Friday, February 04, 2011

The invisible student

Lack of proof

It started innocuously enough, as these things often do. Therefore it wasn't immediately apparent that a thing was even starting.
To: Zeno_Ferox
Subject: verification of attendance

Hello Professor Z,

This is ML from your MW math class. I need verification that I was in attendance at class yesterday. An email is fine. It is really important.

Thank you
ml
Color me puzzled. I checked my gradebook. I wrote back.
To: ML
Subject: verification of attendance

M, I have no evidence that you were in class yesterday.

-Z-
My elusive student was quick to respond.
To: Zeno_Ferox
Subject: verification of attendance

I was a few minutes late. I have the homework.

ml
Big whoop. Everyone has the homework. It's included in the syllabus I handed out on Day One. Not impressed.
To: ML
Subject: verification of attendance

M, I have evidence that you were in class on Monday last week because I still have your quiz from that day. However, you were not in class when I returned it on Wednesday, two days later.

You were not in class when I called roll yesterday, or when I returned Wednesday's quiz. I also gave a quiz yesterday at the end of the period, but you apparently did not take it. I checked, and your name is not on any of them. You therefore missed the roll call at the beginning of the period and the quiz at the end of the period. I have no basis for declaring that you were in class yesterday.

-Z-
My student finally provided some useful information.
To: Zeno_Ferox
Subject: verification of attendance

I gave you my prerequisite certificate at the end of class on Wednesday last week. I had to go to my pickup to get it, remember?

I was not there apparently when you called roll yesterday but I do have the quiz in my possession from the end of class. I did not turn it in. I had planned to come see you to talk about me not falling behind. I know the material, it just seems to be taking me longer to recall it. I am asking you to work with me here.

ml
Yes, I did remember the snafu with the prerequisite certificate. He did have to run to fetch it from the parking lot because he had forgotten to bring it to class. It could have been Wednesday. But that was last week. It didn't prove that he had been in class yesterday, on Monday.

Still, we were making a modicum of progress. As for his request that I “work with” him—it seemed to me that I was already doing so at length.
To: ML
Subject: verification of attendance

Okay, M. Now we're getting somewhere. I do remember the matter of your prereq cert, which I have checked off in my gradebook.

Why didn't you turn in the quiz yesterday? There's never a good reason not to, since even one point is better than zero points. Please bring it to class with you tomorrow.

-Z-
If he brought Monday's quiz with him to class on Wednesday, that would be rather good evidence that he had slipped into the classroom some time after the roll call, even if I hadn't noticed him, and been present when I distributed the quiz. This may yet work out well.

A message popped into my in-box on Wednesday morning.
To: Zeno_Ferox
Subject: verification of attendance

Hello Professor Z,

This is ML again. I did not turn in the quiz because I needed some time to go over more slowly. It has been awhile since I have been in school and I am really having a hard time getting all this back. I had all this in high school. If I take my time on it, I remember it. I am really worried about the Exam next week.

May I please make an appointment to see you one-on-one tomorrow, Thursday? I would like to talk about strategy and my concerns about catching on and also, at this point, catching up. I was hoping for an appointment with you tomorrow in the afternoon?

Please let me know.

Thanks.

ml
My best advice for passing a class is to actually attend it. It's a concept.

I didn't write back. Class would meet in a couple of hours and I'd talk to him in person. The time came and I strolled to the classroom. I called roll. (I do this well into the semester until I've learned all the names. It's more difficult with the classes that meet only twice a week.)

No answer from ML. I called his name again.

Silence.

After class I shot off another e-mail message.
To: ML
Subject: verification of attendance

M, were you in class today? I called your name and there was no response.

Not handing in quizzes is always a bad idea. A few points are better to have than zero points.

My office hours are included in the syllabus. You don't need an appointment to drop in during them. I am routinely there.

-Z-
I'll give him this: ML is a prompt e-mail correspondent, even if he is a most elusive student in other respects.
To: Zeno_Ferox
Subject: verification of attendance

No, I was not there. A good family friend went home and died last night. We were all up late.

Today, I worked with my roommate on the math and made some progress. He says I'm getting it but it is going really slow. I had this stuff in high school and my high school grades were good. I'm just having a hard time with the speed that things are going.

I will definitely come in tomorrow. I might have something in the morning but I will see if I can move it so I can be there. Afternoon is better so if I don't make it in the morning, I will look for you in the afternoon.

Thanks.

ml
Naturally I was encouraged that he was able to spend part of Wednesday studying math with his roommate despite the trauma of a good friend's death the night before. He wasn't up to coming to class, but he could hang with a study buddy. Sure, it was odd that he hadn't mentioned the Tuesday evening death in his Wednesday morning missive, but it could have slipped his mind. Anyway, he was definitely coming in to see me tomorrow, on Thursday.

He didn't come to see me that Thursday. Or that Friday. In fact, I never saw him again. I'm beginning to doubt that he actually existed.

14 comments:

Sili said...

There's a professor in Copenhagen who's under investigation for fraud.

Apparently she pulled the "mum and sis killed in carcrash" gambit on the dean.

And he fell for it!

And he didn't notice when he was introduced to selfsame mum and sis at the party celebrating the prof-to-be's successful dissertation defence.

William said...

And we never did find out why he "needed verification" (presumably to present it to someone else?), which was the really curious bit.

Perhaps he needed an alibi for some crime?

Zeno said...

I wish I knew, William, but ML never told me what the big deal was. I suppose it's possible I'll run across him again, but I doubt I would recognize him. The alibi angle occurred to me, too, but the mystery remains.

Benji said...

I remember one of my most organized and creative college professors and her system for attendance, lateness, and administrative things like that.

On the first day of class, she had up put our names and section numbers on one side of plain index cards. From that day forward, prior to the beginning of class, she spread the index cards on a table near the door to the classroom. When a student came in, he or she would turn their card upside down, and the professor would be able to quickly see what students were not there by whose name was still visible on the table. She could then record the absence, and since it was a course in which a certain number of absences were counted against your grade, she could make the note then and there on the index card.

Calling roll to remember names is a good tool, but can waste valuable class time that might be better spent exploring limits, no? This professor of mine also had a solution for the name learning - we took a piece of notebook paper, and with pen or marker made out own little nameplates for our desks and carried them with us for the first weeks of class, until she had the names of her students down pat.

Zeno said...

Calling roll to remember names is a good tool, but can waste valuable class time that might be better spent exploring limits, no?

Well, not in an algebra class.

Sili said...

Benji,

What's to stop me from turning over my friends card along with my own?

As for learning names, I've taken more than half a year to get mine down. And now the classes have been mixed up, so I have two dozen new names to learn.

Kathie said...

Zeno, I sent the link to this post to my husband (who teaches college) ISO his opinion. He wonders if the student's academic advisor has been concerned about the student's classroom performance, and told the student to seek confirmation from his/her professors. Is there any way you can check with the advisor?

(Or else the student needs an alibi for the police -- LOL!)

Benji said...

Sili,

Absolutely nothing. But then again, in a roll call/response system, what's to stop me from saying, "Here!" when my friend's name is called?

I never said the system was perfect, just impressive and organized.

Kathie said...

Benji, I think that the more a teacher has a "system," the more it encourages students to work at "beating" it instead of concentrating on learning the subject material.

This was certainly the case when I was taking high school Physics, back in the era before machine-graded tests. My teacher was apparently averse to hand-grading exams with our formulas and calculations written out the old-fashioned way, so he devised an arcane system which doubtless owed much to Jacquard, whereby we marked X in various spots on special answer sheets he'd prepared, then when it came time to grade the tests, he'd pile them all up neatly, pierce the stack with a skewer for each box that was correct, then just quickly go through and red-circle all the misses, count up the number wrong and that was our exam score.

This was so ridiculous that some of us smarter students figured out how to "game" his system so that, with a scant knowledge of Physics plus a heap of cleverness, we could usually manage to earn at least a B on each test. Eventually he caught on to us, but instead of giving old-fashioned written exams, he tried refining his answer-sheet system. Lather, rinse, repeat. I barely scraped through with a B in the course, and was at a major disadvantage when I had to take Physics in college.

Truth be told, he's the only teacher I EVER had in grades K-12 who I thought should've been stripped of tenure (and I'm a strong believer in that institution).

Zeno said...

Many of my colleagues pass around sign-in sheets to take attendance. Of course, they run into instances of friends scribbling initials on behalf of absent buddies.

It's usually not a big problem, however, because the point is to keep a handle on attendance and to encourage it. Not to establish a meticulous record that would withstand examination by the state auditor. Also, if you give an occasional pop quiz, you'll quickly find out which roster sign-ins are spurious. Then, too, it helps to learn names and recognize people. Hardly anything works better for riding herd on a class than being able to call people by name, and to notice when they're plain not there.

(I still wonder what ML looked like.)

Kathie said...

My husband often administers pop quizzes for precisely that reason, Zee.

As to your comment re withstanding state auditing: It's a sad fact of college life nowadays that professors need to protect themselves against bogus complaints by students who try to shift the blame away from themselves for their poor classroom performance by filing nuisance complaints with administrators against said teachers. In such instances, it can be useful to keep a thorough attendance record, in case the complaining student proves to have missed too many classes. The reality is that administrators view students as consumers of an educational product, and tend to practice "the customer is always right" viewpoint :-( The professor can best deal by practicing CYA.

Anonymous said...

"As for learning names, I've taken more than half a year to get mine down. And now the classes have been mixed up, so I have two dozen new names to learn."

Well, if it took you more than half a year to remember your own name, you might as well just accept that two dozen new ones might well be impossible

The Ridger, FCD said...

If you mark who's there, not who's not there, then you stand a good chance - especially if you're careful - of calling on the student whose friend spoke up for him.

But then, I've never had a class larger than 12, and usually less than 8, so learning the names wasn't that big a deal.

Tualha said...

I think if the police were involved, they would have asked ML where he was at the time and then checked with Zeno themselves. Or such is my impression from fiction. They wouldn't put much stock in an email, which is just a series of bits and not hard to fake.

ML's glib evasions, stories, and special pleading remind me strongly of someone I know who will shortly be spending a few months in San Quentin for things he did under the influence of drugs that he's still in denial about being addicted to. I've noticed that people who get into the habit of lying sometimes end up thinking that lies will solve anything and indeed that reality itself is malleable. Which explains a lot about the Bush administration.