Hildegarde

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Students

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Well, okay, it was coming eventually.  But before I get started on this particular rant, let me sort of agree with both Cheryl and Robert.

Yes, of course, I’d have hated being a proper Victorian lady, and yes, of course, no society is stable in the sense that Robert means it.  We’re always at some point in an arc.

But the reason I’m drawn to the Victorians is precisely because both the British Museum and Marx existed side by side, they were both part of the mix.  A world with just the British Museum in it would have been stultifying.

And as for Victorian ladies–yes, there were those, but the Victorians invented the idea of the “gentlewoman,”  who was invariably described as “handsome” if she was good looking, and who did very no-nonsense, professionally competent things–founded first-class schools for girls, for instance, or the Red Cross.  I couldn’t have been a Victorian lady, but I would like, even now, to be the kind of woman who could be described as a “gentlewoman.” 

I don’t think I have either the imperiousness or the competence down.

I know I don’t have the imperiousness down, because if I did I wouldn’t be about to kill four of my students by now.

I’d just scare them, and they wouldbn’t try to pull this kind of crap on me.

Let’s start with student 1, who was actually a student of mine a couple of years ago.  She had some personal problems, and she ended up taking an Incomplete.  When a student takes an Incomplete, she signs a contract agreeing to finish certain work by a certain date.  If she does, she gets a grade for the course based on total work done.  If she does not, the grade reverts to what it would have been if she never got the incomplete.

Well, this student agreed to a set of assignments and never did them, so the grade reverted to an F, where it sat until last week, when she was told she would not be allowed to graduate because she had not passed my course, which was a requirement for graduation.  Oh, she told the registrar, that’s okay, that’s an incomplete.  I did the work.  That grade is supposed to be changed.

Did she think I was going to go along with that?  Or that the registrar wouldn’t check with me first?  What?

That’s the unusual case, though.  Let’s try the more usual ones–the myriad numbers of my students who don’t do their work and claim that they DID do it, but I must have lost it.  Or they e-mailed it to me last week, and I must have gotten it and lost it.  Or something.

And when informed that, since they’ve done less than half the work for the course, they’re going to get an F, they’re FURIOUS.  I mean completely bonkers. 

My highest level students are assigned a research paper–extended outline, first draft, MLA format works cited list with at least five entries, at least one block quote, at least five citations in the text, minimum five to seven pages. 

One kid handed in a paper exactly two pages long, no block quote, no citations, and forget the MLA format.  And he’s mad at me, because it was TWO pages, damn it.  That’s a long paper.  What’s wrong with me?

I am not a sentimentalist.  I read enough to know that students of this kind–people of this kind, trying to do the least work necessary, trying to scam the system–has always and everywhere existed in great numbers.  And I wonder what it is that makes me less and less able to deal with them.

I think that, eight years ago or so, when I started on this experiment to go back to teaching,  that I would be dealing with people whose life circumstances had screwed them over, that I would be a resource for them to help get themselves out.

And that does happen, every once in a while.  I’ve had some interesting students over the years, kids and not-quite-kids who have been through hell and back and turned themselves around.  Most of my kids, though, although they live very miserable lives in a great many ways. are either busy making their lives more miserable, or so passive that there’s no chance of much ever happening to them that’s going to get them out of where they are.

I think it’s the passivity that makes me craziest, that and the deep seated hostility to anybody or anything that wants to hold them to realistic standards in the world.  I don’t know what it is they want, or what it is they think they’re doing.  I don’t know how they think, and the few attempts I’ve made to write them into a book have not worked.

I don’t think the Victorians knew, either.  Of the various things I don’t like about that era, certainly the workhouses and the treadmills are high on the list, but this morning what strikes me about both is how completely useless they were at achieving their ends.  The Victorians were bigon Moral Hazard, that is, the idea that giving money to someone poor or destitute was likely to sap their will and make them dependent and therefore even less able to care for thenselves than they had been before somebody helped them out.

So in order to make sure that people did not lose sight of the fact that if you want money, you must earn it, they would require some recipients of public charity to walk a treadmill for hours to “earn” their handout–why that and not simply establish some kind of public works, or other projects, to actually put people to real work, I don’t know.

But the truly remarkable thing is that the treadmills did not seem to teach the poor to work.  They didn’t raise the moral standards of charity cases.  They just existed, and people walked them to get their handout, and then sank back into the same misery from which they’d come.

The older I get–God, I keep saying that–the more I think that a good half of the misery in the world is misery we inflict on ourselves, and yet I can’t see a way to distinguish that from the misery that is outside out control.  Oh, some of the out of control kind is easy enough to see–people get terminal diseases, or are involved in accidents that they could not have foreseen or guarded against.  Some of my students this term were refugees from various civil wars in Africa, fori instance.  One flunked out of high school after four bouts of early onset breast cancer.

But consider somebody who is not one of my students–a young woman with two young children I see on and off in my local grocery store.  I’ve talked to her often enough to get the impression that she may have borderline mental retardation.  She’s not very bright.  She is very nice, and very–I don’t know what.  She’s not vigorously tattooed or any of the other things some people in her position do to themselves that makes them less than attractive to employers.

She’s less than attractive to employers because she doesn’t think too well, no matter how hard she tries.  And she’s not mentally retarded enough to qualify for one of the state programs that provides supervised work (as supermarket baggers, for isntance) and living arrangements for adults with Down Syndrome or autism.  She’s just slow and she has two children and she’s living in a state with a lifetime limit on welfare benefits–in fact, one of the shortest and most stringent of such limits in the country.

Last Christmas, she tried to buy a small turkey breast, a box of instant rice and a can of corn with a food stamp card that didn’t work–and that I knew she knew wouldn’t work, because I could see it in her nervousness and talkativeness.  The woman at the checkout knew it, too, And all of a sudden, netither of us could stand it.   I took out all my change–seven dollars in quarters, because I’d been collecting them for a state quarter thing for my younger son–and Linda took out all of hers, and between the two of us we managed to make up the fifteen dollars to buy the groceries.

But it’s another Christmas now, and I have no idea what’s happened to that woman or her children.  And my students make me think of her.

I can’t think of a way to separate cases like that from cases like “how dare you give me an F, I showed up for half the classes!”

But there needs to be a way.

Okay.  This has been your maudlin Christmas misery rant.

Written by janeh

December 17th, 2008 at 11:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Students'

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  1. I once had a student come to me after the marks were out promising solemnly to finish the work I’d been nagging about all term over the summer if only I’d go and change his final mark now. I declined.

    “But there needs to be a way.”

    The only way I can think of is to offer help to all, and accept that a certain proportion aren’t going to benefit, sometimes because of their own actions or failure to act. And hope that they learn eventually, although really, some people never do. At least, they never seem to if you judge by the way they keep on doing the same things, expecting different results, and blaming others when the different results don’t manifest themselves.

    Change is hard. It involves developing and living with a new view of who you are and what you can do. Then you have to keep doing this in spite of the suspicion (possibly fuelled by past failures and friends and relatives) that people like you never get the breaks, and anyone who works instead of sitting back an collecting welfare is a fool. Some people take several attempts. Some never make it.

    But if you ever figure out how to get long-term un- and under-employed people with a conviction that the world owes them a living, an unfortunate home life and a job history that ranges from scanty to non-existent, to hold a steady job and generally improve their home life, I wish you’d let me know. I’ve got a little list, I have, and all I can do is mutter ‘well, there are changes that could be made, but you/they have to want to make them’, whenever my opinion is solicited.

    cperkins

    17 Dec 08 at 1:38 pm

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