Friday, October 14, 2011

How to Piss Off Your Professor

You may know that I teach a class in introduction to literature. I enjoy the class, and it's going well this semester.

In addition to frequent reading assignments, the class has gone through two cycles for short essays. Normally, essay assignments are handed out about a week or more in advance of the deadline. Plus, every student is required to show me a working paragraph at least two days before the deadline. The requirement helps me guide students and give them feedback. It also helps students start their papers earlier, which can only help them hand in a better product.

This morning, the third short essay was due in class. One student, however, came to class but did not turn in a paper. In fact, this student received the assignment on Wednesday--the due date for the working paragraph requirement--because he had been absent from earlier classes.

He approached me after class to tell me he couldn't complete the paper because "the assignment was unclear." Also unclear, he said, was a long illustration I had written out showing how to properly quote literature and then explain to a reader what was just quoted. That illustration was given to students along with the essay assignment itself, and I had explained both and offered to answer student questions on them.

They were unclear, he asserted. Unclear.

I was pretty pissed at the deliberate phrasing he used. Essentially, he was saying he could have completed the assignment if it had been more explicit about what he was supposed to do. It was my fault, in other words.

I let him know, I hope clearly, that even if the assignment was unclear to him, he had let plenty of opportunities slip to get help. After talking more with him, he showed that he really did know exactly what to do: a literary analysis, just like we had done two times before. Just like everyone else in class was able to do for the assignment.

The student should have simply mentioned that he was unable to complete his paper on time. He should have stated what he understood the assignment to be for his chosen topic, and then he should have let me either confirm or correct his understanding.

He made a really bad move telling me the assignment was unclear.

I worked to develop that assignment. I worked to make it clear. I worked in class to explain it. I solicited questions from students. I required a mini-review two days before deadline to address any questions. I did my job.

That motherfucker's on my shit list now.


  1. Your tale reminds me of the time when I provided, in addition to what I considered a simple and straightforward statement of the writing assignment, a series of comments addressing and attempting to obviate possible misunderstandings ("When I say X, I mean X, not Y," etc.). I got a comment from a student saying that she found it hard to "decipher" the assignment—as if I had written it in some sort of special code-language.

    If you provide a clear, precise, and simple statement of the assignment, some students will misunderstand it, while if you provide a highly detailed statement including examples and glosses, some students will complain that it is too complicated.

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