Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Recalcitrant Student

My graduate seminar on Golden Age Spanish literature was poisoned for me this semester by this extremely recalcitrant graduate student I have. Let's call her L. for the purposes of this post. Not only did L. fail to do the readings on a regular basis, she even had the gall to call me in my office 2 hours before class to ask me what the homework was. The homework in a graduate literature course usually consists of reading a play, a collection of poems, or a short novel and writing an analysis of the reading. Obviously, nobody can do this assignment in the two hours right before class. As I shared last week, I caught L. plagiarizing such an analysis of a reading she obviously hadn't done from the Internet.

In-class participation accounts for 30% of the final grade in this course. In a small seminar with only nine students, one is expected to talk pretty much all the time. Still, I only discovered what L.'s voice sounded like when she accosted me to blame me for her plagiarism. Yesterday, the teenage rebellion of this 40 year-old graduate student who works as a high school teacher reached its peak. We were discussing a fascinating short novel by Maria Zayas, a brilliant Spanish writer of the XVIIth century. The rest of the students were very interested in the reading but L. kept spoiling the discussion for all of us by loud sighs of exasperation, eye-rolls, and weird scoffing sounds. I came up to her several times during the class to ask her quitely whether she was fine. "I don't know!" was her aggressive response every single time. If you ever had an opportunity to teach, you can surely imagine how disruptive such behavior is in such a small classroom.

At the end of the class, I offered the students an opportunity to start practicing their oral presentation (another 20% of the final grade), which they will do in pairs. L. sat through the entire half hour with an expression of such resentment on her face that an outside observer could have supposed that I had asked her to engage in some horrible depravity. She refused to answer questions or respond in any way either to me or to other students. Of course, L.'s presentation partner, who is a great, hard-working student, suffered the most. He made several efforts to convince L. to start preparing for the presentation but she ignored him.

After the class ended, another brilliant student I have came up to me to discuss some extracurricular readings she is doing by the Golden Age authors. Obviously, I stayed to talk with her and help her clarify some points in this difficult reading. It's truly admirable that with the heavy workload I assign in this course, this student would want to do even more. L. kept hovering around and interrupting in a rude fashion my literary discussion with this hard-working student. "Is this going to go on much longer?" she kept asking loudly and insistently, as if my time after the class ended somehow belonged to her. At that point, I had been working for over 10 hours and it took everything I had to respond to her patiently: "I'm sorry, I'm talking to this student right now. You will have to wait." After which, she scoffed and stormed out of the room, banging the door loudly in her wake.

I've been thinking all day long today about what I should do with this recalcitrant student. Since it's a graduate student, I thought that maybe it made sense to discuss her woeful lack of progress and her annoying attitude with her supervisor. I hoped that the supervisor could help me come up with some ways of approaching this student in a more productive way. At first, this was what I decided to do. But then I thought better of it. This is a grown woman, for Pete's sake, a teacher, who should really know better than behave like a spoiled five-year-old in a classroom. We are at the end of the Fall semester and I am spread too thin as it is. My time should be spent on helping students who are willing to learn, not on babying immature individuals who even in their middle age have no idea how to behave respectfully and appropriately to their peers and teachers.


Snarky Writer said...

On behalf of overachieving grad students everywhere, I'm sorry you're dealing with that. That's stuff I expect out of my freshmen, not my colleagues.

Lindsay said...

I am also sorry, and mystified, that you're getting this sort of crap from a grad student.

One wonders why, if she has such an aversion to reading and discussing literature, she chose to pursue an advanced degree in literature?

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Clarissa, it sounds to me like this student is burning out on being in graduate school but doesn't have the self-awareness or maturity to take responsibility for herself and move on. Instead, she is doing everything she can to get thrown out and trying to get other people to make the decision for her. That would explain all the acting out.

Of course, she could also have a mental health issue that's coming to the fore under the pressure of working as a high school teacher and attending graduate school.

Whatever the reason, I think that you should bring others into the process and get the situation resolved, for everyone's sake.

Pagan Topologist said...

you said you have nine students in the class. Cannot this student be assigned to work alone??

Clarissa said...

This presentation has to be interactive. The students will act out a scene from one of the Golden Age plays we read. So it has to be a group activity.

Richard said...

I would venture a guess that the behavior of “L” may be inexcusable, but it is not inexplicable. In my day public school teachers were encouraged and, in some subjects, required to take graduate level courses. Perhaps L’s presence in your class is not entirely of her own volition. It wouldn’t be the first time an overworked and underpaid high school teacher took her resentment on someone other than her students. Indeed her advancement in her chosen career may be dependent in part on taking a requisite number of graduate courses.

Clarissa said...

Richard: I think you are right. This is exactly what's going on. It's sad that a teacher would be so reluctant to acquire more education, though.

butterflywings said...

Clarissa, I wondered if this student might have a mental health issue too. Sometimes when a person begins to develop such issues, it looks like the person is just being an asshole, but they are actually really struggling and don't realise themselves what is going on.
It's always easier to judge than to have compassion and understanding, but it could go a long way.
Maybe the student just is an idiot, but, I thought it was worth seconding the possibility as someone else raised it.