Saturday, May 23, 2009

People with Issues

The spring semester has been finished for about two weeks now, and as usual, I get to thinking about the students who should have passed with a good grade, but didn't. From my reading and talking with other faculty, I know this isn't an issue that's restricted to my classrooms. These people are everywhere, and they seem to divide neatly into three groups:

1. Clueless

Some students seem totally bewildered by the whole education process: they don't know why they are here, what they are supposed to be doing, or how to do it. I have to wonder exactly what happened during the previous twelve years of public education.

These people won't be reading this blog, and I'm not writing to them anyhow.

1a. Not on my wavelength

I've always got a couple of truly smart, dedicated students, good writers, who have a strongly-defined personal style that interferes with being an English student. Often these students are artists of some variety, people who get focused on another task (to the exclusion of things such as English papers) and miss deadlines. These are the people who can't quite do what is assigned.

I know something about artists, both visual artists and writers, and often the difference between "starving artist" and someone with a bank account has to do with discipline. A person who can hit deadlines, satisfy publishers, and do what's requested gets to pass college courses and eventually become a professional. That's when the whole thing becomes more than a hobby. This kind of skill is just as important in sculpture class as it is in English

2. People with issues

As a general rule, English departments begin lowering grades for people who have been absent more than one week a semester. That's only two or three class meetings. About 25% of my students can't come anywhere near that. I don't ask too closely because it's none of my business, but this group seems to include:

  • Drunks. Nationwide, something like 25% of college freshmen drink enough to interfere with their academic work. You can't drink hard on Sunday night and be any good in class on Monday. That's all there is to it.
  • Depressed people. I was one of these myself—still am to some extent. Medical and counseling help is available. It's included in the price of your tuition, confidential, and effective. You really don't want to stay that way, do you?
  • Sick people. Dormitory living is incredibly unhealthy. You spend your time close to other sick people. You eat junk food, go to bed late, don't exercise, and forget the most elementary personal hygiene that your mother forced on you. Do what you can to break the cycle. Throw away the moldy pizza box. Eat an orange. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. Do you want to spend your entire college career sick?
  • Messiahs. I always have a couple of students whose role in life is to go home frequently to straighten things out there. That's very noble, but not always a good priority choice. You need to ask whether your intervention really did fix things and whether that's actually more important than passing your courses.

I often get people who vaguely say they "have issues," and it doesn't seem to mean that they dislike me or the course. It usually seems to be related to physical or psychological health. If that's you, get help. You really can't afford to remain as you are.

3. Athletes

We need to face several rock-solid truths:

A. Being on a team consumes an incredible amount of time and energy. Even though you get an excused absence when the team is on the road, the arithmetic never seems to add up, and it's often close to impossible to hit all your deadlines.

B. Coaches don't always get it. Some coaches understand the academic priorities very well, but there are always a few who can't seem to remember that you need to balance practice, weight room, and games with the real business of being a student. They think they hired a professional athlete. You need to pass your courses.

C. Teachers don't always get it. In fact, many teachers neither know nor care whether you are on a team. Out of town game? The lab report is still due on Monday.

D. Confrontation won't help you any. Maybe our American tradition of screaming in the face of baseball umpires is behind all this, but too many athletes think rudeness and intimidation will improve a grade. It simply won't. Want to fail the course? Want to get expelled? Want to get in trouble with the law? Threaten a teacher. Lose the image of the baseball coach screaming at the umpire (and that never worked anyhow). Look up the kinds of offenses that get someone a red card in soccer. Then look up what happens to the player who receives the red card.

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