to handle it.

    1) Don't do student's homework for them.
    2) Don't ever agree to meet with a student outside of office hours unless they've verified your meeting via email, and acknowledged that missing your meeting will entail an absence. Even then, never inconvenience yourself seriously. Usually the reasons they "can't" make it are less important than yours are.
    3) If you want to know how serious they are about meeting you, schedule the meeting for 7:30 a.m.

    You're teaching this student to treat you like a doormat. Stop.

  6. I know Leslie's daughter has a new beau. Is Peter the offspring of that unholy union? Already? Jesus, the time flies.

  7. I am confused,
    but that is okay.
    I'm that way half the night,
    and that way most the day.

  8. Why are we so hard on new people? He surely didn't know his initial would get him into the snark vortex.

    Peter, welcome. And then this:


    You're breaking one of the cardinal RYS-CM rules.

    Still, welcome.

  9. Are you related in any way to Leslie K?

    I can't imagine, because there's no way she'd make a trip to campus to meet a student under the circumstances you lay out.

    Nor would I.

    Nor would anyone I know. When the student said the time you offered wouldn't work, you need to let that shit go!

    Oh, and welcome. Darla, why are you always so sweet? Because the rest of us are not? To spite me!! Is that it!!! DAMN YOU, DARLA.

  10. This is why I'm no longer the moderator...kidding.

    Peter, you went above and beyond. I wouldn't have done it, but I respect that you tried.

    But you can let it go. This sounds like something that could have been taken care of through emails - if you student would have been as diligent as you were.

  11. Did I hear someone say that you were related to Leslie K? That's so nice.

    I love it when it's all in the family.

    Oh, was there a question somewhere in there that I missed or forgot?

    Oh, look at that butterfly.

  12. It sounds like the student initiated the conversation but you suggested the time to meet. That's a nice thing for you to do and helpful. If the student didn't follow up with you, he may have found the answer to his problem somewhere else or decided it wasn't worth the effort. Either way, it doesn't seem that you did anything wrong, nor did the student inconvenience you in any way.

    I sense that you've got more to say about this. How did your kind gesture of suggesting a meeting time turn bad?

  13. Hey guys, thanks for the welcome! Snark all you want, a comment is a comment...

    Here's the Tuesday night update: V.I.S. not heard from since this morning's email. Will he/she turn in the homework tomorrow? Ask for an extension? Drop the class?

    I agree, I went above and beyond, but that's mainly a way to call their bluff (and deny them any excuses they could take to the associate head.)

    Oh, and I've never even met Leslie. Different K.

    1. To be fair to students, you have to be more than fair.

      And you're right. Nothing is worse than being ignored.

  14. After being disappointed about 100 too many times I have finally made a firm rule (that I don't tell students about), to wit, I will NEVER meet a student at a time that I would not have been on campus and in my office anyway. Never ever.

    And if the student didn't write to confirm a time on Tuesday, or indeed answer my previous email, I would not come in on Tuesday. I might follow up as you did - check to see that the problem is solved - but I wouldn't suggest a time to meet; the tone of my email would be that I assume that the problem has been resolved, since I haven't heard back, but that they should please let me know if I'm wrong about that. This email covers me without causing me to have to go in to the uni on a day i wasn't planning to.

    Guard your research, prep, and leisure time fiercely. Nobody else will.

    1. All it would take at Large Urban Community College is for Snidely Snowflake to complain my office times were when he was in class/at work/singing in the glee club and I was a big, mean proffie for not offering appointment times outside my posted hours. We are required to put "by appointment" on our syllabus as an option. At least for now, however, we can control when we think reasonable appointment times are.

    2. We also put "and by appointment", because quite frequently students have classes/work/other stuff/simply weren't planning to be on campus at the time when I have office hours. This is fine, and I have no problem scheduling an appointment to see the student at some other time. But I will not schedule an appointment to see a student at a time when I was not going to be in my office anyway.

      I'm in the office a fair amount, between classes, marking and preparing lectures and what have you, so they have a fair degree of choice of alternate times. But none of those times are going to be on my off-campus days, or after I would ordinarily have gone home, or before I would ordinarily have come in, or immediately before a class. I will make lots of efforts to meet students halfway, but their convenience does not trump mine.

  15. Yes to all of the above. Don't make students think that we are here to make sure they mess up without penalty. They have email machines on them at all hours of the day. If they cannot email you a simple confirmation, tell them to go for a swim in the lake.

    1. This. I can't imagine a situation in this day and age when I student doesn't have internet access coming out of his ears. If VIS had been serious about the meeting--or at least conscientious about his professor's valuable time and energy--then he would have found a way to send an email. I'm sure he'll be the first to email when his grade goes awry or when he feels there's some discrepancy with points or something. In other words, when it has to do with him, he'll be all over it.

  16. Great advice from Merely Academic - it reminds me to do that myself, I've been slipping in that regard and starting to come in on days I normally don't. If the student gives you any grief (and I'm predicting there will be some from this VIS) about somehow "not having been accommodating enough to have met with him/her on Tuesday", despite the fact that there were multiple unanswered emails about meeting on Tuesday, this is when I'd point out that homework was due on Friday, and the later Wednesday submission was due to weather, so if they waited until Saturday to ask for help then but for the bad weather they'd already be in deep penalty territory for late submission; you also should ignore student emails after 5pm on a Friday until the following Monday am, and if ever there is further inquiry invent a story that you were out of town without email access, which you have the right to seeing as the weekend is your own personal time.

  17. According to my department, I'm expected to accommodate students outside of my regular office hours, because, you know, some of them work and stuff like that. (As if I don't work?)

    I've never had a situation precisely like the one described above (and there's no way I'd go to campus for a meeting that wasn't confirmed), but I've frequently had students who cancel their meetings at the last minute. I'll be sitting in my office, no student in sight. So I'll check my email and find out that MacKenzie or Braeden sent a message ten minutes ago saying that they can't make it. I get the sense that these students think that missing a meeting is okay as long as they email about it--no matter how ridiculously last-minute that email was sent.

    I fucking hate that. Those students end up on my private shit list. They don't get a second meeting. They don't get the benefit of any doubt for turning in lackluster papers. They don't get to have a word with me as I'm walking out the door after class. They aren't allowed to waste anymore of my precious time. They can go to my office hours--and if that doesn't work, they're free to see the writing center.

    1. Agreed. If the student misses one appointment, I won't make another, particularly if I've gone out of my way to come to campus when I wouldn't have been there that early/late or missed a staple versus paper clip versus folder committee meeting. It particularly irritates me when they make an appointment hours before or after the other things I have on my regular schedule. There's always more than enough work to do, and if they don't show up, the time suck continues and someone will attempt to find more for me to do while I'm waiting.

    2. Don't make an appointment at a time that's inconvenient to you. Make alternative appointments, but only at times that ARE convenient to you. It took me years to learn this, but now that I have, I don't resent meeting students outside office hours. I don't even care if they don't show up, because I was getting my marking (or whatever) done anyway.

  18. My approach is similar to Stella's and Merely's. For the most part, I don't explain, just say "I'm not on campus that day," but if for some reason I feel/felt the need to, any of these might be relevant: (1) my long commute to campus (imposed in part by local cost of living and my low salary), (2) the price of gas, (3) the fact that I share an office, (4) the campus parking situation, (5) the local traffic situation (related to #1, above), (6) protecting the environment/carbon emissions/global warming. Hey, I can be a snowflake too if/when it suits me!

    But seriously, if a student can't at least begin to explain his questions via email (or at least via email attachment with comments in the margin), he's trying to get you to do the work for him. A face to face meeting is often a very efficient use of time, but it works a lot better if the student has actually thought about the assignment, and has substantive questions. A complete inability/unwillingness to explain what he wants to discuss is a sign that he really wants you to do the work for him, and it's not really a favor to him to do that. It's probably weaning time. Assuming he resumes the practice of visiting your office regularly, it's probably time to set some ground rules (e.g. ask a lot of questions (leading if necessary); tolerate a lot of silence (never answer your own questions); make sure he does all the writing. Adjust as appropriate/necessary for your discipline). My guess is that if he actually has to do the work in your office (as opposed to your doing at least some of it for him), he'll visit less often. Remember, the goal here is not to get the students to "care" (or to test whether they care), the goal is for them to be able to do the work on their own. If watching/listening to you do the problem helps move them in that direction, fine; if not, then you're not actually helping, and might in fact be hurting, their academic progress. (This is the point at which Ben's famous "don't care more about their educations than they do" intersects with "first, do no harm." It's not just that caring too much about our students' educations hurts us; it also hurts our students in the long run).

  19. @Contingent--yes, yes, you're absolutely right, of course. On the other hand, that's the only reason students come to *my* office hours: to have some (or most) of the homework problems essentially done for them. Yes, I could be strict and principled as you describe, "wean" them, etc. (have done so in the past). The effect of that is that students stop coming entirely, and I lose an opportunity of contact with them; eventually, the weaker ones give up and drop, and we're talking between 1/4 and 1/3 of the class here. Who do you think gets blamed for it? It's the kind of dilemma we all know about: if by enforcing a degree of integrity in their education I end up risking my job...

    Administrators and students are united in their expectation that we'll compromise on integrity, and allow people to pass when they clearly haven't done enough. At least at my U.

    1. Yes, I get it, and if you're in an environment where you're penalized for students dropping/disappearing/failing, this is probably the right (and is certainly a justifiable) approach.

      Just out of curiosity, what role do exams play? If the relative grade contributions of homework and exams were on track, I'd think that students who didn't/couldn't really do the homework wouldn't pass the class, because they wouldn't pass the exams. But maybe that's a naive assumption.

    2. That's exactly the kind of environment I'm in.

      My exams consist of a selection of the easiest homework problems and class examples, without change. Relatively few students care to learn the correct solutions before the tests, so they're considered "hard". Adminicritters don't care about explanations or documented evidence, they care about "success rates"; student responsibility plays zero role at Bumfuck State.

      Final update on VIS: she came to class, but didn't turn in any homework. Made some noises about coming to my afternoon office hours, but of course didn't show up. She is very borderline, but if she sticks with the course until the final and makes a credible effort, I may have no alternative but to give her a C. She knows that, of course.

      Thanks to all for the suggestions and comments.


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