Monday, August 16, 2010

The questions answer themselves

Why can't I quit you? (You can!)

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

Another student approached me from a different direction. In his case, the semester had yet to begin. To give my potential students fair warning, I had e-mailed everyone the syllabus two weeks before the first day of class. (That usually creates some quick shuffling as a few decide that my approach is too rich for their blood.) A couple of students wrote me to express their thanks for the advance copy of the syllabus. A few other students send messages seeking clarification about the edition of the textbook we were using. (One asked if he could use a different author's text that he happened to already have. Sorry, buddy, that hardly ever works. You should have passed the course you purchased it for.)

The most interesting message, however, was the following:
Dr. Ferox;

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.

The answer is obvious, right?

“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.


Miki Z. said...

I still remember very fondly (and sometimes write to) one of my instructors from community college who had a similar policy. I officially start my Ph.D. program in October, and the university here doesn't grade students of my classification (Ph.D. student with a master's and work experience) -- every class is an audit.

Professors who say yes early in higher education (that would be those like you, Zeno) give confidence to those 'racers' who just got a late start.

Dr24Hours said...

I came into this article prejudiced by my own experiences as a Grad Student instructor. I was expecting to have them confirmed in the negative by disagreeing with you. By the end, I found you had written a far more nuanced and perceptive account than I had expected. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I concur. The more opportunities I give the students to contact me for homework questions, etc., the less questions I get. Inverse relationship? Law of diminishing returns? I don't know - but it gives them less excuses for not beng on top of things.

Anonymous said...

Different, and yet the same...

In my school (high school) most students know the first name of most teachers... but they address us in the traditional way: "Mr. 2718."

(I feel compelled to point out that . is a period, not an errant decimal.)

Students do get familiar with me, and some use "2718" or the slightly more common "Yo, 2718."

But every once in a while a student decides it will be cool to use my first name. "Is it okay if I call you jd?"

And here's the similarity - I say yes, and they switch back to my last name on their own, usually in a day or two.

Why say no and pique their curiosity? - when we know what the outcome will be.