The Kids Are Not Alright

20 Apr

As promised, I wanted to dedicate a post to how my teaching and tutoring experiences have made me realize that the youth of our nation are deteriorating at a rapid rate.  You may say that my negative attitude comes from the fact that I’ve been out of college for nearly four years now and have just forgotten what it’s like to be an undergrad.  While a little of that may be true, I’m pretty sure the experience of being an undergrad is burned on my brain.  I will never forget that time of structured freedom away from the real world.  I certainly wasn’t perfect, but I can list several ways that me and most of the people I knew in college were smarter than today’s undergrads (or at least sneakier).

I have to start out by explaining a few things about the University of Colorado.  It is a great school with several outstanding departments that attract some fabulous students, however, it is also in Boulder -a hub of winter and extreme sports.  This means that a lot of students are just here to “shred the pow” (that’s skiiing for you normal folk), be a part of a nationally-ranked snowboard team (how many of those can there be??), or to ride outside of the bike lane on their skateboards (Yes, skateboards. CU is a little stuck in 1994 in that way).  These students tend to be the ones who put academics at about #47 on their priorities list, somewhere after sleeping in during class time and sitting out on Pearl Street Mall holding signs like hobos that ask for pot money (No, this is real).  You also have a good share of trust fund kids who absolutely cannot stand to be talked down to in any way -“talking down” to them meaning “teacher is trying to tell me something I don’t already know. How dare she!”  They also throw major fits when they get an A-.

With these facts in mind, I think you can understand why I would be dubious about our future leaders, but no Ali story is any fun without details.  Here are a few choice mini-stories that I’ve encountered as a tutor and as a T.A. in the university community.

Adventures in Tutoring

I’m told that I’m a bit weird for liking to tutor undergrads in writing.  As impatient as I can come off sometimes, I am actually quite patient when working with even the most confused and frustrated of students.  However, there are still moments that make me want to repeatedly faceplant on my computer keyboard.  One of these moments came just a couple weeks ago when I was working with an exchange student from Australia.  His assignment was to write a press release for an event which he had to make up.  The event he chose was an environmental talk by former Vice President Al Gore . . . or as he continuously wrote, “Algore.”  You see, even though this student had chosen to write about Al Gore, he didn’t think it prudent to actually check the spelling of his name, or even what his first name was seeing as he thought “Algore” was just his last name.  “But he’s Australian! He never had him as a vice president!” I hear you yelling.  And I respond to you, “Punch my give-a-sh*t card.”  The kid had an iPhone, a Macbook, and an iPad on him (all three of which I had to tell him to stop checking while in the appointment) which means he had several means to do a quick Google search which would have righted the problem.  The amount of surprise he displayed at my revelation of the correct spelling of Al Gore’s name was enough to make me want to start drinking in the middle of the day which, come to think of it, would make my job especially fun . . .

Another incident I had soon after the “Algore” debacle was with a female student who came in with an argumentative paper about the evils of fake tanning.  In general, her paper wasn’t structurally bad, but I was confused by her use of the term “ultra-violent rays.”  Scratch that.  I wasn’t confused.  I knew that her consistent use of the incorrect term meant that she, like Mr. High-Tech Australia before her, hadn’t even taken the time to Google or double-check the most basic elements of her argument.  Luckily, I am the master of bringing up potentially-embarrassing topics such as these, so after I had praised the good points of her essay I said (with just the right tone of vague uncertainty), “So, I’m not 100% sure, but I think that the term is “ultra-violet rays.””  “Really??” she responded, as if I had just told her that the earth was square.  I responded to her in the affirmative, and then went on to show her the wonder of online dictionaries which, along with giving you definitions, can also provide you with correct spellings!  What novelties we have at our fingertips!  The kicker of this whole incident was that the student told me that several of her classmates had peer-edited her essay before I had read it.  This means either, A) her classmates aren’t as good as me at letting someone know when they come off like a complete ditz or, B) there are a whole lot of people walking around who think there are sunlight rays equipped with swords, bow-staffs, and nunchucks that are are violently attacking us on a daily basis.  Those ultra-violent rays, they’ll get ya every time.

One of the choicest stories I’ve gotten from the writing center happened just last week.  The student didn’t have an appointment with me, but with one of my co-workers.  Lucky for me though, the walls are very thin.  I could hear the student right when she walked into our offices because of her angry movements and the whiny way she sounded like a martyr when she checked in.  I perked up my ears when she sat down with her tutor and was rewarded with this choice quote:

“My professor says I’m not understanding the subject matter entirely, so right now I’m a ‘B’ student!  I did NOT come here to pay for classes that just tell me what I’m bad at!!”

She went on to say several other things that made her sound like the spoiled brat that I’m sure she is, but I don’t think I need anything beyond that quote to outline my point.  My poor co-worker spent most of the time trying to calm the girl down from her rant which meant that, instead of learning something productive, the girl abandoned an opportunity to get better at something in favor of getting pity.  I’m sure that will work out real well for her in the future when she cries to her boss about a bad work evaluation.

One of my favorite things that occasionally happens at the Writing Center is students telling me that I’m wrong about something.  No seriously, I think this is hilarious.  None of them have actually straight-up said “You’re wrong,” but I can tell when a couple of them have pushed back against my advice that they thought was incorrect.  The funniest thing about this is that they always push back against facts or advice that I would be willing to stake my life on.

For example, a couple weeks ago I had a girl come in whose paper was filled with instances of plagiarism.  To be fair, this girl was an international student, and plagiarism is not considered a big deal in all colleges and universities the world over.  Still, I knew this would be a huge problem with her current professor, so we spent a lot of time talking about how to quote sources.  From there, I had to explain what constitutes a good source because she had quoted something (probably one of the crap-tastic pages that often comes up at the beginning of a search list) that stated that George H. W. Bush was president in 1997.  Of course, I knew that Bill Clinton had just begun his second term in 1997 (who could forget the Bob Dole-ridden world of 1996??) so I brought this up to the student. The student, to my surprise, pushed back stating that maybe I was confused and that perhaps the senior Bush’s term was just ending.  I responded that I had a very clear recollection of this time period and, considering this student was not in the country nor had they even entered kindergarten at that time, I was definitely correct.  (Of course I didn’t say these things explicitly, but I felt that they were somewhat implied).  The student finally relented to “look it up” later.  I think if anyone is going to be that pigheaded about something, maybe they just deserve to be wrong.  However, I definitely saw the humor in the situation and can rest assured that, if the student actually did look up who was president in 1997, that she eventually had to admit that I was right.  Oh the glory of that feeling . . .

My last Writing Center story happened to occur just last week.  A student came in with a paper about the novel Lolita.  The student was especially concerned with whether his argument and main points were coming through, and I was more than happy to help him determine this.  After reading through the paper out loud, I could tell that the student was one of those people whose brilliance often gets in the way of simplification.  Though his argument and main points came through, there was one part of his explanation that absolutely boggled me: he had created a method of describing the emotions and actions of the main character, Humbert Humbert, using such mathematical terms as “n to the 2nd power” and “y to the x power.”  Of course, I never want to put down a student’s ideas until I learn where they come from, so I asked him if his method was somehow rooted in something he had learned in another class.  He told me that he couldn’t think of any better way to describe the book.  . . .  Situations like this remind me of why I’m glad that I’m not a genius.  Eventually I did get him to understand how to put his thoughts in lay men’s terms, but I could tell his higher mind was going to continue to give him difficulties when he asked questions like, “How would I explain that I’m doing a deeper reading of the text? Would I call it a sub-explanation -or maybe a sup-explanation, as in a super explanation?” (Me:)”You would explain that you are doing a deeper reading of the text beyond that of a casual reader.”  “Oh.”

Now that I think about it, I can’t decide if the kid was incredibly smart, or incredibly dumb.  Like the number of licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, “the world may never know.”

Why I’ll Never Be Professor Jepsen

This past semester, I was very lucky to be appointed to a teaching assistant position in my department.  Basically, my responsibilities include attending a lecture by the professor twice a week along with the students, then leading my own sort of class period, called a recitation, to answer questions and have discussions.  I have gone through several stages with these kids, from lumping them all together as little heathens, to starting to see them as humans, to finally realizing that they do indeed have individual personalities.  Of course, some of these personalities leave something to be desired, and that’s where some of my best stories have come from.

An odd thing about my position is that I am teaching Medieval literature.  I knew almost nothing about Medieval lit when I came into the job, but that is usually the case with most T.A.s –it’s an advanced exercise in the art of B.S..  Really though, it’s not so bad since all I really do is make sure the kids are understanding the text and are applying what the prof says correctly.  During one of my first recitations, we were going over a romantic poem.  I was explaining to the class that one of the tropes of these poems is that the man is always looking at and talking about the woman but we never get her side, so the man is probably just into her looks or projects romantic ideas onto the woman.  One of the girls in the class somehow took offense to this, and pressed me for a further explanation.  I explained that, like now, sometimes people just see someone they find attractive and start romanticizing the person even if they don’t know them.  The girl tried to argue that there is such a thing as “love at first sight,” and couldn’t this be happening in the poem??

I had to stop there and try to devise a way to make myself not sound like a cynical bi-otch.  Of course I love romance and I believe at connection as first glance, but I think that love at first sight is something that only certain people truly believe in –and those people usually end up having failed relationships because they can’t face reality.  I told her that, since the poem seemed to only talk about the physical and didn’t say anything deeper about personal connections, that the man was probably just idealizing the woman.  This girl then had a good mini tantrum about how that was SO depressing!  I mean, SO DEPRESSING!!  I could only kind of blink at her and think about what a tough time she must be having in the dating world.  Perhaps she’s even having a worse time than me.  Either way, her completely misguided thoughts on love just made me want to smack some reality into her peanut-sized head.

One of the duties that comes with being a teaching assistant is grading papers.  Yes, it’s total lackey work, but it does give me some good practice for being an alcoholic.  Seriously, it’s impossible to read these papers without at least having a glass of wine.  Don’t get me wrong, some of the papers have been brilliant, but a good many are just chock full of little gems that you either have to learn to laugh at, or risk wanting to pound your face into some abrasive surface like stucco.  My first big moment like this came with the first round of essays which were about symbolism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I was reading the essays on Valentine’s Day (as one does), and started grading a paper from one of my kids who always comes to my recitation, but rarely comes to lecture.  I knew he probably didn’t have the right tools to write a great paper, and I was proven right when I came across the line, “This is symbolism, no doubt!”  Keep in mind that this was a paper all about symbolism, so this revelatory outburst was not as effective as the author wanted.  Of course, I chose to laugh because, what the hell else can you do?  If the line had come from one of the better students, I would have known they were making a joke, however, I knew this person didn’t know that walking into a 10 AM class at 10:30 was somehow rude, so I knew he was serious.  After laughing really hard (and secretly wondering if I was the worst teacher ever) I gave the kid a C+.

Something that never fails to amaze me about CU is how dense the students can be.  They really have no idea how much we can see through their bull.  One of the first times I really noticed this was the day the first essays were supposed to be turned in.  I received somewhere in the neighborhood of ten e-mails giving excuses of why the paper was not done.  I got everything from “my dog was put down” to “I’ve been constantly barfing for a week and can’t even sit at my computer because I’ll spew on it.”  Kind of amazing that all of these things happened right as the assignment was due, but what kind of power do I have?  I’m not going to very well tell someone they’re lying about ol’ Fido being put down.  All I can do is wait for them to offer doctor’s notes or letters from authority figures explaining the excuse (those are usually the legit ones).

However, I did have a girl last week who said she couldn’t make it to class to turn in her paper because her “ride bailed.”  I already knew I was going to dock her since it’s her job to get her paper in on time, and CU gives kids a free bus pass.  She really had no excuse at all for not getting there.  To make matters worse though, she did not put the paper in my mailbox or e-mail it to me.  It wasn’t until two days AFTER the assignment was due that I got an e-mail with the paper (which was two pages short of the minimum).  I could tell from the general shittiness of it that she had just thrown it together last minute.  After a semester of this bull, I gave her paper a C- (that was being generous) and finally had the gumption to tell her in my comments that I could tell she basically produced the paper out of her asshole (not my exact words).  It felt really good to do it, and I actually think the tactic worked, since the student has been trying to participate more than usual the last couple class meetings.  Along with this girl, I also have the student who actually asked me what the professor’s name was during the midterm (which he arrived late for), and I also had a student who sat right next to me in class and wrote the paper that was due at the end of the class period.  Not knowing the professor’s name when she has taken the time to memorize the names of all fifty kids in the class just means the first kid is a total goon, and writing a paper next to me when I’m going to be the one grading it just shows such a lack of creativity.  If you’re going to write the paper down to the last second, for the love of God, at least be sneaky about it!  Criminey . . .

Even with all of the crap some of these kids pull, I do a good job of keeping my cool when I’m around them.  In fact, I often think I’m a pretty swell teacher.  I had a particularly great accomplishment this week when I managed to compare the movie Bridesmaids with the Medieval religious autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe.  There is a scene where the main character, Margery, has a bunch of guys come up to her in a dream and show her their genitals.  The students were very confused about this passage, and many were not understanding that this was something that Margery did not enjoy at all.  Some of them didn’t really believe me, so I reminded them about Bridesmaids, and Kristen Wiig’s and Maya Rudolph’s conversation of how having genitals right in your face is not a pleasant thing.  I even did Kristen’s impression of a member, complete with my arms creating pointy testicles and squinting one eye.  If the kids learn nothing else this semester, I want them to at least remember my awesome male genitalia impression.

So maybe the kids aren’t completely lost since they can at least get a good Bridesmaids reference.  However, tomorrow is 4/20, the biggest day on the calendar for those who like the reefer.  Security is being stepped-up on campus to combat all of the non-students who will surely be trying to flock in to light up.  I can’t wait to see it.  I will post pictures here if I get any good ones.  Crazy things are bound to happen when “the man” gets between CU students, Boulderites, and/or visitors to this hippie Mecca and their pot.  If there’s one thing that I can’t deny about CU, it’s that the entertainment value is high . . . did you get the pun?  I crack me up.


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