June 21, 2010

No Backstage Pass: Student Presentations of Self to Professors

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Dear Class,

When I was creating my syllabus, I forgot to mention that there is one more exam covering everything we did for the semester—yes, it’s cumulative—and a 20 page research paper. I know that this is the last week of class but could you please excuse me? Pick whichever reason you like best from the following to excuse my lapse:

A. My child had a fever and I had to take her to the doctor and then to the hospital and I didn’t get any sleep at all that night. And my dog was hit by a bus. Plus, my computer was acting funny. I think it has a virus. (If you’re taking an on-line course, add this: I was having trouble getting into Blackboard and Blackboard kept kicking me out.)

B. I was focused on my career and really needed to get some other work done to make sure I get promoted.

C. I really didn’t understand that I was so supposed to put all of that in the syllabus. It’s so hard trying to figure out months beforehand what I’m going to do with a class. The university wants us to hand in the syllabus long before the class even starts. I didn’t expect all of this to be so hard. I’m really good at all the other things I do and get really good evaluations on all of my other work.

D. This is the last class I’m going to teach. I’ve always got good evaluations for all the other courses I taught and I really don’t want this class to bring down my overall evaluation grade.

E. I just need an extension. That way I can add this information to the syllabus and nobody will have to know that it wasn’t there when you first got it.

Do you think I have ever told the student version of any of these to my professors? In earning four degrees, I have taken about seventy university courses so I’ve had ample opportunity. I’ve pulled a few all-nighters, pecking away at a typewriter trying to finish papers on-time. I trudged to the library in snow to do research. I was up until 2 and 3 o’clock studying for exams. Eventually, I realized that the students hovering around my professors were not asking questions clip_image002[6]about the materials but instead were explaining why they need an extension on this or that assignment. An extension? I thought a deadline was …well, the point after which you might as well drop dead as far as your professor is concerned. I didn’t realize it was only a suggestion. I wasn’t familiar with the ritual of negotiating a new deadline or alternative assignment.

I complied because that’s what I knew. I was lucky in that though, because, let me let you in on a secret that your professors may not have told you: Most of us have worked very hard to complete our own degrees, and have done so despite a variety of personal problems, challenges, and frustrations. In fact, many of us struggle to meet deadlines (teaching, writing articles, books, conducting research) that cause us stress. So when you tell us your personal problems in the hopes that we will extend deadlines, it can be infuriating to us. When you go on about how good your grades are, but show little or no evidence of how you could have possibly attained those grades, we don’t feel sympathy for you. We feel frustration. And we tell each other jokes about the most outrageous excuses that our students give us. (We don’t use your names though.) It suggests that you don’t understand the concept of impression management. For sociology students, this is particularly egregious because the concept was developed by sociologist Erving Goffman.

Impression management is an awareness of how others view us and how we can manipulate that perception and ultimately shape the way others treat us. Goffman differentiated between front stage and back stage behavior. Front stage refers to our public persona, our “onstage” roles. Front stage is what we want others—our audience—to think, know, or feel about us. Back stage is our private self; the dressing room at the back of a theatre where we put on make-up, get dressed, and prepare before entering the front stage.

clip_image002Back stage: You tell your friends/spouses/significant others about your burdens and why you really need to pass this class without really doing the work.

Back stage: We—faculty—talk about bizarre student excuses.

Front stage: You ask questions of your professors and make comments to them that illustrate how hard you are working to earn a good grade. You find ways to let them know that you’ve done all of the readings, exercises, and other assignments, even if they’re only “recommended”.

Front stage: We teach. And we act like we believe unbelievable student excuses.

As at a theatrical performance, the ”audience” should not be permitted to go back stage. Create an impression that you are a serious student, even if it is only an impression. Otherwise, make your excuse as good as this one in the video below....

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I respect that this is written in the spirit of being very frustrated by a rash of student excuses, I've been there myself. Sometimes the excuses are just incredible. But there are also legitimate reasons a student might have issues (like a single parent who is trying to make their life better by going to school and is now dealing with a sick child), and I'm not sure we should assume that they're automatically bunk.

"Create an impression that you are a serious student, **even if it is only an impression**" Really? I don't want their impression, I want their honesty. I don't need to know their private back-stage stories, but I would hope that a student is not afraid to come to me when they have a legitimate issue with something class-related, just as much as I hope I have the wisdom to see when it's BS, too. Yes, I'm sure there are occasions when I have been fooled by students or I've given the benefit of the doubt and should not have, but I would much rather that be the case than to have not provided some understanding to a student who truly DOES want to do the work and succeed. I think the day I fail to recognize that higher education is not the pure meritocracy its painted to be, or that there are indeed many legitimate structural barriers that can impinge upon students, is the day that I should consider hanging up my sociology hat.

Thanks, Angela. Other than a means to vent frustration, this piece is also written—or meant—to be tongue- in-cheek. Sounds like I didn’t get the latter sentiment across very well.

When a serious student does have a legitimate excuse, I think/hope most of us are happy to be understanding. I am. I’m happy to bend over backwards to help a student who wants to work. But in such cases, I see more than excuses. I see work, attempts, effort – and then life ‘happening’ and a request for assistance. (And yes, this is a time when a peek behind the curtain seems fine.) Like you, I hope to have the wisdom to see the difference…

To each his own. Although in jest, I would prefer an “impression” rather than badgering about what I can do as an instructor to improve a student’s grades with no indication from the student that he/she wants to EARN that grade – as you say wants to do the work. Otherwise, this is the kind of honesty I would like:
Student: I don’t want to do any work, but I want an A in this class.
Me: Not going to happen.
Student: OK. Then I won’t do the work and will expect an F or I’ll see if I can take this class with someone else.

How do I register my textbook "YOU MAY ASK YOURSELF" by DALTON CONLEY and have access to the video/blog exercises. Please I need urgent reply I have missed the exercise for two weeks now.
Christopher Eje

Janis, thank you for the reply (one that I was very slooow to notice!)

I wholeheartedly agree that the willingness to put in the effort and DO the work is the crucial difference here. I have little patience for the "can you just GIVE me an A" students. Sorry, I really didn't mean to jump on you. I suppose I am just a bit touchy on this issue because I was a non-traditional undergrad in every sense - older, family of 5 to support, had to work full-time, etc. And I worked hard and did well, but over the years there were legitimate occasions where I simply could not meet a deadline or a task for family or work reasons. Same goes for many of my similarly-situated peers. I am so incredibly grateful for those professors who worked with us to make arrangements when we really needed it, but there were a couple who simply painted everyone with the same brush no matter what. For example, I watched one person strong-armed into dropping a necessary class (and subsequently ended up graduating later because she had to wait for the course to be offered again) because she simply couldn't make it to a required external event. She was a single parent with 2 small children, had started caretaking for her ailing mother, and couldn't afford a nurse to cover the evening time she needed to be away. Didn't matter that she had been a hard worker all semester, had an A in the course otherwise, nor that she was willing to do alternate work. I know others who ended up dropping out altogether, and it wasn't because of their academics or work ethic. That kind of stuff is very frustrating. You're absolutely right that so many students seriously need to get over that entitlement mindset. I wish we had an easy way to enforce that! On the flip side, I just think that if the structure and its representatives are only accommodating to one "model" of student, then we all lose.

Hi again, Angela.

You're quite welcome. (Evidently we’re both taking a bit of time to check this space for correspondence. :-)). I ABSOLUTELY agree with you and understand where you’re coming from. This piece is not about those who work hard, but about those you describe as having the “entitlement mindset”; it’s an important distinction and I appreciate our ‘conversation’ to help tease that out.

The fact remains that this will not change, deadlines will still be unmet or if they are met, the quality of work is shoddy and hurriedly done

I believe that if you are willing to put the effort to do the work and that you are trying your best and you an engaged life, therefore there should be an excuse to recieve help. On the other hand is you are a reckless student who is not attempting to pass the course then therefore that is an excuse to succeed.

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