Wednesday, November 17, 2010

a(nother) open letter to students of the world.

dear students,

it's about that time, isn't it? i can see it on your faces, and i feel in in my own to-do list. the panicked rush of the end of the semester has commenced, and with it comes the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that comes with regret.

all of those mornings you slept in because you did something too late (some say study, and i'll give you that, but sometimes maybe it was a saved by the bell marathon or something...less virtuous).  all those assignments you just thought you'd put off until the last minute, even though i warned you not to, and then realized you couldn't pull it out as well as you'd thought. all the homework you didn't turn in, all the papers you plagiarized.

it's all coming to call, and you feel the hot breath of consequence on your neck.

for some of you, this weeping and wailing is for naught. you came to class. you did your best. you come to office hours. you ask pertinent, insightful questions. you PARTICIPATE in an 8 o'clock class.

you have won me over. i will be kind to you.  as kind as i can be within the margins of a very clear grading structure, that is.

for some of you, you have work yet to do. a last paper, a last speech, extra credit opportunities, a whole host of potential point-gathering activities await you and your holiday weekend and last weeks of school.  you can do it.  i'm waiting to see if you think you can, and if you'll put in the effort necessary to make it so. i'm here to help, but only if you ask.  i hope you'll ask.

there are another group of you, though, who i find utterly and completely perplexing.  you don't come to class at all until a big exam or a timed writing assignment. you turn in papers that are so obviously not written by you that it takes me some fraction of a nanosecond on google to find your misdeeds.  you fall asleep in class when you should be mining it for words of wisdom. you talk while i talk. i find it...all very perplexing.

unless you don't care. and then i don't. and, for the most part, i assume that you don't because your behavior tells me that you don't.  you have far exceeded your allotted absences, for example, even though the syllabus clearly delineates an attendance policy.  black and white, cut and dried, it's there for you in all its glory.  but you're not in class.  you don't turn in papers. you don't seem to care.

i'm down, y'all. i've got 160+ students. i can not care too.  it's not malice. it's not a lack of kindness. it's survival.  if you don't invest, i won't invest. that's just reality.

(you won't find it any different in the big, bad world of Real Employment, btw. bosses care if you care, and then only if you're lucky.)

so what's totally and utterly perplexing to me, other than when you randomly show up, take an exam, but then don't even try to answer the essay question at all, is when you email me something like 10 or 12 days before classes END to ask to meet with me in my office.

because then i have to think you care. and then my mind is blown.

if you care, why do you care NOW? what could you POSSIBLY think you could do at this point to rescue yourself from your self-induced grading abyss? do you think that i'm going to let you retake two exams? grade two missing papers? accept four or five homework assignments that you willfully chose not to participate in? 

do you believe that you can cry and/or be charming and i'll be sold? does that work in your life?

because, really, if anything? this semester has taught me that regardless of what your personal circumstances are, you ultimately have a choice. you can choose to keep your commitments, or you can choose to not. you can choose to show up, or you can choose to not.  and if you cannot meet your commitments, you can choose to man up to that reality, take steps, and adjust your life, or you can run and push your head into your delusional sand, hoping that someone it just won't happen if you just periodically show up.  maybe, just maybe, all will be well.

it's not well, i hate to tell you. and though i hate to be the harbinger of Big Life Lessons, sometimes in my role as dr. teachergirl, phd, that's my job.

so i'll send you a short but polite email back, stating when you can come meet me. it will be on my timetable and not yours, and if you don't show up i'll be annoyed but unsurprised. when you do show up and try to sing me a song and dance me a dance about how tough your semester has been, i'll surreptitiously pat my ever-growing baby belly and think about the first nine or so weeks of the semester, when being conscious and productive was more difficult than doing a triple Body Combat header but how i managed to do it anyway, and i'll think that you always have a choice.

and i won't think it in judgmental, critical ways. i'll just think it in realistic ways. because, students, life is life.  here's what i know: it doesn't get any easier if you run away from it. in fact, it gets harder. you lose the respect of those with the power to help you, whereas you might have really convinced them to be your advocate had you been straightforward, responsible, and communicative.

stop running.  start doing.  look around. people do it every day. and it doesn't get any easier after school is over.  in fact, as busy as you think you are now, it will only exponentially grow in complexity and commitment.  and that's okay, because if you are wise, you will have learned the lessons of how to do it all and, if not do it well, do it responsibly.

that's the greatest lesson you can learn from higher education--not the content of the syllabus but the content of your character, to borrow a great line from a great man.  who will you be when the tough times hit? how will you deal with it? 

i'm often the villain in this scenario, an unfair, unyielding harpie who just didn't give the grade that was fair.  i don't like it, but that's often my role.  but i hope that there are others, somewhere, somehow, who see what i hope they see--that hard work is rewarded, that asking for help works, that second chances are often given to those who need them most, that consequences are a part of life but they're as often good as they are bad. 

that's what i hope, students.  you don't believe it, but i hope that you succeed. i just define that success in different ways than some of you do. 



  1. Perfect! That was an excellent letter. Wish my teachers had said that to me when I was in school. It's only looking back that I realise that what I thought was soooo important at the time was just silliness. Wish I had "mined for Words of Wisdom"!

  2. Ever thought of giving your classes a version of this letter? Obviously at the end of the semester, but still, giving them a teacher's point of view? If I could go back and re-do my 4 years at CollegeTown U, I'd change so many things. Nothing personally, but everything in terms of academics. A nice dose of reality would've done me some good.

  3. I loved this. You've given me a different, yet true perspective on college life. I'm going to share this post with my own college-daughter!

  4. One of the best things I did as a professor was stop caring that some of my students were failing and stop taking it personally. I gave them all of the tools they would need to succeed. If they don't, it's no skin off my back.

  5. Luckily, I managed to learn this as a college student. As hard as it was to get everything done, and after 15 years of lolly-gagging, I knew what I wanted more than anything else. My eardrum ruptured the night after my first final. There were three other finals still due at the beginning of the next week, with graduation on Friday morning! It was the hardest week of my life to that point.In my crazed state, I actually managed to turn in my finals early and graduated.

    While student teaching sixth grade, at the end of my master's degree, I had a student who seemed determined to fail. He did. At the time, he would continue forward in his education, but someday what he did or didn't do is going to catch up with him.

    We discussed this. Actually, I lectured him on this - that in all seriousness someday his actions were going to count for more and that they may lead him to not graduating and not getting where he can be in his life. Although there was nothing that could be done grade-wise at that point, his perspective took a huge shift. He came out of his shell of failing during that last week of school and began to succeed. He became my little shadow. I hope he continues to decide that success is worth more than whatever he was getting out of purposefully failing.