My colleague and I were making light conversation in the faculty room as we checked our mail-boxes.
“I see you have a clique of my former prealgebra students in your compressed algebra class,” Professor Turin observed. “I saw them hanging together before your class.”
“Oh, were they yours last semester? Most of them are doing pretty well,”
“I'm not surprised,” she said. Then she hesitated. “But how is Kara doing?”
“Poor Kara. Not well. The pace of the class has her quite stressed and she makes lots of mistakes. She really should have picked a more regular schedule.”
“That is exactly what I told her,” said Turin. “She was keen to take your class because of the compressed schedule and I warned her that it was a bad fit. She freaked out several times during my prealgebra and it was always about her fear of falling behind. I wish she had listened to me and enrolled in a regular section.”
“Yeah, well, what can you do?”
It was less than a week later that Kara read the handwriting on the wall and visited my office hour to inform me that she was cutting her losses and dropping my compressed algebra class.
“I could really use the time better on my other courses, Dr. Z. The class goes too fast and it's hard to understand.”
“That's a perfectly reasonable decision, Kara. It's important to make the best use of your time. You should do better next semester in a regular section of algebra.” I paused before asking her a question. “Did you talk to your prealgebra instructor before enrolling in my class?”
I deliberately did not mention my colleague's name or otherwise indicate that I had already discussed the matter with her. Kara brightened up immediately.
“Oh, yeah! I did! Turin said I could definitely do well in your class. She said I was all ready for it, but I guess things just didn't quite work out as we had expected.”
My eyebrows wanted to go up and my eyeballs wanted to bulge out, but I think I managed to control my facial features and maintain a mien of serenity.
“Well, yes, Kara. Things didn't work out this time. Better luck next time.”
After Kara left my office, I stalked the hallways looking for my colleague. Turin was in her office. I recounted my conversation with her former student. She was dumbfounded.
“That doesn't sound anything like the conversation we had. I tried really hard to warn her she was making a mistake!”
What Turin said:
“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara, but Dr. Z's compressed algebra class would be a tough challenge. I'm certain a regular algebra class would be perfect for you.”
What Kara heard:
“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara,
There's no simple cure for this. Certainly Turin isn't suddenly going to stop offering her students positive feedback, even if only as mitigating factors in a negative review. Equally certainly, Kara is not going to stop selectively hearing what she wants to hear. I fear the set of solutions may be the empty set.