Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Another Day, Another Life Ruined

It's that time of the year again, when students stir from their somnolent states, look up from their smart phones for a moment, squint into the sun streaming through the classroom windows, and realize, Crap! In two weeks I'm gonna get a grade in this class!  Then they converge en masse to demand I accept two month old homework assignments, administer make up quizzes in my office (strictly at their convenience), and understand once and for all that I am all that is standing between them and a first class ticket to the pharmacology (or MBA) program of their (parents') choice.

It's the storm before the calm, you might say.

Every day I pass similarly beleaguered instructors in the hall, and we mouth to one another, It's almost over. Yet the two weeks (or is it just ten days?) before finals week stretches endlessly before us, filled as it is with tedious end-of-academic year meetings and protocols and six inch stacks of papers to be marked, the grinding monotony punctuated only by the pleas of frenzied or despairing students whose brilliant future careers we have dedicated our own to ruining.

Today a student worked himself (and me) into near hysteria because he had checked his scores (conveniently posted online throughout the quarter just to avoid such last minute "surprises") and was shocked, shocked to find he was averaging 77% on all his classwork.

"Don't fret," I assured him. "Remember, I will drop your lowest quiz and your lowest writing assignment before I calculate your final grades. I expect you'll wind up with a B- in the class."

A B-? He almost erupted into tears. Didn't I see that was not nearly good enough? He had to have a 4.0 in all his classes.

Don't be ridiculous, I responded. Where was he planning to apply, Harvard?

Well, as a matter of fact...

Listen, I argued. I myself was an entirely mediocre student as an undergrad. Despite my underwhelming 3.3 GPA, I had managed to get into not one, but two, very well-regarded graduate programs. He was clearly unimpressed with my experience, and who could blame him? I mean, look where I had ended up.

At this point, I felt compelled to remind the student that not only had he failed to participate in class (being, like many of his back-row peers, hopelessly addicted to his smart phone), he hadn't done a lick of homework outside class either, which, although it counted little toward his grade, helped explain his consistently poor performance on the quizzes.

"Yeah, and now I guess I'll have to do the homework," the student conceded resentfully. "I'll need every point I can get."

Guess again, buddy. "I'm not taking late homework the last two weeks of class," I said firmly. Fifteen years of teaching community college had taught me to draw the line somewhere.

I did agree to let him revise one of his assignments and re-take one of the quizzes, mentally calculating the benefits of feeling magnanimous against the cost of the extra time it would take.

You're an engineering major, I said: They only care about your grades in math. I wasn't entirely sure that was true, but I did know a large number of engineers and high-tech professionals who couldn't (and still can't) write their way out of a paper bag.  If society required STEM majors to excel at English composition, advances in technology would grind to a stand-still.  Then where would we be?

Without smart phones, for sure.

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