Begging and Bitching

Some students sure do beg and bitch a lot. One semester, I finished all my grading early and decided to sleep in late. Really late. So there I was enjoying my coffee around noon…when our department office manager called to relay a message from a panicked student (and his mom). The message: He’d been stopping by and emailing all morning and couldn’t get a hold of me. Well, obviously. My grading was done. Classes were over. Did he think I’d come to campus for fun? I mean, I like my office, but I have one of those at home–a better one where I can wear my jammies and drink espresso. Nevertheless, this sad young man was depending on me to grade his paper so he could keep his scholarships.

I glanced at my clock. “The grade deadline’s in an hour,” I said. “I’ll just give him an incomplete.”

The office manager replied, “He told me he’ll lose his financial aid if he gets an incomplete. He emailed you his paper.”

“Let me check.”
As I opened Firefox the office manager added, “And his mom’s been calling a lot, too.”

Great. Just love it when parents get involved. So, I found the little shithead’s emails, all time-stamped from the last couple of hours. I hung up and read the paper, which didn’t take long. It was two pages double-spaced, with four sources. Nowhere close to the assignment guidelines. 12 pages, 8 sources. So I wrote him back with an ultimatum. Revise the paper over break. Or take an F. Haven’t heard back yet.

People often tell me I’m too nice. That’s probably true. Unless you call me a cunt in front of the whole class and piss on my flats, I’ll probably give you a deadline extension.

My leniency has a lot of reasons. For one, my college can’t afford to drop students right now. The economy’s picking up, and when that happens enrollment tends to drop. It’s one of the great ironies of higher education. We do better during recessions because that’s when people lose their jobs and crawl back to school. In times like these, we have to push them through while not waffling on our standards too much.

You’ll be so shocked to learn I wasn’t always a model student. My freshmen year, I tried to use my roommate’s mono as an excuse for missing an entire week of class. In truth, I’d  spent my time in coffee shops reading and flirting with guys. Another time I walked into a midterm exam completely blindsided. Someone had to loan me paper. (I still got a B!) My first two years of college lacked direction and focus. Sometimes it didn’t even make sense why I was here. My purpose in life didn’t become clear until my junior year: Be a best-selling author. Well, that didn’t work out. So I became an academic. Oh, the irony.

Or is it ironic? I’m not sure. Maybe fate made me a teacher for a reason. Never bullshit a bullshitter. That’s what Walter White said. There’s nobody better to help under-achieving students than a professional under-achiever. I know all the excuses because, at one point or another, I at least thought about trying them:

My grandma died. Yeah, both grandmas in one semester. This has been a difficult time for me.

My aunt’s birthday was last week, and she really needed to see all her family. She’s a cancer survivor. I’m sorry I didn’t let you know beforehand. I was worried that you wouldn’t understand.

I locked my keys in my car across town after a job interview. The stress was overwhelming. I technically could’ve made it to your class, but really needed a nap to calm down.

A homeless cat climbed into my engine, and I spent an hour coaxing her out with cookies. I learned a valuable lesson, that cats don’t like Oreos.

My students give me even better excuses. One missed an exam because his shower broke. Another turned in a paper late because he got curry in his eyes. And another skipped a final exam because he burned down his apartment by leaving the drier on while he was out drinking. (That one was true.) One semester, a student even told me he’d been living on the streets for a month because his dorm room smelled bad and housing wouldn’t do anything about it. I’ve also received legit student emails that involved abortion, rape, alcohol poisoning. Basically, some students just have chaotic lives.

You know what’s even better than excuses ? Their responses when you tell them no. When I refused to pass one student who’d missed 10 classes, she wrote me an email along these lines:

Well, fuck you. I never liked you anyways. You think those guys are flirting with you because you’re cute, but they really just want As. Plus, I just did the math and my GPA will still be a 3.5 even with your lousy F. Try not to kill yourself.

Many times, the most irresponsible college students like to involve their parents. A friend of mine once received a formal letter of allegations from a law firm. Turns out the lawyer was the aggrieved parent of a student. I’ve received half a dozen phone calls from parents over the years, many who try to explain my job to me. “Let me tell you what we’re going to do,” one parent said to me this passed year. “We’re going to give Josh a break and let him turn in his work. He’s an athlete, and he has a lot of scholarships riding on your class. We’re not going to let him down. Are we?”

My favorite thing to do in these cases is cite FERPA. I simply say, “Has your child signed a FERPA release?” When the parent asks what the hell that is, I explain that unfortunately I’m not even allowed to confirm whether a student is enrolled in my class. Thank the gods. The funniest thing? It’s always the well-off students whose parents want all the breaks for their kids. Shouldn’t they be teaching them how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?






9 thoughts on “Begging and Bitching

  1. Seth Berkowitz

    Just want to make sure you know that Walter White did not coin that phrase. I wouldn’t nitpick about it, but you’re an academician and you guys take attribution pretty seriously.


    1. J. Jonah Wilder

      I agree. And while we’re on the topic, do you ever discuss mansplaining with your students, when they think they know more than you?


  2. Labrug

    Having done some teaching myself (not at this level mind) I can relate in some ways, and have a few quirky tales to tell. Jess (if I may call you that), having just become a recent follower, I am finding your posts very entertaining. Thank you.


  3. christolicious

    I worked at a college for 5 years, but in a business analyst role, not teaching. Because I enjoy pain, I took a second part-time job there working at the library. OK, it was for the money. Not for pain. But I learned one thing about the Duality of Students, in that they fall into two broad categories.

    1. Some students are spoiled babies.
    2. Some students have worked actual jobs before.

    Students who have had jobs, or who come from families that own their own business, don’t cough up the “terrorists ate my homework” excuses, for anything. They get their work done and eat the consequences if they don’t.

    The babies are the ones who shuffle around campus in their jammie-jam-jams all day, actually wearing pajamas around campus, to the library where they do anything but work, and those are the hapless victims of coddling Mom/Pa/Insert Failed Adult Role Model here. Unsurprisingly, it’s the kids from families with more money, more resources, that are frequently the least capable, and the most dependent on others, just to get their untested asses through the easiest days of their lives.

    On a Sunday at the library, as I was cramming my studying in for a “free” MBA and supervising some work-study students, a student came up and asked me to help with her paper. She wasn’t asking me how to look up source material, use any of the tools the library has, nothing like that. Her “help” request was to “help her write the paper”. Meaning she wanted me to sit down and act as a tutor/typist for her, because her paper was due on Monday, and she didn’t know what to do.

    You know you have been trained helpless when you wander into a building on a Sunday that might have an adult in it, and ask them to do your work for you, the work that will benefit you in the long run. That kid will have a large mountain to climb and overcome when she hits the real world (which would have been several years ago now).

    A massive disservice is done to children and young adults. I can’t imagine my parents essentially begging for forgiveness and an extension for me. The correct response to a request from a child like that is “Tough shit, deal with it”.

    And then laugh and point at them.


    1. jessicanexus Post author

      That was quite a comment, thanks! I agree with most of what you said. There’s a big difference between the students who have jobs and family problems versus the wet noodles.


      1. christolicious

        Sadly, I failed to expose any previously-hidden existential truths in my comment. If there are no consequences for your actions, it seems really unlikely that anyone would have the motivation, internal or otherwise, to change.


    2. Jim Jack

      So, on the one hand you acknowledge that many of these children have been raised to be this way, but on the other hand, you have this bizarre view that people are more than the sum of their experiences, that they can somehow just magically snap upright, develop a new personality if people like you are snide enough with them. That doesn’t work. I’m not saying that there is any solution. I’ve been working since I was 14, professional work as a computer programmer, otherwise I would’ve had no spending money, not enough money to eat either, part of my work in highschool was so that I had enough to eat—once I started buying my own food, my grades improved. So I know what work is about.

      I also know that University work is bullshit. Like, if you’re writing a paper for an undergrad course, sure, there are some people who benefit from that. But I’ve been writing computer programs since I was 14, programs that do real work for real companies, so I know that I know how to string together a syntactically valid set of terms that accomplish a task. University papers are all about this:

      The syllabus is a set of articles, which can be called S, which contains all the sentences in those articles. The goal of writing a paper is to select a subset of S, S’ and a thesis, T, such that S’ implies T. That’s all. It’s something an automated theorem prover could do, if natural language weren’t such a bitch to parse. Now, sure in computer science, engineering, physics, etc. they teach something else. And granted, this S; S’; S’ -> T skill is something lots of people need to learn, but if they don’t have it by age 18, they’re not ever going to really learn it, except by rote, the way some people learn mathematics, without really understanding what is going on underneath.

      And what I found, and a lot of friends I’ve spoken with, is that if you “go off the syllabus”, it does not matter how lucid or valid your argument is. You’re not going to get a grade good enough to go to graduate school. What Universities test for, especially in everything but the “hard sciences” and engineering, is obedience to Teacher and staying on the script teacher defines. There’s even scholarly literature about grading and how it doesn’t prepare people for a democratic society, just like how wage-labor doesn’t prepare people for a democratic society. People who are “good workers” who provide the teacher with what he or she wants, they aren’t necessarily useful people, if we want a free and democratic society with people who are capable of thinking for themselves, questioning authority.

      Deadlines and grades should likely be eliminated. If there is a need for them, it is at the graduate level where you are accrediting people for teaching positions, not at the undergraduate level which is, especially these days, doing what a good highschool education would have done historically. In fact, my local University, University of British Columbia, in BC, Canada, was intended to be the third part of BC’s free public education system. If you graduated elementary, you got to go to high school, if you graduated high school, you got to go to University.

      Deadlines are for important projects, like million dollar engineering projects where a day late means $100,000 in the hole or whatever. Deadlines for undergrad arts degrees are insulting, and add stress to an already hugely stressful existence. This stress is not self-imposed, life isn’t a bowl of cherries just because you’re from a family with “resources.” Not that I had one of those, as I say, I had to work from 14 onward just to have enough to eat. But I’m not so egotistical to think that the “rough” personality I have because of this is because I am more in touch with “the real world” or a better person. I’ve just had different life experiences. I did not have much of a childhood, or teenagerhood or whatever you call it—from 14 onward, full-time school in addition to full-time employment. And then, stupid me, instead of working at the job I had through highschool (they were ready to hire me on w/o degree, etc.) I went to University. I learned a lot. I learned how undemocratic institutions operate, where rewards are not for any measurable performance, but for obedience to the status quo. I also had a decent public K-12 education, something that even in the district I attended is harder and harder to come by, because much of the time is not spent teaching kids to think and to ask questions, but to be obedient to this or that politically correct fashion-du-jour. Oh, also, all of the smart kids who like to make jokes/”disrupt class,” they now zonk on pharmaceuticals, but that is another discussion…

      Just…is this sort of callousness typical for higher education staff? I know it’s how several people I know who started working in Universities now think about many of the students, especially those from better off backgrounds, as these people, like myself, tended to have to work through highschool, and now they like to belittle people who have had different life experiences. And here I thought University opened your mind!


  4. The Album

    Hey! We follow each other on Twitter! It must be pretty interesting to go from student to professor. I never had any wild excuses as to why I missed class and definitely wasn’t a punk asshole who would get my parents involved to get a better grade. Like you, I wasn’t the model student, but did well enough to graduate. I’d bet that kid with the scholarships who turned in the 2 pages and got the extension, still didn’t meet your requirements, am I wrong? This blog post flowed really nicely, something I need to work on in my posts.



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