Plus ca change…

Naturally, as we near the end of the semester, my inbox is filling up with dead grannies and desperate pleas for more time, more insight, more input, more instruction, more, more, more.
In most of these cases, I do my best to be understanding, flexible and helpful; however, every semester there appears at least one student whose last-minute missives just rub me the wrong way. This term, that role is being filled by Omar.*
Omar began this semester by being absent for the first eight classes – one week before the term began, he sent me an e-mail explaining that he was “stuck” in the Middle East with his family, and could I please let him know what he missed. Since he was due to return to Canada shortly after the first week of classes, I assured him that he’d be able to catch up – but then, new messages arrived explaining that he’d be further delayed, and suddenly his arrival coincided with our first essay assignment.
The course in question is an Introduction to College English, a required first English course for all our students. Since it is prerequisite for all other English courses, students typically take it in their first semester, and that means the fall. “Winter 101” is notoriously weird – the class tends to be filled with students who have failed the course, but only a small segment of that population failed because of actual problems with the skills – most of them tell me that they failed the course the first time around because it was “too much” on top of their program courses, or they were “adjusting” to college, or they got a new part-time job; in other words, they bailed out of the course and just didn’t finish it. The result is that the winter course has some students who have turned over a new leaf and are over-the-top keen, other students who are still bored out of their skulls by all things literary, and a few students who oscillate between the two extremes and tend to flame out two weeks before the final paper is due.
All of this is to explain that I cut Omar some slack at the beginning of the semester, and rather than telling him it was too late for him to catch up, I went out of my way to create a special electronic package of readings, so he’d have a chance to read the stories upon which the first essay was based.
I should have listened to the alarm bells that went off in my head when he wrote to ask me if I really meant he had to read all six of the short stories I sent.
Now we’re at the end of the semester, and Omar is barely passing. A week before our last class, I calculated who was missing what in terms of the small, online assignments I give over the course of the semester, and told each student which ones s/he could do to boost his/her mark a little. A few students, including Omar, stayed after that class to clarify the instructions for the missing assignments.
Omar, after a week, sent me this:

Hi miss can you pls tell me what exxctlybi have to still post up on Lea I’m really confused thank u

I replied:

Hi Omar,
You can still post the following assignments:
-the essay analogy
-the “Everyday Use” heritage story
-the personal poetry song analysis

…and got this in return:

okay sorry im a bit confused..
what aws the essay analogy? and for everydays use, do i answer the questions in the back? and for the poetry song i just choose a song and send the lyrics right?

At this point, I was getting to the end of my patience. I replied:

First, read the forum instructions in your blue text. If you are still confused, try reading some of your classmates’ posts. If, after that, you still don’t know what to do, send me another message.
You have to understand that (a) you are very late with this course work and (b) I have spent the semester giving everyone as much instruction as needed for every one of these assignments. It is quite frustrating for me to have to explain everything all over again for the benefit of one student who didn’t bother to do these exercises when they were assigned.

A day later, I get this:

k sorry…
for my essay, i seen your comments and everything but im having a hard time re-constructing my outline

I took a deep breath and replied:

Hi Omar,
I am sorry you are having a hard time, but I can’t help you based on a single sentence – a hard time with what, exactly? Please remember that I teach more than one course, and all of my students have submitted outlines, so there’s not much chance I’m going to remember what your outline was, nor what my comments were. You need to be more specific.

His reply was “i sent you the outline”
Sob. I fear at this point I let my frustration get the better of me – my reply:

So did a lot of other people. What, exactly, are you asking about?

The essay, of course, is due tomorrow. Any bets on (a) how soon the extension request arrives and (b) how many heinous grammatical errors it will contain?
*Stealing a page from my good friend Siobhan, I have given Omar a pseudonym.

3 Replies to “Plus ca change…”

  1. Oh my goodness. Your generosity astounds me. I have now established a rule that those little in-class/homework assignments can be made up ONLY when the student has a medical note, and ONLY within a week or so after the assignment is done. In the past, giving students chances to make things up at the end of the semester was a never-ending slippery slope that made it ever more likely that I would hand in my resignation by the end of May.
    Is it possible to tell Omar that he either has to come see you in person or figure this out on his own? I have also been adamant over the last few years about students coming to see me in person if their question is something that takes more than a sentence or two to respond to.
    I feel for you. No matter how many lines we draw, someone always seems to find a breach we didn’t even know was there. This sounds like a guy who needs to fail a few courses… (in fact, he sounds a bit like someone from my last semester Prep course…who probably should have failed…sorry about that…)

  2. Hi, Maggie,
    It’s been a long time, and I’d forgotten how delightful your posts are. I’m always particularly interested–and mildly amused–by the ones about students’ foibles. Of course, I can afford to be amused, given that I did quit–yup, quit–teaching nine years ago.
    I agree with Siobhan: The more you try to accommodate a student like Omar, the more difficult it will be. This is why my syllabus kept getting longer; someone was always finding a breach that I hadn’t seen.
    I agree with Siobhan on this point, as well: Omar sounds like a student who needs the failing grade he so richly deserves. *Maybe* he will wake up; my bet is, though, that he is more likely to drop out of school, which wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing, as it would give him time to grow up, some.
    I wish you well!

  3. I agree with the first poster: You have so much patience with this one student, Omar. Hardly anyone else would tolerate this much. I think Omar is “testing” your limits on how much you can actually take from a student.

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