Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Pissed Pumpkin: The Non-Complaining Student Misery

A lot gets posted here about the misery of having whiny, entitled, self-indulgent students, and I see just enough of that to fear that you're not exaggerating more than a little bit and that I might have those same students any day now.

But I actually face relatively little of that. Just enough to remind me that it is out there.

My rather dingy little ivory (well, plaster and brick) tower is a directional state school that serves a rural corner of the lower Midwest. Many of our students drive in from the family farm or ranch. Many of them are the first in their families to come to college, and most of the rest come from families that value education. Many are returning to education after a few years in the workplace. Many have kids of their own to look after. Most have jobs. It's a blue collar town and a blue collar student population and a large fraction of them know what hard work is, expect to work for their goals, and are bound and determined to move up in the world. Every class has a student that inspires me.

Compared to some of you folks I'm living in a bygone time.

So with that in mind we move to the misery, which rises from a three ingredient cocktail.

Firstly, I use a on-line homework service. I hate that because I don't get the intimate feel for how students are doing that comes from regularly marking papers nor do I get to slowly to teach them how to write solutions. But we have no TAs and I haven't the time to mark all my own homework. Of course, on-line homewotheservices cost money. They cost the students money.

Secondly I had a student, Stoic Sally, who lives even closer to the financial line than most. And I didn't know this.

Finally, I committed a rookie mistake this term. I let the time between checking the on-line homework grades mount. And mount some more.

At the beginning of the semester, Sally didn't have the cash. So she didn't sign on. Nor did she come and see me. A couple of weeks in she figured out that she could take advantage of the free two-week trial. Of course, by then she is already three homework assignments behind, and that fourth assignment is dreadfully hard to do.

And still she didn't come to me.

But as time passed the situation got worse and worse. This course is one that builds on itself relentlessly. You have to have mastered the week two stuff to be ready for the week the stuff and so on for the whole semester.

I've been financially strapped once or twice along my journey so I can feel, in my gut, the reluctance Sally must have faced at the thought of approaching me about the cost. And I blame myself for that. I put her in that position.

But if she had talked to me, we could have worked something out. I could, quietly, mark one set of homework problems. Imyself find the time.

Then the abbreviated term is up (this course is broken into six and ten week terms to let struggling students get out with a low credit bad grade, because some come to us unprepared), and she failed the final exam and even with her nice lab reports and the good grade on the first midterm she can't move on to the second part.

So I feel like I've failed her. And yeah, she could have done something, but I don't get completely out from under the responsibility either


  1. Fulton Fred says:

    You're probably beating yourself up too much over Sally. OK, you should have checked the homework grades a little sooner. Shit happens. We all make mistakes. It's a shame that the cost of using the system puts her in trouble. And I can see her feeling a sense of shame telling you she can't afford it. This is kind of a "damned if you, damned if you don't" scenario. Aside from checking a little sooner, what could you have done? What could Sally have done? At the least, come during office hours to ask some questions.

    My first midterm is Thursday. My material is quant so I have the luxury of falling back on one correct answer and figuring pretty easily who has his stuff together and who suffers from rectal/cranular inversion. The latter kids won't come to the office until they crash on the midterm. You can lead a horse to water...

  2. this course is broken into six and ten week terms to let struggling students get out with a low credit bad grade, because some come to us unprepared

    That's fascinating. I can definitely see how that would be a nice system for STEM intro courses...

    1. The thing I really don't like about it is that owing to the scheduling snafu this semester, I only got to teach the first six weeks. I do think it is good for the students who were already dying as week six approached despite have had the homework system up and running.

    2. Yes, I can see how management would also use it to reduce teaching costs... hmm.

  3. Could you give her an Incomplete, allow her to submit the homework and then grade it?

    1. I asked my mentor about that, and she recommends against it. The student will have to wait until next time to continue anyways, and we'd like her to be fresh on the material from the fist six weeks.

  4. I hear you. More money for Pearson and their ilk.

    Does your discipline have an open source option? WeBWorK (http://webwork.maa.org/) is built for mathematics with NSF support, but I think someone was working on physics problem sets. Perhaps your STEM field has something similar? The downside is that you would need to install a local server, which means gaining institutional support.

    Just a thought!

    1. I had not heard of this. I wonder how much work it would be and if my colleagues would be interested. Thanks.

    2. Lon-capa is a free online homework system for physics. I've not personally used it in my classes because we have a couple of dinosaurs higher in the food chain than I am in my department who insist on using Wiley for the introductory classes, but I know people at other institutions who've used it and they only have good things to say.

  5. Why don't you reach out to her and let her know that you could have worked something out. It won't change things this time (unless Clara's solution works), but next time she'll know that advocating for herself is an option. I feel your sadness but try not to beat yourself up.

  6. I guess I've been at this too long because my first thought was, "Stoic Sally is probably a psychopath who manipulates her proffies."


  7. This situation resonates with me, too -- not exactly (outer-ring suburb rather than rural location, 1st- or 2nd rather than nth-generation American student population), but close (similar work ethic and non-class responsibility burden, and same general lack of entitledness, sometimes to a fault). Maybe this is my own laziness and/or fear of being overwhelmed by the need around me should I start taking responsibility for trying to solve more of it, but I tend to think this sort of issue needs to be addressed systemically. Yes, you could have solved the problem for Sally, and given the nature of your student population, you might not even have gotten complaints from other students in the class, though you might have discovered half a dozen more who were nearly as desperate as Sally, and spoke up once they realized there was an alternative. At that point, given your load, the solution becomes less viable. I really like the idea of free/low-cost/open-access type alternatives to the products the big textbook publishers put out, and would like to see creating and administering such projects count very heavily toward tenure, promotion, etc. Anything we can do to resist the forces that would treat us, our students, and our common predicament as a market, and find ways to reward good teaching (including mechanized approaches to same where appropriate) is to the good.

    As far as not checking the online this, that, or the other thing often enough, I think we've all been there. I warn students to keep an eye on their own results for various things (e.g. running interim steps to assignments through the plagiarism checker, possible problems flagged during online workshops by their group members), and to email or talk to me if there's a problem, but that doesn't always happen, and somehow I manage to feel a bit guilty if I didn't notice that the plagiarism check of a draft highlighted a paragraph cut and pasted from wikipedia that I didn't notice until the final version (even though the students I teach are years beyond the point where they should have learned that cutting and pasting from wikipedia is unacceptable).

    Bottom line: when both the students and the proffies are overwhelmed, people do fall through the cracks, at least temporarily. We can't stop caring, and we should certainly look for solutions, but we can't take too much personal responsibility for system problems, either (since that just allows the systemic problems to continue). There's a happy medium somewhere; if anybody finds it, please report back.


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