Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Priorities and "having it all"

I've noticed something recently. It's really come to a head this semester, when I have several students with chronically ill family members, or with major health issues being diagnosed, or with other problems. A lot of the stuff is stuff that I would have dropped out for a semester to attend to (a lot of the stuff, while "big," is "short-lived" - a parent having major abdominal surgery but who will be OK in 2 or 3 months, trying to help a sibling go through the bankruptcy process). But these students don't; they randomly disappear for weeks at a time to attend to what is going on in their lives, and then come back and (a) expect they should be able to catch up and (b) expect that I will be overjoyed to re-teach what they missed and also write make up exams and set up the labs they missed just for them to complete.

I wonder if this generation of college students has been told the bad old feminist idea about "having it all," and have swallowed it wholesale.

Look, I don't care what anyone says: you can't "have it all." If you try, one of three things will happen:

1. You will do EVERYTHING in a half-assed, badly-done sort of way. (One way I can tell I've taken too much on? When the quality of my work starts to suffer).

2. You will do well on one or two things, but seriously short other things. If that's your spouse or your kids, that's a MAJOR problem. If it's schoolwork when you're going to school, you may well wind up flunking out.

3. You will burn out and either get sick or become very angry and bitter and be unpleasant to be around.

I think some of my students have opted for option 2, with the idea that the prof can pick up the slack for them. And then that forces the prof into the unenviable position of doing what they are already handling, plus doing more that they really don't want to do. And which may be an extra-heavy burden on them: I cannot drop everything to write a make up test for someone who shows up wanting to take it NOW. I have told people: I need a minimum of three days' lead time, but no one ever pays attention to that. Either they tell me that they are coming in, I write the exam, and then they never show, or they don't tell me but show up and get all angry that I didn't sit down RIGHT AFTER CLASS when they said, "Oh, I might need to take a make up on that exam" and write one for them.

I've also had more people this semester who missed labs acting as if I should scurry back into the room and set up all the equipment and materials again so they can do the lab on their own schedules. No matter that some require several people working together to do, or have perishable material that I would have to go back out and buy (probably on my own dime) for them.

I suppose it is all part of the larger trend of the "Millennial" attitudes - a colleague and I are giving a paper on the challenges of the "new workplace" and the "new generation" for college teachers and a lot of the references we've looked at have noted the same problems we complain about with students: a sense that the universe revolves around them, the belief that their work is wonderful even when it's not, and an over-blown sense of what they can find as work and what they will do with their lives.

And I think there's also a strong thread of "I'm the only student in the room" - I have had to actually explain to some of my make-up test demanders that, "I am grading exams for one of my other classes right now. I like to hand exams back to students the next class period and this is the only time I have to get them done. I cannot stop and write a make-up exam for you now but I will have one for you in three days' time." Or they don't understand that I have to go some afternoons to do volunteer work I signed up to do, and I can't just shaft the coordinator at the food bank (or whatever) to stay and do their make-up exam for them.

It is as if some of them believe they should be my first priority, even when they are expecting something above and beyond normal class process, and, for that matter, above and beyond the "here is how we will deal with problems" protocol from the syllabus.

And while I know I am perfectly justified in my, "No, I cannot do the make up exam now" or "No, I do not do make up labs," it makes me very tired to have to say that (sometimes on a weekly basis) and then deal with the inevitable pleading, complaining, or "but can't you bend the rules just once, just for meeeeeee?"

And what got me thinking about this was this morning. I was getting dressed to come in, figured I better wear slacks because I can wear my trackshoes with them, rather than having to wear dress shoes that might hurt my feet in the approximately four miles I am going to walk and the approximately four hours I am going to be on my feet today. My church is serving lunch at the "ecumenical" Christian center on church (we have a Baptist center, a Church of Christ center, and an "ecumenical" center.) So after my class this morning I am going to walk over there (it's a little over a mile from where I sit now, but parking on campus is so horrific that I'm not even going to TRY) and serve food. I don't mind doing it, the students who come in are nice and are grateful for a free, home-cooked lunch - and most of them are regular attenders of the center's worship times - but it's just the time involved, especially now. Especially because I had someone go all sad-faced on me yesterday when I said I couldn't have them do a make up exam at that time, as I was going to be over helping serve lunch.

I said to myself this morning, "I will be very glad when I am done with doing stuff for other people for a while, and can attend to my own stuff." Not a very nice thought, perhaps, but in this past week, I've done lots of mop-up after student absences, and I served a stint at the local food bank handing out boxes of food, and I helped with some on-campus stuff, and today I am helping to serve lunch.

Oh, and yesterday afternoon, I arrived home to a message: since a member of my church's mother (who was affiliated with another church) passed away, they were taking food to the member and his family. Could I possibly pick up something and bring it? They were going to bring the food by around 5....

As the message was sent at 9:15 (when I was in my first class of the day) and I didn't get it until 4:30 when I finally arrived home, I called the person who sent it and told her that there was no way I'd have time to do it. She was understanding, but still: I really need to do a better job of educating people, I guess, that I can't generally do stuff with less than a 24 hour turnaround time.

So I just kind of get worn out. And it doesn't help when a lot of the students are overly optimistic about what they can get done, or how well they can cope with life issues. And I understand, in some cases it may be Financial Aid that's forcing them to do what they do - dropping out and restarting is a lot harder and you do run the risk of losing the aid, and sometimes it's actually "better" from a Financial Aid standpoint to take the F than it is to drop and go below "full time student" level. But that's not my fault. I didn't make the broken system. But it does frustrate me when students come to me expecting I can give them 10 hours of uninterrupted time, where they seem to forget that I have over 100 students in all my classes put together, and if they ALL demanded that much time...well, the universe would collapse upon itself.

I wish none of my students had to go through the crap they're going through. Partly out of simple humanitarian feelings - it must really suck to have to work to help your disabled adult kid get the assistance he needs to go through life - but also because it would free their minds up to concentrate on school. And I would have to hear far fewer sad stories of why I should bend the rules, "just this once, just for me."

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