Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The kiss-ass

Our puckering poseur

My colleague brandished his roll sheet for the new semester: “He's in my class!”

It was déjà vu all over again. The previous year, as I walked past his open office door, another colleague had cried out to me: “I have him in my class!”

It was natural that they should inform me concerning this matter since I was in part responsible for their situation. I, you see, had been the last instructor to give our pronominal student a passing grade in math. Had I not done so, my colleagues would have been spared his enrollment in their classes. In fairness, though, he would then have been inflicting himself on other colleagues, for we had no reason to expect that he would stop battering himself against our curriculum like a moth at a light bulb.

Seldom does a student so distinguish himself within a large department at a large college that even the most elliptical references are instantly recognized. Wherein does his fame reside?

Our anti-hero is a study in contrasts. He is a regular and repeated failure in his classes, dropping out each time before receiving the grades that would have prevented his routine repetition of them. Yet he bustles about self-importantly, volunteering for campus activities and working prodigiously on anything extra-curricular. He has set his sights on a future career that will require transfer to a four-year university followed by admission to a professional school. Yet he cannot complete the requirements of a transfer agreement that expects him to earn units in college-level coursework before he leaves our community college.

He is simultaneously presumptuous and ingratiating. First he scrapes and bows before his professors, then he trails along in our wake as if he's permitted to wander into the faculty-only areas of the campus. We have frequently reminded him at the threshold of the staff break room that it's off limits.

He hastens to defend our honor from the imagined slights of his less-informed classmates. Since most of our faculty members have master's degrees and not doctorates, students address us accordingly. However, when students call me “Mr. Z” in the presence of our earnest sycophant, he springs into action: “He's Doctor Z!” He makes a big deal of such things even when we do not.

So, what is this guy up to?

I wish I knew. He must be deeply immersed in denial.

We talk about him in the math department, sharing our frustration at dealing with a student who plays out his well-practiced system for failure semester after semester. It's a nuisance to have him in class—especially at the beginning of a term, when he's brimming with overconfidence as the class considers topics he's seen many times before. (At the end of the term he will be gone.) The one time he passed a serious college-level math class occurred the summer he repeated Calculus I for the sixth (seventh?) time. He did well enough during the first part of the compressed summer schedule that he eked out a C from me even while fading badly during the last weeks.

This student has wasted a lot of our time—to say nothing of his own—and has caused us to learn new lessons about the avoidance of academic probation and the fine art of working the system. He signed up once for my Calculus II class and did not deign to show up the first day of class. (Will he get serious the seventh time he takes it?) When he appeared at our second session, he asked why I did not mention his name when I called roll. I calmly informed him that he was not on my roster, having been dropped on the first day as a no-show. He was satisfyingly shocked. I had gotten his attention. He attended scrupulously for the next couple of weeks while seeking reinstatement. It turned out that even my two-by-four across his skull was insufficiently dramatic to reform his indolent student ways. He gave up before our first exam and I never put him back on the roster.

Extreme cases like the the one in question make me wonder how many of my other students have similar—but less overt— ingrained tendencies for self-sabotage. Is it a fear of failure that prompts some students to behave this way? (If you don't really try, then I guess it's not really a failure. You could pass if you wanted to. Yeah. Right.) Perhaps. I don't know and neither do my colleagues. We have talked as directly and as frankly to this student as we know how, but if we can't teach him how to be a student, we'll never be able to teach him how to do math. It's the biggest prerequisite of all, and he doesn't have it.

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