Student Follies


I’ve been chomping to talk about some of the more inane and insane actions of some of my students over the years. Why? I’ve found that the boundaries between professor and student have broken down quite a bit over the years. So much so that students tend to tell me things that would’ve earned me an F at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergraduate twenty-two years ago. It amazes me that common sense — or at least, some sense of etiquette — doesn’t kick in for these folks in their dealings with me and other instructors. It’s as if we’re merely tutors or academic mercenaries, subject to their feelings and whims, as if we’re only in the classroom to be there for them when they’ve screwed up. So, for those of you who are within a few years of embarking on your higher education journey — or are hopeful parents who expect their kids to attend college in the next decade or so — here are ten examples of what I’m calling “Student Follies.”

1. “I’m paying for this course, so…”: This one drives me nuts. It’s not like these students are writing me checks to pay for a course. The thing I say to them is that until my paycheck has their signature on it, I’m going to teach as a representative of the university, not as an agent for a student.

2. “Can you give me extra credit?”: What? Is this high school? Are you kiddin’ me?!? Whenever I get this question, I have to make sure not to laugh. If it were just college freshmen or high school students asking this question, I’d understand. But I often get upperclassmen or older adults who should know better asking about extra credit to increase their grade. Unlike high school, college is an endeavor that’s about a balance between providing every student an opportunity to excel and providing relative fairness and equality in those opportunities. I often explain that offering extra credit to an individual student is unfair to the students who busted their tails in getting their papers or other assignments done on time. They say they understand, but the fact that they asked in the first place says to me that they might not.

3. “Can I redo my paper?”: This question is an extension of number 2. Why would I give any student an extra bite at an apple that every other student got to bite only one time? I don’t like it when students don’t do well on something I know that with the right amount of training and effort, they could’ve earned a better grade. But my advice will remain to look at my comments and use them as strong advice for their next paper or assignment.

4. “I haven’t been to class because…” or “I have to miss class because…”: Every semester I’ve taught, whether high school students, undergrads or grad students, at an elite university, community college or other institution, I’ve had students miss as many as all of their classes for an entire semester. My first year as a TA at the University of Pittsburgh, I had a student-athlete (played on the tennis team) in his senior year who missed the semester because of an injury. What? Was this a brain injury? Of course not! After attempting to cheat on his makeup final, he failed my course, unsurprisingly.

I’m a flexible professor, and certainly understand when stuff comes up for students, more and more whom have jobs, spouses, families, and serious issues to deal with. So communicating with me like an adult is encouraged. But, at the same time, some students don’t understand the TMI rule. I don’t need to know that you might miss class to watch the NCAA Championship Game Monday night if West Virginia beats Duke on Saturday. Plus, I’m a Pitt fan anyway.

5. “I don’t like the grade you gave me…”: If a student really feels that they should talk to me about their grade, then they should. After class, before class, during a break, with an appointment to meet. Not while I’m giving instruction or explaining the pitfalls that most students fall into in writing papers. I generally hand papers with grades and comments to students at the end of class to avoid them creating an awkward moment. But the students I’ve been working with of late seem to think that their tuition payment gives them the right to object to a grade as soon as they see something they don’t like. The last thing I would’ve thought of doing as an undergrad was to object in front of other students to a grade or grading process. After all, it’s the professor, not the student, who determines grades for courses.

6. Complaining about things that I cannot do anything about: Complementary to number 5, it’s this sense that somehow I’m supposed to know that the LCD projector isn’t working properly, or that a student forgot her glasses for class one day. Or, for that matter, that a student has dyslexia or some other learning or physical disability, or that I should be more patient with another student because she works two jobs. Or that my course schedule, planned out months ahead of time, posted and handed to you the first day of the semester, is now an inconvenience for you because your job has scheduled you for a week-long conference out-of-town. Although I’m flexible, I’m also not going to rearrange my schedule or the schedule set for twenty, thirty or forty students because your life has just become more intense. How about, “Dr. Collins, can I get an extension?,” with a reasonable reason, and without complaining about being an adult?

7. “I’m entitled to my opinion…”: Really? Yes, in a free democratic society, you are entitled to your opinion. But in a college course, your opinion needs to be an informed one. With evidence from relevant and quality sources, based on reasonable analysis, with the ability to discern the difference between bullcrap and actual facts and acceptable interpretations. Unfortunately, I’ve had far too many students who’ve only been interested in expressing their opinions on life in the classroom and in their paper assignments, who think that every sentence should start with “In my opinion,” or “I believe…,” or “I feel…,” or “I think…” College papers aren’t expository essays, or, as we say more often these days, opinion-editorial pieces.

As a student, you shouldn’t think that it’s okay to write that American Indians were decimated by diseases after contact with Europeans “because they practiced a heathen religion.” Or that Whites prolonged slavery in America because “they were under the influence of satan.” Without any evidence to add to this, statements like these merely amount to bigotry. College is about exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world. Giving answers to questions only in the form of opinions demonstrates that these students would prefer not to learn anything at all.

8. Bringing a full meal to eat during class: What? Do students actually think that it’s good form to bring a full three-course dinner to class? Apparently, the answer to this is yes. I know that people need to eat, pee, and deal with family issues when they’re in an evening course. But that doesn’t mean that you should interrupt a lecture, discussion or film with Triple Delight or a Big Mac and french fries. Cell phones should be on vibrate if a student can’t turn their phone off. Slamming the door to the front of the classroom after entering shows little respect for the professor or for the other students. This isn’t even something specific to being in college. I mean, would anyone pull this crap in a meeting with their boss?

9. “Your lectures are incomprehensible…”: Oh well. I guess that I should turn the class over to the students to run, since I’m obviously a teaching hack. I’m not naive enough to think that everything I say is crystal-clear or that everyone understands what’s being taught. But I also know that most of the students who complain have one or two issues. One, they haven’t been doing their readings or other preparation work for class, but somehow expect my lectures to make up for their laziness. Two, they expect me to give them direct answers to questions that require an understanding of interpretation and nuance. Some of my students have expressed their frustrations with this in ways that would’ve gotten me kicked out of my classes as an undergrad at Pitt.

10. Let’s play “Stump the Professor”: Too many students believe that showing the professor that they know historical trivia is necessary for their earning of an A. Knowing facts is helpful, but thinking through those facts takes much more than telling me that five people — and not three — died in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Great to know, but not really the point. Students don’t get to move on to Double Jeopardy if somehow I miss a fact or get a date incorrect by nine years. Correcting these things are fine, but not if a student does it with the idea that this proves that I as their professor somehow didn’t know what I was doing. This one is more annoying than many of the others, mostly because the students involved have an agenda, usually along the lines of proving how much smarter they think they are when comparing themselves to me.

So there it is. There are more, many, many more follies and stories I could tell. But, it comes down to respecting the position a professor holds, even if you don’t like the person. And learning as much as your can when in a course, rather than cutting corners to a higher grade.

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