Thursday, August 24, 2006

The more you know

A considerate student

The fall semester is well under way and my e-mail in-box is flooded with students responding to their first assignment: e-mail your instructor. It's a good way to make sure I have all of their e-mail addresses (they don't all use their campus accounts) and I also ask them for some background: Why are you taking this class? What are your academic goals? I get swamped reading all that stuff, but it's enlightening and often useful.

As you might imagine, some of the messages stand out because of their humor or cleverness or weirdness. This year's crop is no exception. I must admit, however, that I've never seen a message before that is quite like the one that I received from “MM,” a student enrolled in my early morning precalculus class. He thought it would be to my benefit to know a little something about his approach to academics:
Hi there Professor,
basically my plans are to get a degree in engineering, mainly civil but I want to double major in architectural as well since its only a couple more classes to take so why not. My story regarding school is, I don't usually take notes, nor I study for tests. The stuff just naturally comes to me during tests and usually the only mistakes I make are some really dumb and simple ones. I am thinking about getting a pretty good grade in this class, although, I don't really like to do homework so sometimes I will be slacking. There are also going to be times when I am going to sleep in class, getting up at 6am is just too much for me. I stay up late so I can't get up that early, so far I was okay. That's about it, I hope I fulfilled your assignment there and if not just let me know and I'll write some more.

See you in class,
M*** M****
I paused in working my way through the backlog of student messages to ponder MM's words. Usually you don't get students telling you about their unstable equilibrium between brilliance and slacking. He reminded me of someone. Namely, me. In my first two years of college I was a whiz who cruised through classes almost effortlessly. Yes, I did my homework, which MM says he doesn't enjoy, but I did not work hard. Things changed just a bit when I transferred to one of the toughest schools in California to work on a bachelor's degree in math and suddenly discovered that I was no longer a Wunderkind. Acquiring decent study skills became an overnight emergency, and my first academic quarter in Pasadena was tough.

I wondered how MM expected me to respond. This is what I came up with:
Thanks for your message, MM. I hope you don't slack your way to a lower grade than you're capable of. Your situation sounds familiar, since I was able to coast through my own math classes—at least until I got to my junior year and they got quite a lot harder. While things are easy is a good time to practice a few basic study skills, just in case you're going to need them later.

Don't expect to sleep in class too much. I tend to call on students who are nodding off.

Good luck in class.

Dr. Z
So—? Have I put him on notice, or was I too subtle? He should at least pick up on my rather direct statement that class time will not be nap time.

Oh, yes. This morning our class had its first quiz, so I can report that MM is rather accurate in describing his quiz results. He clearly knows the basics, but his work is rather slipshod. And his mistakes? Exactly as advertised: “really dumb and simple.”

4 comments:

John said...

My son just started college Monday and was telling us how easy it was. We told him to pay attention and that things are bound to get harder as he progresses. He was telling us that his college Algebra class was the same as his 8th grade Algebra class so it will be easy. He took Concurrent credit and AP classes in high school but the teachers let them get away with almost anything. He almost never studied. That letter from your student could have been written by my son. :) My wife and I are in our 40s and when we were in High School things were different. We didn't have floating due dates for papers like our son had. They even received extra credit for doing work on time... I wish High Schools would better prepare students for college. Maybe someday.

Julie O. said...

Here would be my email to him:

Dear MM,

I'm not sure what you'd be doing as a civil engineer, but my guess is people's lives and millions of dollars could be at stake. That's one place you definitely don't want simple or dumb mistakes.

Maybe you should consider a career in building dollhouses. That way the only thing you'll crush is a little girl's dreams.

P.S. Grow up.


Can't you just tell what a great mom I am? ;-)

Asst. Math Prof. said...

Dear department chair,

Basically, my plans are to teach my classes, do my research, do some committee work, and then get tenure. My story regarding teaching is that I don't really prepare my lectures, and I tend to mumble and drift off on tangents while lecturing. I also don't write anything on the board. Calculus and abstract algebra just come to me naturally, so I just rattle off the theorems to the class and expect them to copy it down. The only mistakes I make while lecturing or grading are some really dumb and simple ones. I am thinking about getting tenure, although I really don't like to teach well, do a lot of research, or sit on any committees so sometimes I will be slacking. There are also going to be times when I am going to sleep in class or meetings, getting up at 6am [ed: I really do get up at 6am! Five days a week!] is just too much for me. I stay up late so I can't get up that early, so far I was okay. That's about it, I hope I get a good annual review, and if not just let me know and I'll write some more.

See you in the next meeting,

Asst. Math Prof.

BeckaJo said...

Heh. He gave you fair warning, and you gave him fair warning, so if he fails to heed it, you should totally put him on the spot.

Also, brilliance without dedication is useless, and he should know that by now. He's standing on an unstable platform and it looks like it might collapse.

I used to nod off in classes, which I found extremely embarrassing. I had the excuse of heavy-duty anti-seizure drugs, though. Makes me a little more sympathetic, but I've held two students after class so far to do the 'Are you okay? Is there some medical problem, do you need help?" thing. AND they were far more wakeful the next time.