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Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I want to make another relatively early night of it tonight, but I feel compelled to discuss a problem student and an interaction yesterday that I don't feel I handled very well. In a 101 class, there is a student--not Mr. Macho, another young man with a similar hostility problem. I think this young man is relatively intelligent, but since he showed up (he entered the class late), the contempt he feels for me and for the class as a whole has been building. It's gotten to the point where it's practically visibly leaking out his pores in technicolor. I've tried to treat him as if he is simply struggling to write well and to handle the material, but yesterday, he arguing with me about whether students should be able include their "opinions" in their papers. Oh, it's a long story, that I won't go into, but essentially what I came down to was that they do not need to agree with the readings I assigned, but if they disagree, as they do their research, they need to find specific evidence for the counter-argument. And I said, that honestly, I have a bias--and know a lot about this stuff--so if they do want to make a counter-argument, it will have to be particularly good. It can still get a great grade, but it will have to be extremely well done. At one point, before I got to that point, he said, "You're just teaching us to be passive and not think." I said, "No, I'm teaching you to find reasons for what you think, to evaluate an argument objectively and thoroughly."

I wish I'd started where I ended, as I confess, at first I began by saying that yes, I want them to agree with the essays I assigned. But that's not really true. It's just that they can't disagree because they disagree: they need to back that disagreement up with something--and even then, in their papers, I do not want them to say "I disagree"--because, honestly, who gives a fuck whether they do or don't? If they want to make the counter-argument, then they need to set up both sides of the debate and prove (or try to prove) why the side they agree with has more merit.

I made that point better today in the library lesson--which went pretty well, I think. The students were a little disengaged (until we turned them loose to research on their own)--but during the lesson, the librarian found an article stating that organic farming increases the carbon footprint and environmental problems of farming, in comparison to industrial farming. I hadn't talked to today's students about counter-arguments, so I jumped in to clarify: if they find material that puts forth a counter argument, they can't ignore it. They need to acknowledge it--they can even end up believing that it's the stronger argument. But again, they need to prove why.

I'm tired and cranky and I may not be making a lot of sense here, but I struggle with this: I want them to think, God dammit, and I want them to have solid reasons for their opinions, but as soon as we get into "it's my opinion," they stop applying any intellectual rigor, because, you know, "we're all entitled to our opinion." Yes, we are--but not all opinions are created equal, and the ones that are based on bugger all are worth precisely that.

That contemptuous student baffles me. I just did the "early warning" thing, letting students who are in trouble know their grades are already in jeopardy, and I saw that of five reading journals, he's submitted one. If he's not even doing the reading, he can't possibly know whether he agrees with the points that are being made: he's operating on knee-jerk (emphasis on "jerk") assumptions. And I just glanced at his revision, which very clearly was his way of telling me that he doesn't give a shit about the assignment. (It's half the required length, as was the first version, and the first of my comments that he thought was helpful was about double-spacing. Yeah, OK.) So, if he hates my approach to teaching, hates the focus of the class, and isn't willing to do the work well enough to pass, why the hell is he hanging around making both of us miserable? Why doesn't he just withdraw and put his energy into some other class where he's got a shot?

I'm not sure how I'm going to handle him. I know for certain that I'm going to get through to him in any way--and he's starting to poison the class a bit, which I won't allow to continue. But I'll have to see how things progress from here before I decide what to do.

By the way, the young woman to whom I gave the extra chance in the short story class was not there on Monday, as I think I mentioned, but she did show up today--late. I should have told her no, that she'd blown her last chance and had to withdraw--and I'm not sure why I'm allowing her to make the attempt even at an incomplete. But she knows she's at her third strike. I do not have much faith she'll pull it out: I'm pretty certain she'll screw up again and that third strike will take her out. I don't know whether it's beneficial to her to give her the extra chance or not, but I guess I simply didn't want to fight--and I actually do want her to succeed, and will be thrilled if my prognostication proves incorrect.

Meanwhile, I have one more paper to finish for the short-story class (of their "big" essays), and I simply cannot bring myself to finish it tonight. The stack of stuff to be marked is approaching the absurd. I may bail on tomorrow's department meeting: bad form, I know, for the new evening assistant chairperson, but Bruce can scold me and I'll try to be a better girl next semester, and meanwhile, it would buy me a little extra time to chip away at stuff. If I can get a few discrete chunks of stuff polished off, I'll feel a lot less anxious, which in turn will make me more productive. Ironic that often, the more I push, the less I actually manage to do. And really, all I can do is take each day as it comes and see what I can accomplish. That's all any of us can do.

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