Friday, February 01, 2008

Nailed

Dear Professor Ivers:

Hi! My name is UGG Girl. I am a student in your constitutional law class, Government 350, that meets on Monday and Thursday at 11.20-12.35 p.m. I'm sorry I wasn't in class this morning. I contracted a disease late last night that has the following symptoms: drowsiness, excitability, high fever, chills, frostbite, finger pimples, melted ear wax, constipation, diarrhea, insomnia, narcolepsy, chronic itching, rickets, iron deficiency and sudden, uncontrollable vomiting. I also have some symptoms I couldn't locate in the PDR, like both my big toes turning blue at the same time!!! Since I didn't want to come to class and risk throwing up on you -- sorry, nothing personal! -- or passing out or going on a violent rampage, I thought I would stay home and try to get better. I hope to see you in class next time. I am attaching the homework I apparently wasn't too sick to do this morning when I was so sick I almost died.

Really, I almost, like, died! It was, like, so gross!!! Part of my vomit, when I wasn't sweating profusely or going back and forth between a fever and frostbite, was black. Eeeeewww!

I hope you will excuse my absence. I am eager to learn from you :)

Sincerely,
UGG Girl
A student in your 11.20 constitutional law class (Government 350)

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No, I didn't get this exact letter recently. But I do get plenty like them over the course of the academic year, and I have already started to get some this semester. I got one years ago from a student who felt she needed to go into exacting detail about what happened to her in the shower when her boyfriend surprised her with an uninvited yet welcome visit. She fell down and broke her nose on the bath faucet, and was too "spaced out" from painkillers to come to class. Couldn't she have just stopped at the broken nose? Even if I had had a girlfriend in college I could never have imagined telling a professor that I was absent from class because of a sex-related accident in the shower. Or described every single last one of my symptoms to a professor to explain my absence. I am a professor of government, not an internist or gastroendocrinologist. Just a simple, "I was ill on Monday and unable to make it to class. Please let me know how I can make up the assignment. Thank you," will suffice.

But that's not with this is about. Rather, it's about students who skip class, offer elaborate explanations for why they couldn't summon up the power to endure those 75 minutes at 9.55 or 11.20 in the morning, press upon you the urgency of their illness or life-crisis and then . . . manage to pass you on their way to another class or score a table at the Mary Graydon Center so they can get some much needed face-time and check out the latest in AU fashion, such as 5" platform stilettos with spray-painted jeans and sunglasses the size of Jupiter or, in the case of the boyz . . . outside the occasional drenched-in-cologne, low-rider jeans players with pointy loafers or Puma fashion athletic shoes . . . a new Mets Sunday home jersey is about as fashion-forward as it gets.

Nope. This post is about getting nailed.

Last week, I saw two students who appeared, to me anyway, to be in robust, near-perfect health energetically making their way across campus after they had just skipped my classes. Okay, okay . . . they were nice enough to send me emails telling me about their near-death experiences with strange tropical diseases that could only have entered the United States in a germ box sent by terrorists or orthopedic ailments that prevented them from walking, reading, sitting, writing, typing (except this email), listening, talking, eating, drinking, peeing, skiing, snowboarding, breathing, urinating or driving. That all sounds horrible. It really does. But why do students say this stuff when, on such a small campus, there is a not-so-random chance that you will see them if you walk across the quad or go to Mary Graydon for coffee? And do they feel silly when they think a professor sees them? Last term, I walked over to the bookstore after class and bumped into a student from the class I had just taught standing outside the building smoking a cigarette and talking with a friend. I just stopped and looked at her. She stared right back. I looked at my watch and pointed at the time. She started to open her mouth, but I discouraged her by waving my hand.

"You're nailed," I said. Her friend started jumping up and down, excited that I had called her out, waving her cigarette in the air. "Nailed, nailed, busted, busted, busted!" said the friend, doing a jig completely unfamiliar to me. My student just stood there, caught between two worlds -- the professor who just busted her and the friend who found glee in her friend's embarrassment. In fairness, my student offered no defense and, in true American University fashion, noted that she had not exceeded the number of absences I permit students before I start deducting a half a letter from their final grade. She was an excellent student, so that made her plight all the more satisfying to me and her friend.

At least this student surrendered. More amusing, even puzzling, are the students who don't deviate from their excuses, even though you know that they were not suffering from an emergent strain of the Bubonic Plague or flashbacks from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam when they skipped your class or failed, as is more often the case than it should be, to turn in assignment. If you're planning on skipping my class while remaining determined to meet your social obligations or attend your other classes, just say so. You know all those "Law and Orders" where the cops tell the alleged murderer that if he would cooperate then they would put in a good word with the prosecutors? It's a good idea. Just 'fess up.

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Oh, but here's an even better one. Imagine that you've taken two classes over two semesters with the same professor. Imagine that you asked the same professor if he would supervise independent study so that you could make up some lost hours without having to take another class. Imagine that in both classes you received excellent grades. Even better, imagine that you had some health issues that required treatment and medication that would leave you tired and not always able to concentrate, that you asked the same professor for some help -- extensions, rescheduling exams, etc., and so forth -- and he gave it you without hesitation. Wouldn't you think that the professor must be either a decent guy or a pretty good teacher for a student to take him three times and ask for him to supervise his independent study?

Having thought about it for a couple of seconds, I would say, yes, I'd have to like and respect a teacher quite a bit to take him three times. I'd have to feel he's a pretty approachable guy, especially if he reassured the student that he would not penalize him for any work he missed as long as he eventually made it up, and he should proceed at a comfortable pace. I'd be even more grateful, as a student, if the professor offered to help me without having to ask him. Pretty good deal, right?

Apparently not. A student doing some work for me on another project came across some comments on one of these "I Hate My Professor Sites" that turned out to be this student's true feelings about me. Let's see . . . you don't learn anything in class from me other than what you read in the books . . . the "heinous stench" of my "liberal politics" evidently clouds my judgment when it comes to teaching and grading, although this self-styled conservative somehow managed to earn two A-range grades from me in the two courses he took from me, and signed up for another one with me this semester. And there is more strongly suggesting that this student's interest in studying with me was completely fraudulent.

Think about this for a minute. Why would you, as a student, do something so stupid? Why would you feel the need to post something disrespectful about your professor on a website that is the educational equivalent of rating porn stars or toasters after he had rewarded you for your good work, worked with you to accommodate your health issues, and tentatively -- but no longer -- agreed to work with you on an independent study? Why would you feel that you could do these things without getting . . . nailed?

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Dear Dr. Ivers:

My name is Capitol Hill Wannabee SuitandTie Boy. You have probably noticed that I haven't been in class all semester. It's not because I don't like your class or anything. I do, even though I haven't been. I really like the way you teach us, even though I'm never there to experience what I claim to know. I realize that you're probably thinking I'm one of those students who is just here for the internships and too busy to go to class, which I am but will continue to insist that I'm not. So I was wondering: could I make up the midterm that I missed and all the daily assignments that I haven't turned in? Could you tell me where we are in the syllabus, since I haven't bothered to find out myself? Can you do all these things for me so I won't have to tell a dean or the athletic director or my dad that you're picking on me because I'm irresponsible and that it's not fair that you're expecting me to do the work in the class that I signed up for? Rather than hold me accountable for my actions, could you turn my plight into a "teachable moment?" You can reach me on my cell or IM me at: dudewhatever@gmail.com.

Signed,
SuitandTie Boy

American University Class '09
Assistant Intern to the Associate Deputy Intern to the Special Assistant for Intern Coordination to the Staff Director of the Minority-Majority-Minority Deputy Counsel to the Member of Congress Whose Name I Cannot Remember.

PS -- Go Devils!

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I got a letter like this once, as have probably most of my colleagues. What made the letter more interesting that it should have been was that the student wasn't enrolled at American University. He was enrolled at another university here in Washington, D.C., and just got "confused" about which one it was because he was so . . . well, busy! I'm pretty busy, too, and sometimes I forget things I shouldn't, or space an appointment or meeting. Generally, though, I can remember where I work, even if don't always remember what I have to do. Is that really too much to ask . . . to show up on time in the classes that you chose to take with the professor assigned to teach them at the university that accepted your application?

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Who really knows why some students behave the strange way they do? Sometimes I wonder if students who push the envelope in their personal or professional relationship with a professor genuinely believe that they will never get caught or have to be accountable for their actions. I wonder if students who choose to behave badly or make poor decisions think we're that stupid or unaware of their behavior. I know some professors who are afraid to clamp down on their students because of the consumer mentality increasingly pervasive in higher education -- that somehow an "unhappy" student is always the fault of the professor when, in fact, the jam a student has gotten his or herself into is a homegrown problem. I might not call out a student the first or second time they try to run something past me or spend a class period or two muttering not-terribly-funny commentary under their breath about me or their classmates. It's not as if I'm unaware of what's going on. I just find it a better strategy to say, "This is third time you've died of leprosy in the last three weeks. Are you sure you want to do down this road?" or to the student who can't stop writing notes, scowling with folded arms while leaning against the back wall or attempting to undercut my class by elbowing his classmates about what a terrible professor I am, "Why don't you just leave or vent your anger on-line so I can teach the people who actually give a damn about what's going on in here? You don't like me? So what?" Go sit in someone else's classes for three or four semesters, although they'll be aware of your proclivities for bad behavior because professors often ask each other questions like, "Was this particular student a problem in your class?" And the answers are usually the same: yes.

In the end, you'll get nailed. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But somewhere down the line you have a date with destiny. Learn that now, so that when your prospective employer asks you if your hobbies are still beer-bonging, smoking quality hooch and maintaining an on-line porn site, things you've told that employer by posting them on Facebook for all the world to see, don't act surprised or disappointed. Or when the admissions officers of a law school or Ph.D program wants to know if you are in the habit of posting nasty comments about your professors or classmates on-line you'll have an excuse ready for them. One day, you won't have a Dean or a parent to run to for help, and you'll be left, all by your lonesome self, responsible for your own behavior. Blame me for everything, if that makes you feel better. But remember, the jails are overcrowded for a reason: in the end, the criminal gets caught. And he gets caught because he's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

2 comments:

Jeremy said...

Monday and Thursday at 11.20-12.35 p.m

When I read the first part of your post, I thought it was about someone actually thinking they needed to give an excuse to go to the Obama rally.

At least, saying something other than "I'm going to the Obama rally."

Carlos said...

Nice.

I hope that self-styled douchebag who ragged on you doesn't have the gall to ask you for a letter of recommendation.