A Query

When one returns a student’s work with the message, “You failed this assignment because your essay is much too short,” and the student replies, “Miss I don’t understand, I failed my essay because it is too short?”, why does one feel a surge of fury? Why does one not just feel a gentle throb of sadness or wry resignation? After all, it is the student, and not oneself, who must suffer the consequences of this intractable cluelessness. Surely one should be able to laugh, with a note of knowing melancholy, and move on without giving it another thought? And yet one finds oneself unable to refrain from shouting “Are you *@#%ING KIDDING ME?” at the computer screen. Why should that be?

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15 responses

  1. I think your frustration lies in the fact the student, at the end of the session, seems oblivious to the requirements for essays. You have surely explained this, and probably many times. It may seem irrelevant to the student to fail for lacking words, but that is the rule. You don’t make them, you enforce them is all. I would be frustrated too….realizing the student doesn’t get it or is pretending he/she didn’t get it. Good luck.

    • Yes, this is definitely the source of the frustration. I recently spoke to a teacher, though, who said, “I love this time of the semester. I’ve done everything I can, and the rest is up to them.” I so envy this attitude! It sounds so freeing! And yet I find myself repeatedly plummeted into rage and simmering anxiety about the students who have not pulled their weight and now expect explanations. I would be a happier teacher if I could detach.

        • True, I might not! Or I might be a much calmer, better-humoured teacher who allows students to learn from the natural consequences of their mistakes and who sleeps much better at night…

      • I think the frustration might in part stem from plain tiredness from trying to provide the students with the tools to avoid this kind of cluelessness.. I recently had a student as me – miss I don’t understand what you mean by “please use this feedback to revise your draft.” Gritting my teeth, I wrote back: I mean I am asking you to apply the comments I made on your first draft to the work you do on draft 2. I guess as experts we need to super patient with these questions and also use them to improve our own communication.. That said, I am not one who can say, I did my part, now it’s up to them.. I can say that only when the performance of the students tells me — ok we all get it — I am not there yet.. I keep trying

  2. I find that it makes me feel powerless. I want students to explore and query out of some desire to obtain knowledge or at least explore some curiosity. Unfortunately, I can’t make them care.

    I don’t care much for grades. Learning is like art. How do quantify it? It doesn’t always look the same or fit into an easy standard. Do students show an understanding or mastery of curricular outcomes? That’s a yes or no, but with grades, we can learning into a competition. We can have winners and losers.

    But the students in my class need them. We create rubrics so they have direction and, if grades are the prime motivator, a purpose for writing.

    I’m meandering again, sorry!

    It’s frustrating when students don’t care, and I feel powerless when I can’t convince them that what I’m trying to impart on them has some value. I know some teachers that are blissfully happy not caring. I try to tell myself that I have to embrace the whole job, not just the parts that I like.

    • “I try to tell myself that I have to embrace the whole job, not just the parts that I like.” Oh, I know. I remind myself that doctors have to tell people they’re dying, and police officers have to wrestle maniacs to the ground and cart them to jail. Is delivering a failing grade on an essay so bad?

      I know what you mean. I hate grades. Nevertheless, grading is part of my job, so I put every ounce of control I can into my students’ hands: meticulous guidelines, thorough rubrics, optional assignments… And yet, I can’t make them read, follow and apply these things, and I can’t change the fact that they will then expect me to take responsibility for their lack of effort.

      The best I can do is keep my cool, and confine my outbursts to moments when I am all alone in my office.

      Don’t apologize for meandering! It’s always great to hear your thoughts.

  3. I commiserate as far as not getting back what you wanted, assignment-wise. I have come to see essay length (the number of words) as a recommendation based on (my) experience and expectation. Having said that, I can see why students feel the number to be somewhat arbitrary. The bigger question is whether the student has addressed the expectations of the assignment and the topic in a way that is appropriate to the class/level. These considerations are best dealt with at the planning and revising stages, so I understand when your colleague abdicates responsibility after due diligence. Honestly, I would never write that an essay is too long or too short; it’s not helpful for the student. I prefer to give feedback about what’s missing or excessive.

    • Cindy: I understand the feeling that length requirements are arbitrary. That said, there are a number of reasons that the ability to write an essay of a certain length may be integral to the goals of an assignment (as it was in this case.) Of course, writing “this is too short” as the only feedback would not be helpful. However, if a student has been informed that an essay will fail if it’s under a certain length, I think it’s still important to point out to the student, in addition to more detailed comments, that ignoring that criterion was the primary reason for failure.

  4. Because, like, I get the sense that you put a fair amount of effort into communicating, and communicating well, for the benefit of your students.

    But there’s a point at which you cannot comprehend for them. If they lack a sense of having to put in some effort of understanding requirements and other basic information for themselves…then your efforts and assumptions of responsibility are mismatched.

    And that’s (reasonably) frustrating. That you put in a certain level of effort and engagement in order to communicate with them, and they don’t seem to have any sense of needing to go through even the bare minimum amount of effort to internalize that information.

    That’s my guess…based on the frequency with which I answer the question “what’s the schedule for this afternoon?” with “It was in the schedule e-mail last night.”

    • I have one class this semester in which, approximately once a class, I will be in the middle of explaining the requirements for the next test and, two minutes in, someone will say, “What test?” Or I will ask them to take out a paper handout that I gave them last class, and I will remind them of the title of the paper handout, and I begin explaining the significance of this paper, and I will begin a sentence with the words “On this paper…” and someone will blurt out “What paper?” I swear, once a class. And I remind myself that some 17- and 18-year-olds have severely underdeveloped lobes and cortices and are neurologically immature when it comes to thinking and processing and yet I still want to throttle them.

  5. I feel ya. It’s frustrating when they utterly ignore expectations and expect a free pass. I had a student turn in a plagiarized paper just the other day. He “reasoned” that he had only copied a little bit.

  6. The appropriate object of your anger is the secondary school that allowed/encouraged this level of passivity in students. Yes, passivity. If they can’t be bothered to track the requirements for assignments, papers, and tests, that’s very passive behavior. And if secondary school teachers and guidance counselors see this level of passivity in a student, it should lead to a serious conversation as to whether the student really wants to pursue higher education, or if it would be a better idea to enter the workforce, grow up a little, and then maybe continue on in school at a later date.

  7. We want them to have that curiosity, develop intuition, think creatively, because WE are that way. THAT’s why we are teachers. THAT’s why we love teaching. Everyone, sadly, is not that way. But sometimes we inspire them to become so.

  8. I can understand your fury. What comes to mind is Machiavelli: if it’s not dumb, it’s a very clever response! Could it be a symptom of the rationale that some seem to have developed that failure is the fault of the system? Hang in there, we need you!

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