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Thursday, October 20, 2016


I met with my distance education mentor earlier, and I have so many ideas for how I want to do the online version of Nature in Lit, and so much I want to do, I'm jazzed. Constructing the online course is--at the moment--pure play, especially working with my particular mentor, who is super smart in ways that make sense to my brain: we get each other, enjoy each others' ideas. But I also need to get a certain amount of stuff set up so I can get the final seal of approval from the VP in charge of such things and move on to the next steps in getting the course signed, sealed, approved, offered--and delivered. Both for the pragmatic reason of wanting to get the approvals, and for the sheer fun of creating something new like this, I want to do that instead of grading stinky ol' essays, which isn't nearly as much fun and is made even less fun by the fact that I have to do it, over and over and over. Not quite like Sisyphus--he had to keep rolling the same damned rock, and at least the essays are not exactly identical (though the problems are perennial). But it would just be so much more rewarding to play with the class! I wanna play!

Well, I can't just yet: that's something that goes into the "as soon as I have even a tiny squeak of breath between bouts of essay grading" part of the triage list (along with the PowerPoint I'm supposed to be working on for Seminar Hours).

Meanwhile, I have essays to grade. I didn't try to get to them at all today--except one, which I wanted the student to have a chance to read before our conference Monday at 10; instead, I focused on their reading notes, and in a minor miracle, had them done and the marks recorded before class.

Class went pretty well, but the Truculent Plagiarist was annoying me again. I had told him when he submitted his last homework that it was not anywhere near passing, that I could tell at a glance. When he got it back, he asked what the top score would be--and realized how catastrophically low his scores are. He left his group to come up to me to complain: "Other people do work like this and they're getting 22 points..." Um, no: they are doing better work. That's why they ... oh, never mind: step out into the hall.

In the hall, I said, "This has been a problem all semester." "What has???" I explained that he kept asking questions when I don't have time to explain, that he compares his work against that of other people, but the only work that should matter to him is his own. Instead of focusing on whether he's being treated fairly, he needs to focus on making his own work better--and to do that, he needs to make an appointment to see me, when we can sit down and talk. (How many times have I said to him, "You need to make an appointment so we can sit down and talk"????) Ok, yeah, yeah, but he can't make my office hours. I pointed out to him that I have two--different days and times--plus the seminar hours. "When are those?" They're on the first page of the syllabus (for the 784th time). If you can't make any of those times, e-mail me, let me know when you can meet, and I'll try to find a time in my schedule that works for both of us.

All the while, I'm picking up on subtext: "Wait, you think I'm going to look at the syllabus to find out when your hours are?" "Wait, I have to make an appointment?" "Wait, you aren't just going to tell me in three seconds how to fix this?"

God give me patience. I do not know why I don't just say to the kid, "You know what? This isn't working. Go. Don't come back. I don't care if you need the class to graduate. I don't care anything about you at all. I don't care if you're truly a sweet young man with lots of troubles who just doesn't know how to navigate the social rules of higher education. The only thing I care about is never, ever, ever seeing you again. Ever. Anywhere. GO AWAY."

OK, I can't say all of that, but man am I ever looking for the one thing that I can use as a legitimate last straw to justify booting him out of my class. I am often a real softy (despite the enormous brass balls), but sometimes a student just hits me the wrong way, and there is nothing I can do to salvage the relationship except interact as little as possible and look for the excuse to call in the hook.

And there is another student I've mentioned before, who is seriously out of his depth--trying so hard but simply without the mental ability to make it--and I read his career ambition: he wants to be a bus driver. He'd be so happy doing that, and here he is in my SF class, torturing himself without a chance in hell of succeeding. Why why why are people like him told they need to go to college? He'll make a great life for himself, and he does not need my class to do it....

By way of radical contrast, after I met with my distance ed mentor, I met with the anxious student from 102. We talked a long time--I wish the structure of seminar hours would account for that kind of meeting.


I got distracted there: suddenly decided I wanted to let everyone on the committee know about that meeting, then decided I should make contact with the three students who want to sign up for mentoring (one of them the Imaginary Invalid), then I realized I actually have been doing something we're not supposed to do, and mentoring my students outside the "day grid" (we're not supposed to mentor when evening classes are taking place, as it's part of our contract, which only covers day).


Hi. I'm back.

So, about this student: She's very smart, very sweet, but she's struggling with problems at home as well as her own perfectionism and heavy pressure from her mother. After talking about a lot of things (including why the word "essay" freaks her out), I asked her whether she might talk to her mom about her stress and ask for some help, as she'd said she doesn't tell her mom about it. I could see her trying not to cry, but I went ahead: I asked her, if you could ask your mother for one thing that would help you right now, what would it be? And she said, if only her mother wouldn't give her a hard time and tell her she's messing up when she has a hard time getting out of bed, or is running late, or... and the tears started rolling down her face.

It was very clear to me that what she really wanted, needed, was to ask her mother to love her more tenderly. It nearly broke my heart.

I talked to her a little about how she might approach her mom, but then I backed off from that and said, "OK, as far as this class goes, there is no past and no future. There's just right now. You and I are going to live in the present, for this class. All you need to do is the work that's right in front of you: nothing more." I did explain that if she does everything well for the rest of the semester, I can offer her an incomplete--but only if she keeps up with everything and does a good job on it. However, I said, we don't need to worry about all that: just now. And I had already talked to her about "essay" meaning "try," and showed her the kind of comments she'd get from me. Her fear was that she would write well and get low marks--and she never knew why. So when I showed her comments, she could see that she won't have that problem with my class: I'll tell her what she can do to improve.

And I have faith in her. She even ended our meeting saying that she had been using a church project as a distraction but that she was going to let the members of her group know that she needs more time to focus on school, that she would insist on carving out time for herself. Suddenly, after that moment of complete vulnerability, she found some real strength. If the rest of the world will let her alone, she'll do fine.

I'm already mentally contrasting her with students who won't, don't do the work--even when I'm giving them multiple chances--but I realize I simply am going to let them drown now. They're not doing what I told them needed to happen for them to have any chance at passing. But let me not think about them now. I had the lovely interaction with the student yesterday, and this lovely interaction today. And a fair number of the SF students signed up for conferences about revising their essays--which I'll take as a good sign.

And I'll take that as a good week.

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