Bad Grades, Blame Games, and Defenestration

In ParagraphCity, most of the students who fail my courses expire from self-inflicted wounds, often when they are upon the threshold of success. The final draft gets “lost”; their transportation breaks down and they abandon the course; a paper is plagiarized; they acquire a new job, a debilitating case of the flu, a new boy/girlfriend, or a series of court dates,  and they vanish in the last weeks of the course. Almost always the F I record at the end of the semester sprouts out of their own bad choices and not an inability to get a passing grade from me.

“Fear of success” is the diagnosis  from one of our advisors.

“Some people just can’t break old patterns” says another; “missing deadlines, putting fun above work, getting immediate gratification: when that’s all you’ve known and all you’ve seen from your friends and heroes and plus it worked in high school, that’s a pretty hard habit to break.”

My colleague who growls says, “We reward success with more work, and they know that. Get an A once and all you get is everyone expecting A’s all the time: more pressure, less free time, more work, more pain, and certainly less cool. It’s a loser’s choice, getting good grades.”

I can understand all that up to a point: I was a pretty dreadful student in high school and for a couple of semesters in college. But it’s not just college courses; it’s a way of life. At some point, don’t we stop and decide what we want to be – a life that’s the product of own volition (yes, even if that volition is mostly illusory – but still, don’t we fall for the lovely illusion)? And yes, environment and conditions vary wildly from person to person, I know, but I think I should see more people really trying.

Here’s an example. It’s one of the most debilitating self-inflicted wounds I see:  Blaming others for the fate we ourselves choose. Just recently, I’ve seen the student Blame Game played these ways.

  • “My computer (or my flash drive, your course management system, the Internet, my cable company, or a virus) destroyed my paper.” Every semester, a colleague tells me about a new conversation that follows this same old pattern:
    • “You didn’t submit a paper. Do you have it?”
    • “Yes I have it. Great paper.”
    • “Where is it?”
    • “On this flash drive.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “No I have my paper on this flash drive.”
    • “You don’t have a paper to turn in, one I can read.”
    • “I have a paper; it’s on this flash drive.”
    • “I can’t read a flash drive, but I’ll give you ten minutes more so you can print it out.”
    • “I can’t print it out. The computers at the college won’t let me.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “I have my paper on this flash drive but my computer has a virus so the computers at the college won’t let me print out my paper.”
    • “So you don’t have a paper to turn in.”
    • “Oh, I have my paper. It’s here on my flash drive. See?”  (I love the tech, but I much preferred it when it was a dog eating papers.)
  • “You don’t explain things.” There are plenty of times when this is not a blaming but a real effort to understand something better, like an assignment, so I’ll usually respond,
    • “Well let’s see what we can do about that. What don’t you understand?”
    • “Everything!”
    • “OK, let’s focus on this paper that’s due. What don’t you understand about that?”
    • “Alright, now how long does it have to be?”
    • …and at this point I know it’s Blame Game time. Of all things to understand about a paper, the 600 to 800 words length given in the document that describes the paper is not that tough to understand….except for those who haven’t read the assignment yet and who haven’t been in class when we discussed it.  I’ll certainly see this blaming in my teacher evaluations.
  • “The things you assign for us to read are too hard to understand.” This too is sometimes a real asking for help. It becomes Blame time when I find out the student doesn’t know what the readings are, hasn’t tried to read them, and in a recent case, hadn’t bought the book yet. “I can’t afford these books, and you don’t put one on reserve in the Library for us either,” was a different spin on blaming me, not his reading. Now, the book we were discussing costs $3.05 new, $2.40 used. The material that was too hard to understand was a John Updike short story. I wonder if such students ever think about what they imply about their incapacity to be college students via such blaming.
  • “The placement test put me in the wrong class.” At the beginning of the class, we blame the placement test for putting us into a class that is too easy; by mid-semester we blame it for putting us in a course that is too hard. It must indeed be a terrible instrument to put us in classes that are both too easy and too hard.
  • “Your homework takes too long. Re-write the paper? Read that chapter? You ask us to do things there’s just no time to do. Some of us have jobs and families you know.

I imagine blaming is wonderfully rewarding in the short run. Responsibility for my own bad work is lifted from my shoulders, plus I get all the benefits of not having to do any more work. As I spread the story of blame around among my friends and parents and teacher evaluation forms, I may even get a self-righteous rush. “What a success I would have been if not for …..”  And the sympathy I win from those Rescuers in my life feels even better (again in the short run, and it’s all about the short run) than the good grade would have felt.

I think of it as sort of voluntary defenestration. Mostly our classroom windows don’t open, but still the image of bailing on a class is pretty familiar, and in ParagraphCity we’re dealing with metaphorical windows anyway, which always open.

What the student says: “It’s true I didn’t do the first two papers, and remember I told you that was because my Uncle’s house was practically destroyed by that hurricane, and I missed some classes when I was sick, but I am going to come to all the classes now and if you give extra credit – you give extra credit, right? – I will do all that. I know I can catch up. English has always been easy for me.”

What I hear: “Please professor, just give up all hope that I will put any effort into this class and kindly fling me out the window with all dispatch”



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