Sunday, August 10, 2008

Conversations during an office hour

Students sometimes visit our offices to get help with their homework or to seek advice about classes they should take. That's what we expect them to do. All too often, however, office conversations with students are exercises in surrealism. My colleagues and I swap the most amusing stories among ourselves and marvel over them.

Time is out of joint

An algebra student accosts his instructor in his office.

“I'm sorry I missed class this morning, Professor.”

“Yes, I noticed. Usually you're just late. Today you missed the whole thing.”

“Yeah, sorry, but you had already started when I got to the classroom and I didn't want to interrupt.”

“That's never stopped you before.”

“Yeah, but you always notice when I arrive late and I didn't think you like that.”

“Well, yes. I don't. But it's better for you to be late than miss the entire class. Of course, best of all would be if you would show up on time.”

“Yeah, but I live out of town, you know. I leave in plenty of time, but I always have a problem finding a parking space.”

“Then you aren't leaving in plenty of time. You need to leave earlier.”

“I do! I leave in plenty of time.”

“Sorry to contradict you, but you obviously don't. By definition. You don't leave in time to be there when class starts.”

“I don't follow you, Professor.”

“Yes, that may be part of the problem.”

Rules are for other people

A calculus student sits down next to his teacher's desk.

“I have to get an A in the class. I have to. Will there be any problem with that?”

“It's still possible, but you'll need a really high score on the final exam. Do you think you can squeeze out a score of 97%?”

“Will there be extra credit?”

“I wouldn't count on it. It's too bad you didn't turn in your homework. That was worth a few points you'd find helpful about now.”

“Homework shouldn't count against you if you do well on the exams.”

“But it does. I told the class on Day One that homework is worth 5% of your grade.”

“Can you waive that for me?”

“Excuse me? Not in a million years. If I give you that break I'd have to do it for everyone. I'm not about to change the grading policy at the last minute for the convenience of one student.”

“I'm going to have to drop the class then.”

“That's your decision, of course, but I hope you realize that you are certain to pass the class with a good grade. The only question is whether it's an A or a B, and that depends on your performance on the final exam.”

“I can't have a B. I have to drop if I'm not certain of an A. Will the class show up on my transcript if I drop it?”

“It will. There'll be a notation that you enrolled in the class but withdrew. It won't affect your grade-point average, though.”

“That's not acceptable. I don't want any notation at all on my transcript.”

“Once again, what you want is at variance with what is. You really ought to pay attention to the rules before they inconvenience you.”

“If I get a B it will ruin my education plans. I'll have to see if I can petition for a late drop without a notation on my transcript.”

“You can see your counselor about trying to petition for whatever you like, but did you ever consider just studying hard for the final exam?”

Three is the lowest odd prime

A young woman slips into her statistics professor's office.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, hi! How can I help you?”

“I have a question for you, if you don't mind.”

“No, I don't mind. But you really should leave the door open. It's my office hour and the door is supposed to remain open.”

“Yes, I know, but it's a personal kind of question. You see, my boyfriend and I are wondering ... if you're totally straight or not.”

Excuse me?

“I said, we were wondering if you're actually straight.”

“Oh. Well. I guess so. But that's not a question you have any business asking.”

“But, you see, my boyfriend and I are kind of bi and we both think that you're kind of cool.”


“So we were wanting to invite you over for dinner and whatever.”

“Uh.... ‘Whatever’?”

“Yeah. You know, like whatever.”

“Oh. I see. Well. Um. Sorry, I don't think we can continue this conversation.”

“You sure?”

“Uh, yes. Sure enough. You know, I forgot: I have an appointment right now with the dean. Please excuse me! I've got to go!”


Yoo said...

"Surreal" sounds like an understatement! :)

Shygetz said...

My students are so lame...these kinds of conversations never happen to me.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

My Captcha happens to be "rrhol" - I have a dirty mind.

How was the Stats student doing in class? I think we need to know as much to judge why that particular subject was breached (broach?).

Anonymous said...

I'm SOOOO glad I don't teach for a living. My thesis advisor appears to have both Algebra Student and Calculus Student in his upper-division GE class, and tells these kinds of stories at lunch. My fellow grad students who've actually taught labs (I escaped that fate) are never surprised.

Anonymous said...

Karen, what are you studying? If mathematics, what do you expect to do with a graduate degree other than teach?

Not being snide here, actually curious.

Zeno said...

If I recall correctly, Unapologetic, Karen mentioned in an earlier comment that she's studying geology and hopes to be a geologist when she grows up.

Anonymous said...

Zeno's right... though his statement presumes that I plan to grow up.

Anonymous said...

Ah. I suppose I can imagine being a geologist without teaching.

Still, something I think Zeno might have left out is the sense of misty-eyed, "when it comes down to it I love the screwey little bastards". It's annoying as hell, and downright bizarre at times, but we'll fight tooth and nail to keep doing it.

Zeno said...

That's a sweet and tender (or perhaps saccharine and soppy) sentiment you express, Unapologetic, but it's not always true. Yes, teaching is a great job and I'm highly devoted to it, but ...

The first story is one of mine, and the truth is that I couldn't stand the whiny little bastard who pissed and moaned about how he had to have an A after he idled about all term. He was both gifted and lazy, and figured the former entirely excused the latter. Frankly, I wanted to flunk him. I hope he never knew how much he irritated me, because it would have been unprofessional to let that irritation show.

William said...

How can a B be such a dire threat?

Anonymous said...

Okay, exaggerated for rhetoric and sentiment. Hey, I was raised on '80s sitcoms and their broad, schmaltzy brush-strokes. But the truth (as always) lies somewhere in between. There are problem cases, and these make for the best stories.

There are also the ones where you feel like you really managed to connect and they really did take something away from it. They don't make for such entertaining stories, but they're the ones that really keep you going. And that handful every semester that declare a math major, or even a minor, after my class...

But then there are the vast majority of simply nondescript faces going through the motions. They really don't make for good stories because they're all the same. They do the work, but they never seem to get excited about it. They learn (to what extent they do) because it's their job, and not because they ever get a sense that this is something worth knowing.

The first group is what you usually write about. The second is the counterpoint I'm indicating. The last is the one nobody likes talking about. If anything breaks me, it'll be them, and not the "problem cases".

Zeno said...

Unapologetic: Exactly right. Group 1 provides fodder for story-telling, however hopeless they may otherwise be. Group 2 makes life as a teacher worth living. Group 3, however, is the bulk of our workaday world.

William: In the case of the whiny student in question, he was determined to get into a highly competitive engineering program at a university he had chosen as his transfer school. He was certain that he needed a 4.0 GPA in his science and math classes to be admitted. Maybe he was right; maybe he was wrong. He was certainly not, however, willing to work to achieve his goal.

Anonymous said...

In the case of the whiny student in question, he was determined to get into a highly competitive engineering program at a university he had chosen as his transfer school. He was certain that he needed a 4.0 GPA in his science and math classes to be admitted. Maybe he was right; maybe he was wrong. He was certainly not, however, willing to work to achieve his goal.

Then you did Whiny Student a sterling service, did you not? After all, if he couldn't compete enthusiastically in his lower-division classes, he would've been toast in Highly Competitive Engineering Program. I speak as a former engineer; even a normal engineering program is a lot of work.

(Unapologetic, if you're wondering why a former engineer is studying geology, let's just say I took a couple of decades' worth of detour before figuring out what I really want to do when I grow up.)

Anonymous said...


I got a degree in geology. Now I teach math...


I've run into variants of some of your office stories, but I almost choked on dinner and whatever.


Liesl said...

In reference to showing irritation: I recently found out that my face turns bright red when a student says something that frustrates me in class. I thought I was hiding it so well.

Unapologetic: I agree with your sentimental rhetoric about students. In fact, I think I could probably out-sap you. Never fear, I will refrain for fear of inducing great waves of nausea.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"He was certainly not, however, willing to work"

Sounds like me. "Gifted" is a bit much, but some talent I must have had. Too much to ever actually work hard at anything, certainly.

Well - that came back to bite my anterior, yes sirree, yes it did.

Zeno said...

Your "anterior", Sili? Ouch!

Like you, I cruised along for a good while. Then I hit the wall (hard) my junior year. And no study skills! It was an unpleasantly life-changing event. I've been cheerfully mediocre ever since. Quite a come-down for the guy used to being the "smart kid" in all of his classes.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Ouch, indeed ... 'anterior' seems to be inextricably linked to 'anti' and 'antipode' in my mind ... ah well.

Never all the classes. Once I'd learnt to read I never paid attention to the humanities again - at least not until way into my uni 'career'. I guess I hit the wall much earlier, but I didn't slow down long enough to realise until my dissertation was way overdue.

Ah well. Some people are born mediocre, some attain mediocrity and some have mediocrity thrust upon then. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.