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Cluelessness 101

Beleaguered professors are sustained by the comedy of living among 19-year-olds

cast of Thousands/Shutterstock
Source: cast of Thousands/Shutterstock

Before I begin, let me acknowledge that in the course of four years at college most students will hear faculty say some ridiculous (and incomprehensible) things. No college experience would be complete without at least one professor who lectures from somewhere in left field and two or three others who could bore the buzzards off a shit wagon.

In our defense, students are a tough audience to face three or more times per week for 14 weeks in a row, and though we may dream of being larger-than-life Socratic figures in the eyes of our students, it is perhaps inevitable that when we look in the mirror we see someone who looks more like the Three Stooges. Professors are natural objects of ridicule for students everywhere, and in the end, we don't really mind -- after all, we have been subjected to even more professors than they have.

The laughter of students at our expense is part of the job, although I occasionally grow weary of the pointing that sometimes accompanies it.

College Students can be Hilarious - Without Even Trying

The purpose of this essay is to let you in on a dirty little secret: Students are hilarious too. Every professor has heard things from students that require immediate reassurance that we are still on Planet Earth - there have been moments when I have stood in absolute awe of what students are capable of.

The worst dilemma for a faculty member occurs when he or she is confronted by a student with a question to which there is no polite answer. Some of these questions pop up frequently enough that they no longer catch me off guard. One of my personal favorites is the one in which the student says "I missed your class yesterday - Did I miss anything important?"

Think about this one for a minute. The student pays over $60,000 per year to go to this college - a portion of this pays my salary. I worked long and hard to get the Ph.D. necessary to secure my job. When a student asks if what goes on in one of my classes is important, what am I supposed to say? "No-o-o-o-o?" Another question that has occurred often enough that it no longer bowls me over is "Can I borrow your lecture notes to study for the test?"(The answer to this question is No!)

Some questions, however, still come from so far out of the blue that they virtually knock the wind out of me. Examples of real questions I have gotten from real students include "Can I borrow your car to go to Chicago this weekend?" "Will you drive me to Peoria? - I have a job interview. . . ” and "Just how married are you anyway?"

One time a female student asked me if I would waterboard her in one of our laboratories. She had been reading about the use of waterboarding against suspected terrorists and she just didn't think that it sounded so terrible - so she wanted to check it out herself. How she decided that I was the person to approach about this has remained a mystery to me.

One year on the first day of the term I was assigning a research paper that would be due at the end of the term, about three months in the future. The students were a bit uneasy about not having a firm date, even though it was so far away, so I relented and we negotiated a due date for the paper. One earnest young fellow then raised his hand and asked “What Time?” I suppose I should admire someone who is so organized that he is already managing the procrastination he would be engaging in three months down the road.

Amazing statements can occur at just about any time. When I ask my advisees what type of classes they might be interested in taking next term, many apparently think that "something that doesn't meet 1st or 6th period" is what I need to know about their intellectual interests. I once had a diplomatic advisee explain to me that he was enjoying a course that he was taking, although he didn't like the readings and he thought that the classes were boring (say what?).

Yet another advisee, in taking the rare opportunity to observe a solar eclipse as part of a class project, confided that she hoped that she "wouldn't have to get too close to it."

And of course, there is always the struggling advisee who vows "to graduate on time, no matter how long it takes."

One day in an Introductory Psychology class I was teaching about the brain and schlepped out some real human brains for students to examine and take selfies with. One young woman was so thrilled with the experience that she exclaimed "I wish I had one of these!" I am still ashamed of my response to her: "I wish that you did too."

In our interdisciplinary first year course, I have had students talk about "back when the Greek people were alive" and write about the concern that medieval Europeans had for their eternal salivation (Actually, I suppose that this would bother me too . . . ); in my "Evolution & Human Behavior" course, I learned that Homo sapiens disappeared from this planet 150,000 years ago.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses . . . .

It is, however, in the arena of excuse-making that students really shine. Some samples of real excuses from real students:

  • I can't understand why I did so poorly - I read most of the material.
  • I can't understand how I did so poorly on this term paper; it took me almost 2 hours to write it last night.
  • I can't take the test today, because I thought it was going to be Flunk Day (our annual unannounced spring party when classes are cancelled) and I got so drunk that I am sick.
  • I didn't deserve an F in social psychology. You ignored my steady improvement as the course went on.(Instructor's Note: This student improved from a 32% on the 1st test to a 48% on the last test; 60% was the cut-off for a D-.)
  • My girlfriend's old boyfriend showed up unexpectedly and I had to spend most of the night hiding in her closet until he left.
  • The person I got the notes from took poor notes, and I should not be penalized for his mistakes.
  • I really know this material very well.
  • I need an extension on the test because of an injury I sustained in an “unplanned auto accident.”
  • I have to miss class today because there is a hassle with the hotel arrangements for the Drag Queen.
  • Sorry that I missed my appointment with you today - I could not find my shoes.
  • ME: (trying to get to the bottom of a student's poor performance on a test, as the student was very puzzled by this) "Tell me how you go about studying the textbook." STUDENT: "WelI – I - don't actually have the textbook . . . .
  • Hello Professor, I am going to be honest today. It is my roommates birthday and we are going to be up till really late and that will probably cause me to not be able to attend the lab. Can I get an extension to submit the lab by the end of the day. (Please note the brag that "I am going to be honest TODAY").
Source: braintrack images/public domain
Source: braintrack images/public domain

Over the years, I have learned that Mondays are bad days for tests because they come at the beginning of the week and students are not yet on track and they are recovering from the weekend. Wednesdays are bad days because they come in the middle of the week when things are rushed and hectic, and Fridays are bad because they interfere with travel plans and they force students to postpone the writing of papers, which are due on Monday.

A while back, we instituted a new grading system in which pluses and minuses on letter grades carried numerical weight in a student’s GPA, and the new weighted grading system quickly provided new avenues for students to astonish their instructors. In less than a week after the policy was implemented, I had several meetings with students who had received a grade of A- to discuss why they were "so poorly" in the course.

To their credit, students realize that it isn't cool to appear too worried about grades so such conversations always begin with reassurances that in fact the student is not overly concerned about getting good grades. The Studentspeak often comes out something like this:(I am taking some editorial liberties here.) "It is not a higher grade I seek; I care nothing about grades, because learning is what really matters. To care only about grades is to be shallow and immature. However, this pernicious system of which I am a victim requires good grades for achieving success, and therefore I seek a higher grade."

Please do not think that I am being negative in all of this. I immensely enjoy my life with students and I never know what adventure each new day will bring. Besides, it is heartening to know that so many people with the stuff needed for professorial careers are in the pipeline . . . . .

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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