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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cue the waterworks

One of Paul's students came to meet with him today, very bright young woman from his honors comp class--but she's turned in no work, and apparently this is a pattern for her. He had to tell her to withdraw or face a failing grade. I saw her wiping the tears out of her eyes and offered her my box of Kleenex. And it's that time of year: students finally reach the point of no return, and the result is often tears.

I was prepared to face the waterworks from two young women in the Mystery class. Both ran smack into the difference between the kind of writing they're used to and what college writing demands, and both suddenly started getting help at the very end--too little too late. I'd been warning them that they were unlikely to pass, and although I was concerned that the message hadn't gotten through (they were still coming to class after all), apparently I did a reasonable job, as neither was surprised. I'd forgotten that I'd offered the Mercy D to one of them (in addition to promising at least that to the Worker Bee); the other took the withdrawal slip. Both will be in the position of having to learn how to write properly from someone else, somewhere down the line. But I was proud of them for staying the course (literally).

What I was not prepared for was for Judy Blue Eyes to implode yet again. This morning she wrote to ask me about the topic for her last essay--which was due today. She wanted more time to turn it in, and I had to say no. I've given her as much slack as I possibly can, and I did warn her that she might hit the point at which I would no longer be able to bend. She did. We stood in the hall outside class for half an hour, essentially going through the same conversation we've been through over and over, but this time, there was no more room to maneuver: she has to take the withdrawal or she will fail the class. She's miserable about it, of course--and she cried. But I told her it's time for me to practice tough love. Bottom line: she did not submit enough work of enough quality to pass. I got lots of promises from her, but no follow through, and whatever her reasons are--events in her life, her psychological state, any other factors--they do not alter the bare fact. She told me she'll have to face her mother (this has been part of the script all along, her messy relationship with her mom)--and she told me that the withdrawal will ruin her whole life. I assured her it would not. And it won't, though I'm sure it does feel like that to her at the moment.

I'm very torn about this. I hate making my students miserable--and the students in 102 wondered if it bothers me that so many withdraw, that they were miserable (I told them yes, dammit, it bothers me a lot, but not for the reasons they expect)--but if anything, I'm concerned that I may have been too easy on Judy months ago: perhaps it would have been better for her if I'd not given her the slack at all, ever. I do know, very clearly, that at this point, it would do her no favors to bend any further. At very least, sometime or other she will have to face the genuine consequences of her actions, so it might as well be now. But also, I have to confess, part of why I won't give her more slack is that I have a small, uncomfortable thought that I've been played. This may simply be the cynicism that arises from dealing with students who manufactured the pity card out of a fabric of lies, but that niggling little feeling is there, the voice that says, "She was sure the tears would work. This is her M.O.: she gets out of having to do the work by assuring teachers that she's actually very good but her life is just too hard...." In fact, what work I did see from her was not good; even if she'd been turning everything in all along, that level of work wouldn't have gotten her a decent grade. She may be completely capable of good quality work, but I sure didn't see it.

Purely selfishly, I also wonder if she'll now withdraw from Nature in Lit--and take her friends with her--because I am the Monster Bitch from Hell (as I joked to the class today). While Judy and I stood in the hall after class, me making her cry, one of her friends from the class waited for her--and I would especially hate for that student to withdraw from Nature in Lit. I've not said much about her; she's simply sailed along, doing good work, but she's precisely the kind of student I want most (wants to learn, wants the challenge, will put in real effort, cares, has intelligent things to say). She wants to be an English major, in fact, which is why she wants to do well in my classes. If Judy abandons the class and takes the English Major with her, I'll be very disappointed.

I'll also be very unhappy if Judy stays in the class and does the same routine next semester. I want her to stay, but I want her to actually do the work, and do it well.

Well, we'll see. I can't get knotted up about the possibility that any or all of them will ditch the class. I don't think Judy's friends will follow her out the door--and she may not, in fact, bail, even though this semester she didn't get the outcome she wanted (and, the cynic in me says, even though she found out tears won't work at the end). It's also possible that she may withdraw for other reasons, having nothing to do with my refusal to budge at the end: I can't take her behavior as a personal affront. But it does matter to me, and I do care, deeply. I'm not talking about whether Nature in Lit runs, either: I'm talking about the emotional and psychological--and academic--well-being of my students. Over which I have very little control, I know: even if I were to lower my standards beyond what my integrity can tolerate, students still either do the work or they don't. And they have to take care of themselves, and their own lives.

Times like this, I realize how much of my interaction with my students arises from sublimated maternal impulses. I'm nobody's mother, but the urge to mother is deeply woven into my psyche, and my students get the benefit--and, I suppose, pay the price. Ask my nephews: I'd have been one hell of a strict mother.

Ah well.

I can't quite tell how tomorrow will shape up. I provided comments on stories for two of the five students who asked for comments, so I need to finish that up. And about five students in each of today's classes want comments as well. Even though I won't be doing Advisement and won't have class (because of the doctor's appointment), I'll come in to the office to work: I'm much more productive here, especially when I can just put my head down and plow through it, without having to go to a meeting. I have a few things on the "to do" list, which I'll use as a way to still feel productive when I need to get my head out of student writing for a while. I think it will all come together nicely, and with minimal stress. But check back in about 48 hours: I'll either be in a flap getting the last of it done, or I'll be serenely writing a blog post--or, dare I hope, even on my way out for a celebratory dinner with Paul...? Meanwhile, tomorrow is another day, and sufficient to Wednesday is the work thereof.

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