Monday, December 6, 2010

Getting Stuck on the Negative

I spent all day yesterday grading the final essays in my graduate course on the Golden Age Spanish literature. Those essays were really brilliant. My students have obviously worked a lot to read and analyze the very difficult Baroque texts we have been discussing. Then this morning students in my Advanced Spanish Conversation class started delivering their final (and very difficult) presentations. Both groups that presented today did amazing. Some of these students couldn't string two correct sentences along at the beginning of the course, and now they are chattering away, making jokes in Spanish and using mexicanisms in a most charming way.

Now would be the perfect time for me to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my semester-long labor, but I can't do that because I'm completely stuck on the recalcitrant grad student who has been the subject of three of my posts and who, after a brief moment of lucidity, went back to her recalcitrant ways and spent the entire weekend martyrizing me with a barrage of hysterical e-mails.

Obviously, nobody can be successful all the time. You can put all the effort in the world into a student but unless they are willing to make at least a minor effort to improve, it isn't likely to work. On a reasonable level, I understand all that. Still, I can't stop thinking about what I could have done or what I can still do in the last week of classes to make things better for this student. I keep composing long monologues addressed to her in my head, which send my lood pressure through the roof and makes it so much harder for me to concentrate on the hard-working, responsible students who, to be completely honest, are a lot more deserving of my attention.

Is this fixation on the negative something that many people share, or is it just me? It's our last class meeting in the course with the recalcitrant student, but I'm afraid I won't be able to put this debacle out of my mind even after the course is over. The last thing I want to do is to spend my entire winter holidays obsessing over this issue. I'd so much rather concentrate on planning the courses for next semester because I will finally be teaching a course I'd been dreaming about for years.


Snarky Writer said...

It's not just you. According to my psychologist husband, it's called Negative Information Bias and it's an adaptive trait that's supposed to help you keep from getting burned twice. Unfortunately, sometimes it goes into overdrive. My brain does the same thing; negative stimuli (mostly "what a MORON I am. Why did I do THAT . . . twelve years ago?") keep me awake at night and I often obsess over conversations to figure out what I did wrong because I'm so bad with people that there must have been SOMETHING.

Pagan Topologist said...

I would have to say that for me this sort of thing is episodic: Sometimes I focus on negative things and sometimes on positive things. I have found, however, that setting aside time to do nothing but obsess over something negative makes it work itself out of my consciousness. I think the aphorism is "What we resist persists."

Good luck with it.

Clarissa said...

Snarky: thanks to your psychologist husband, I now know that I'm normal. That's good to know!

Anonymous said...

Why do you think this student deserve your attention? Is it because you think she is smart enough and therefore you should invest time and energy on her case? Is it because you think that as an educator you should reach all of your students, and you failed in that case? Is it your self-pride as an educator?

I think that your reaction is, unfortunately, absolutely normal... if not, then both of us are neurotic professors. I also make up monologue with recalcitrant students and I even write these monologues sometimes. In one particular case, it took me a year to recover from a bad teaching experience at you-know-where.

Please do not try to work miracle with that person. You are too good a professor to torture yourself like that.


DJ said...

+1 to the "you're normal" score. Actually, this kind of anecdote makes me think you're a pretty good teacher. The best teachers I know are the ones who stress over the students who aren't doing well.

Actually, check that. The very good teachers I know are the ones who stress over students. The best ones know when to set those students aside.

I came here from your comment on Hugo's blog, on the witness thread, and I actually think that plays well into what you're describing. If you've thrown her a pool full of life preservers and she refuses to grab any, you could jump in and try to wrap each of her fingers around one individually, but by that point you should know she's really just intent on sinking. When you realize your only options are to let her go or sink with her, the right decision should be fairly obvious (not necessarily easy, but obvious).

Anonymous said...

Love your comment, DJ.


DJ said...


Clarissa said...

"Why do you think this student deserve your attention? Is it because you think she is smart enough and therefore you should invest time and energy on her case?"

-Not at all, my friend! This person is beyond hopeless. She would be well served to return to SPAN 102 to work on her basic language skills. Grad school is no place for her at all.

I guess I'm just unhealthily obsessive, that's all.

Anonymous said...

The reason I obsess on people like this is that I, myself, cannot imagine trying to get away with that kind of behavior. It's manipulative, she is *trying* to make her problems yours, and this feels like a violation because it is one. So I think you're "obsessing" because you are trying to assimilate it.

I think you are more sincere than average and tend to assume others are as sincere as you. It is easy for me, at least, to forget that they may not be, and to be surprised when my efforts are not met halfway. I feel sort of used at those times, and it is in fact a form of mistreatment.