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?