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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Worst Student

There are a lot of bad students out there. There was the kid who never came to class and then questioned my commitment when I refused to hold extra private sessions to get him "caught up."

There was the student who I think was stalking me. That guy really hated me. He would make chopping motions near his throat whenever I saw him.

There was the student who thought that her B- reflected my lack of understanding how hard she worked on her final project and not (as was the case) my infinite generosity in the face of banal and sloppy work. After her first request for a new grade, I emailed her the portion of the university handbook on how to appeal a grade. I assured her that I would be happy to cooperate with the preceedings. She declined. She didn't want to appeal the grade, she said. But she still sent me another ten emails about how she wanted a higher grade.

There are the kids who don't wear shoes and put their feet on the seminar table. There are the kids who text their friends during lecture. The various assortment of wheedlers, whiners, and grade-grubbers. There are the keeners who think they are too smart for the class (they mostly think they are too smart for education). There are the slackers, the absentee jocks (um, I mean "scholar athletes"), the entitled prep school douches.

But the worst student I ever had didn't fit neatly into any known "bad student" category. She had elements of many incongruous categories (part keener, part slacker, part system gamer) and added modes of badness I had never seen before. She was truly one of a kind. If I've written about her before, I apologize. But someone asked me the other day about my worst student, and I can't get her out of my head (not in the good way).

Her cell phone rang at least once ever single class. She brought her laptop to class, despite my asking them not to bring laptops to what are fairly small classes that emphasize discussion. She sighed dramatically when I asked her to ease up on the techno-intrusions.

Her essays were both incomprehensible and pretentious. These did fit into a known category, the students who, rather than thinking closely and critically about the material, instead spit out some fancy-sounding nonsense resulting in a pseudo-sophisticated mush of makes-me-want-to-die. Here's a hint: throwing Wittgenstein into a shitty paper doesn't make it better, it just makes it embarrassing. And why does it never occur to them that I might actually have read Wittgenstein? And that I can see that they don't know what the fuck they're talking about?

Ok, so she wrote these really dreadful essays. But she took her B- without complaint, which was a pleasant surprise. But then she started haunting office hours. Now, I encourage students to come to office hours. I often find that some of the best teaching and learning happens outside the classroom. I like to talk to students one on one--it's a great way to help a struggling student or challenge a really bright one. But this student wanted neither help nor thoughtful discussion. She would just come by and ramble about Wittgenstein or whatever. I tried to steer these "conversations" into more focused or profitable channels, but no dice. I began to dread office hours. She would also wait for me after class. I would tell her that I didn't have time to chat, so she would follow me to wherever I was going. She once followed down into the subway station (and I wasn't even going to take the train--I was just trying to get away from her!).

Then the absences started along with the increasing absurd medical claims. I have all kinds of sympathy for illness. And frankly, I have sympathy for students who sometimes just feel too overwhelmed to come to class. What I don't have any sympathy for is students who fabricate illnesses. And this girl fabricated a doozy. She didn't just have the flu. No, she had some rare and mysterious neurological disorder for which she was seeing an osteopath, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist. I was fully on board with this last one.

Her illness was suspicious on the face of it. These suspicions were confirmed when I saw her, after receiving a frantic email about how she couldn't come to class because of a flare-up of her illness which was keeping her confined to the infirmary, lighting up a cigarette outside a bar. I walked past and she chased me down to tell me that she'd just gotten out of the hospital. Whatevs.

But what sets her apart from all the other loonies is the excuse she had for why her final essay was late. She wrote me to say that she had been working on her paper for days, despite her weakened condition. She bravely soldiered on through her fake illness to try to write her paper. But when her disease-ravaged mind finally cleared, she reported, she found that she had written the whole thing in German.

That's some fancy disease, Missy.


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