The student's first message at the beginning of the term was fraught with portents of doom. He had sent me a response to my initial assignment, which was to send me an self-introductory e-mail:
hello Mr Z this is Angus from your calc1 class.. I was the last one to leave your class this morning. Iam a social science/economics major at state u, and the reason i want to take calculus is, i really have an interest in math, even though iam kind of weak at it.Calculus is not a course for the faint of heart or the weak of math. The message filled me with trepidation for the student's sake. Furthermore, he was enrolling in our heavy-duty calculus sequence for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Most econ majors are tracked into our social science calculus class. Perhaps Angus wanted to keep his options open, but that assumed he could surmount the challenge of grown-up calculus.
He faded gradually throughout the term. Occasionally he would seem to catch fire for a couple of days, but then he would fizzle out again. Just before the drop deadline, he came up after class and told me he had to bail. I commiserated, but agreed that he was probably making the right decision, both for himself and for the other courses he was trying to pass. Then he asked me one of those questions:
“Uh, do you mind if I kept coming to class?”
California community colleges have a strict rule against auditors. It has something to do with the fact that we are funded (when we are funded, that is) on average daily attendance—and ADA is accumulated only for enrolled students. Angus was clearly asking to do something that was not permitted.
“Sure,” I said. “It won't be as if I don't have room for you.”
He thanked me earnestly and went away—never to return.
I'm quite certain that he was sincere in his plans to sit in on the remainder of the class in hopes of giving himself an edge when repeating it during the next term. In reality, however, he quickly (instantly!) discovered that he couldn't force himself to roll out of bed in time to attend a morning class in which he no longer had a vested interest. Despite his teacher's willingness to allow him to flout the school's sacred rules, he never took advantage of it.
And to think I could have painfully explained the rules to him and turned down his request. He could have ended up nursing hurt feelings. This way, no harm done.
Perhaps you're thinking, “Oh, there goes bleeding-heart Dr. Z, running roughshod over the school regs with reckless abandon because of his tender feelings for the downtrodden.” Well, I do have tender feelings for those of my students who are downtrodden, but I answered Angus with the voice of experience. No student attends class more than once or twice after dropping. It just doesn't happen.
No need to bar the door when no one is trying to come in.
Jumping the gun
The most interesting message, however, was the following:
Dr. Ferox;The answer is obvious, right?
Thank you for the Syllabus. I have already been working problems on Sec. 1. I have encountered a few questions. May I e-mail you my questions.
“Dear Rory: I suggest you wait until after I try to teach you the material, okay? The semester hasn't even started yet. Your instructor is not in a position to provide individual tutoring to all forty of the students in the class. Sorry!”
And then I could embed a winking smiley face.
But that's not what I said. Nope. I send Rory this message instead:
You are welcome to contact me at any time, Rory, although my availability may be limited until after the semester actually begins.Once again, my reasoning is simple. No, there is no way I could find the time to provide individual hand-holding service for all of the students in my classes. Realistically, however, how many are going to be forging ahead on their own? In my experience, the number can reliably be expected to be less than two. In fact, it's usually less than one.
Rory did actually follow through with one homework question before the semester began. I answered promptly, taking only a few minutes. If Rory goes on to be a math whiz in his transfer university, I trust he will remember me kindly. One should always avoid discouraging the eager beavers. If they stretch a little too far, they'll regroup soon enough and fall into step with their classmates. If, however, they can maintain a racer's pace, then I want to give them free rein.
If you tell your students “yes,” the “noes” are likely to take care of themselves. You don't have to say them.