Monday, January 26, 2009

A Certain Student

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Our semester begins today, and I'm worried.

I agreed to take on a fourth prep this semester by running a subsection of our senior seminar, taught by the Ancient Historian (we have a small field, so informally sharing classes like this is something we commonly do, though I'm starting to question the wisdom of the idea). These seminars are work-intensive for the students as well as the professors, so they are capped at 15 students. As of close-of-enrollment last week, we had 14. At this point, any student needs to petition to add. And of course we can take them, because after all, there are two instructors.

But there's this one student who wants to add, and add my section. Let's call him Sigibert.

I've had Sigibert in two of my upper-division classes before. The first, I barely noticed him, because he rarely showed up. Failed the class through sheer neglect. This past semester, he retook it, and got a B, though his work tended to be either excellent (a 96 on his midterm!) or utterly lazy. He's a bit of a medieval obsessive (SCA), and it comes through in his discussion contributions when he's there, but he's done more or less okay.

BUT please consider:

  • The reason Sigibert is looking for a senior seminar this semester is that he failed the one he took last semester -- again, by simply showing up rarely, and doing the work even less often than that.
  • The same semester that he effectively blew off my upper-division class, he was in the class of another colleague, doing lacksadasical work -- and somehere at mid-semester, he came into her office, got all up in her personal space (he's a big guy), and yelled at her for ten minutes about how her refusal to cut him slack was causing the deterioration of his relationship with his girlfriend or something like that. He got to the point where he was livid and shaking, and she refused to meet with him in her office for the rest of the semester.
  • He's obsessed with Vikings.**

So, I was hoping that someone would come along and take that fifteenth spot, so the primary professor and I could steer him into another seminar. Either that, or he could delay too long, and I could legitimately tell him that he had missed too much, and I couldn't let him in. But apparently he showed up at my colleague's office on Friday, asking to be added, and I guess he was the first one to do so. So, there's one spot left, a student who is qualified to take it, and no reason to keep him out.

So... my mini-class that had 5 truly excellent people in it (I've had them all before) now has 5 truly excellent people, and one guy who may be okay, may disappear, or may decide to snap while on my watch. Should be interesting.

[UPDATE: Sigibert came to class today. So far, so good. Looks like I may have gotten all worried over nothing. And this is the only class he's taking this semester, so I'm going to be cautiously optimistic.]

**My seminar is not on the Vikings. It is on the Crusades. Yet when Sigibert first came to talk to me about the class (right after he found out that he'd failed the previous seminar), he responded to my explanation of the topic by asking if he could do his paper on the Varangian Guard.


Matthew Gabriele said...

I don't envy your situation. 2 reactions though:

1) if he slacks off, that's one less paper you have to grade. if he does the work, he seems to be pretty smart.

2) there's no excuse for the sort of threatening behavior you describe. if there's any hints of ANYTHING, I'd call campus police. your colleague should've done so the first time it happened.

Janice said...

Hah! I knew what he would want to write on as soon as you told us his interest and your course topic. I've had similar students who try to twist every course back onto their obsession. That's rarely a recipe for success.

Do make sure to have the campus cops on speed dial if there's any disruption in your office. The precedent's been set and, as the student feels that all of this is keeping him from graduating, he's likely to be even more confrontational.

Anonymous said...

I sympathise with the situation and hope it goes all right, but the phrase `campus police' does just remind me that US and UK academia are different worlds.

historiann said...

Notorious, I too sympathize. I had a senior seminar ruined 6 years ago by a very troubled slacker student (drugs, possibly mental illness, capped off by being a rich kid enabled by his parents' money). I let him enroll with an override as a favor, and was punished for this kindness throughout the semester.

He was openly disrespectful to me. He would say things in class like, "Well, I haven't done the reading, but my opinion is XYZ on this topic...," and blamed me for turning the class against him when they would just laugh at him for saying things like this. He was incapable of understanding that the Plains Indians in the U.S. in the 19th C are not identical to all native North American peoples at all points in time, and rejected scholarship out of hand that didn't conform to his bizarre notions of Native identity and culture. (Oh, and by the way, he was a white kid, not Native, but I suppose you could have guessed that anyway.)

His work was so bad, and he was so objectionable, that his grade fairly ought to have been a C- or a D. However, because this is senior seminar, students must pass with a C or better. I decided that giving him a C and getting him the hell out of our department was the better decision. I wanted at least to spare the poor sucker who would have to deal with him again in another senior seminar!

Because of that student, I have refused to teach senior seminars...until this semester! Wish me luck. I will never, ever do an unenrolled student the same favor again, unless I know hir personally. The reason he wasn't enrolled, of course, and needed an override is that he's a f&*k up of magnificent proportions.

I would say, after Matthew Gabriele and Janice, that you should ride him hard and take no prisoners. If he screws up--misses too many classes, etc.--you can probably have him disenrolled. This will depend largely on your stated policies on your syllabus, and/or your department's policies on attendance and standards for student conduct. Check with your chair. Good luck.