26 April 2001

A Few Bad Apples

(or, Why Teachers Burn Out)

I teach computer courses at a university as an adjunct. I've never had to be in front of a class for more than nine hours a week; if I were a full-time instructor it would be more, plus increased out-of-class obligations. Yet I'm really looking forward to this summer off, the first semester I haven't taught since Fall 1997. Why?

Today, four days before the final exam, I received an e-mail from a student in my class. He told me he hadn't bought the textbook or taken notes in class (though he was generally in attendance; I mostly recall him sitting toward the back of the class computer lab using AOL Instant Messenger or something along those lines). He wanted to know where else he could get the information he would need to know for the final exam.

I think that has to be one of the biggest displays of unadulterated nerve I've ever seen. It's saying, "I didn't listen to you, or buy the $20 book you said the information was in [and $20 is quite cheap for college texts] but you have to give me some special treatment so I can pass your exam." My response was that I hadn't seen a need for more than those two methods of making the learning available, and I advised him to find a classmate who had bothered to make use of one or more of them. (I did phrase it a little more politely.) Unfortunately, he probably will find someone to sponge off of. However, considering the pieces of e-mail he sent me last week, trying to find out how little work he could get away with for his final project, he may still earn the grade his attitude deserves.

And he's not that outstandingly bad a specimen of the college students I see. For every person in my classes who is genuinely interested in learning something from the class, there is another who can at best be described as lazy, and at worst dishonest, in their attitude toward getting through the class. These aren't classes anyone is forced to take; neither of the two courses I teach fulfills any requirement other giving the student three more credit-hours. These students chose to be there, in college and in my class -- why do so many not expect to have to do the slightest bit of work, or even have to think?

Some are very straightforward in their avoidance of work and thought -- like the guy who turned in the web page at http://goan.com/hglider.html as his final paper. He didn't even take out the sentence "Mark Woodhams uncovers the amazing story..." which was rather a dead giveaway as the student's name wasn't Mark Woodhams. But he swore up and down it was his own work, though most of it was word-for-word the same as that page, which I found by typing a sentence from the paper into Altavista. He swore it was his own work to me, my department head, and the school committee on academic dishonesty (who looked at his paper and the web page printout and agreed it was obviously plagiarized). He continued to insist on his innocence in the class's public newsgroup for a couple of semesters. I've encountered other plagiarists who wouldn't admit it -- the two students who claimed not to know each other at all when their work was the same down to the typos -- as well as a few who just didn't seem to understand that learning to work in a group was not the aim of this class. But the hang-glider paper takes the cake.

Then there are those who put more effort into their dishonesty then it might have taken to just do the work. One student didn't turn in all her work and asked for an incomplete ("I") grade in the class. She never turned in the remaining work, so after a few semesters, school policy is that the I would turn into a failed grade without my doing anything. Except that this student, working with two friends, stole change-of-grade forms from the office where one of them worked, and gave themselves As and Bs in multiple classes instead of those pesky Is, Ds, and Fs. The forged teacher signatures on their forms didn't look anything like those people's real signatures -- the one that was supposed to be mine even misspelled my last name. But these students were found out only when someone else turned them in. (The university now sends a listing of changed grades to teachers so that we can confirm having really done the changing, and also instituted better security on the forms.) I got interviewed on the local TV news about this incident.

Even the successful students make trouble sometimes. No one is more persistent than the student with a B who really wants an A. The same ones who turned down extra-credit opportunities during the semester plead for it after the term is over when their grades are all in. One even whined for an S (satisfactory, essentially just a "Pass" grade) rather than have B on her transcript, pulling down her grade point average (satisfactory/unsatisfactory grades aren't averaged into the GPA -- but if I saw an S on a transcript I would assume the student did C-grade work; a B would look better than an S to me).

Of course, there are bright spots. The students who quietly absorb the lectures instead of goofing off in class; those who ask questions that show they're really thinking about the material; even the ones having trouble who come by my office hours or ask after class and keep working and asking until they really have a hold on the idea -- all these students make it worthwhile. People who are there to learn are the joy of any instructor's work. Unfortunately, these students aren't as attention-getting as the boredom of the ones who are there for other reasons -- they thought it would be easy; they just picked some random class that fit into their schedule; their family insisted that they attend college; it's better than having to get a full-time job.

And this is with the least interested filtered out! I don't have to deal with kids too young to drop out who don't want to be in school, or those who finished high school but were strongly uninterested in further education. My students are legal adults, so I don't have to deal with parent-teacher conferences. I really admire teachers who do it full-time with an even higher percentage of students who don't care. Those teachers deserve their summer vacations much more than the students.

Me? I'm looking forward to the summer break, but still collecting URLs to show students in future semesters and planning updates of the class FAQs. Blowing off steam by telling these stories keeps me from burning out just yet. But this page may get updates when the bad apples crop up in future terms' barrels.

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