How much help is too much? Student edition
March 10, 2014 4:13 PM   Subscribe

At what point do I tell a student to stop asking questions?

I teach basic composition. I assigned a textual analysis, knowing that students would struggle a bit with it, but also knowing it's a valuable skill we will build on throughout the class. All of my students have met with me one-on-one and most of them seem to be trucking along towards a rough draft.

One student, however, met with me and had no prep, no idea of what was happening and apparently did not pay attention to any part of our discussion, as he has sent me five emails since Friday, each one asking me to explain the assignment and/or tell him the next step in his draft. For example: "Hi! I'm confused about the assignment. Whatever you can tell me would be helpful!" -- after we spent two weeks on the assignment in class and met individually. When I replied that he needed to be specific about his questions, he then emailed me a long list of potential articles he could read and asked me which ones he should pick and how to create a thesis from them.

Complications: I'm now on maternity leave (though no baby yet) and I've given them leeway to email me as they work on drafts. About a third of students have sent one email with specific questions and have been satisfied. This student doesn't seem to be able to move forward without me holding his hand. He has repeatedly asked me to meet with him this week, even though my due date was last week and they all knew I'd be gone from this week until April. At what point do I tell him I can't answer his questions all day long?

He also did very poorly on his first essay, has missed two weeks of class already and has not turned in a homework assignment yet. I know his concern is passing, but this seems ridiculous. My guilt at being gone during the drafting phase is making me feel like I should offer him as much help as possible, though.
posted by mrfuga0 to Education (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just respond setting guidelines for when to contact you. Like "It's best you get back to me when you've completed a first draft, and i'll be happy to send you some feedback before getting the final! Your classmates are also great resources for discussing ideas"
posted by cacao at 4:21 PM on March 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

This guy is asking you to put in more work than he has shown himself willing to do. I tell my students I am willing to help them, but only if they make an effort themselves. I'm not in the business of doing their work for them.

I'd e-mail him back one more time, remind him you're on maternity leave until April, and tell him you've already offered all the help you can without doing the work for him (which you're not about to do). He needs to figure this out on his own now, because you've already given him all the guidance you can. Then refer him to your school's writing centre. You are under no obligation to offer this guy more help in order to make up for the work he chose not to do (come to class, hand in homework, prepare for your one-to-one meeting).

And best wishes for a smooth labour and delivery!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:28 PM on March 10, 2014 [23 favorites]

College right?

Send him an email:

While I am always happy to help students when they encounter difficulty, I am unable and unwilling to re-teach the class, especially when a particular student has missed a significant portion of the class and has not made an effort to turn in assigned work.

At this point it is clear that the classes you missed are seriously impacting your ability to pass this class. I would urge you to drop this section and perhaps take a new section next semester, when you can attend class regularly and keep up with the homework assignments.

Sweetie, this guy has tried nothing and he's all out of ideas. Don't buy into this bullshit.

You're about to have all the baby you need.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:30 PM on March 10, 2014 [65 favorites]

It sounds like he wants you to do his work for him. If he's missed weeks of class, hasn't turned in homework, and didn't attempt to rework his poor essay to understand where he went wrong, you don't owe him endless hand-holding. If you spent two weeks reviewing the assignment in class and he didn't bother to pay attention and integrate the information, that's his problem. Refer him to whatever tutoring center is available and let him sink or swim on his own.

Purge that guilt and congratulations on the baby!
posted by quince at 4:31 PM on March 10, 2014

Our students nowadays are less prepared for college in the past than in the past. Many don't know how to study or prepare. For better or worse we need to work with this.
If you can instruct him on what he can do (have a first draft and 5 questions before you meet with me; get notes for missed classes and come to meet with me with 5 questions.)
This is just part of teaching. If you can help him build some study skills, you're not only helping him but all future faculty working with him. This could be a much bigger impact on his life than learning textual analysis.
posted by k8t at 4:35 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

As something of a college skeptic and curmudgeon, I would also reiterate those who've suggested you point out that his classmates are managing to figure out the work, and are a fantastic resource to turn to for help like this.

This, to me, is the point of college: To learn how to turn to your peers and collaborate with them, to build those social structures that will carry you through the rest of your career. I wish someone had pointed that out to me before I dropped out: There are plenty of ways to learn, many of them far more efficient than classrom + assignment.

You're not in college to learn, you're in college to build those social structures with the other peers who will progress with you through your career.
posted by straw at 4:37 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are some students that are simply exactly like this, and I find that they float into my circle of influence every couple of years or so. You could try to figure out whether this has to do with pedagogical concerns (on their part), or psychological (they are used to having their hands held and shoes tied for them), but I find there are a couple of responses that are helpful in all cases.

1. I try to indulge students just a little bit, even if they are lacking in some basic skills. I'll let them know that I can't hold their hands the whole way, but I'll spend time clarifying a few things that got missed, even if they should have caught it. This sets up good rapport with the student that can possibly translate into some tough-love if needed later.

2. If the first part doesn't resolve it, I set some clear boundaries regarding how long I can talk about something in follow-ups. I'll say, "We've talked about this in class, but I can give you about 5-10 minutes now." Anything beyond this and I say, "I would encourage you to talk to your fellow classmates to get more information. I have to make it to my next meeting now." Or, "You look like you are not grasping some basic fundamental study skills here that should be coming more quickly, so I would recommend that you spend some time in the tutoring lab on campus if you need to talk these issues through more. This truly is to your benefit, even if it's hard to hear."

I do think that part of our jobs as teachers is to be kind and helpful, and even gracious in the midst of some students just "not getting it"; but I also direct some of my comments from the belief that we don't do students favors by not giving them the tools to answer their own questions using outside resources. So it always comes with a heart of care for the student towards becoming self-sufficient, but for this to happen, you need to 1) know when to cut the line in a gracious way, and 2) have resources on hand that will actually allow students to become self-sufficient, if they avail themselves of it.

Be kind, be firm in a gracious way (finding ways to express this in the right way is worth the effort), and provide resources when you turn students away. I find that these things go very well together and translate into appreciation at the end of the day.

Good luck!
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:38 PM on March 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

See Ruthless Bunny's advice above--I like it because it details why he's screwed himself, as well as it provides a CYA for you. His failure is not your fault for going on maternity leave, it's HIS problem for not coming to class, doing the homework, being prepared, and focusing on the issues. He's supposed to be a big boy in big school now.

He can go to the writing center, find a classmate, or get a tutor. I doubt if he'll do any of those.
Most likely his energy will go into whining.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:47 PM on March 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

I actually do agree with the posters who are pointing out that students are less well prepared these days and that as intro instructors, for better or worse, it's our job to help them get caught up on these basic skills. I also agree that sometimes students are clueless because they genuinely don't understand what they're supposed to be doing. I go out of my way for my students and spend a lot of time outside of class helping them, because I know they need it. But there comes a point when "helping" becomes "bailing out."

The vibe I got from your question was that you had already been doing the things suggested upthread and that this guy has not been holding up his end despite your quite explicit instructions and your various attempts to help. One of two possibilities exists:

1) this guy is more severely underprepared than the rest of your students, in which case he needs to avail himself of services like the writing centre

2) he has been slacking, is now in a bind and wants you to bail him out.

You are on maternity leave. It sounds like you have extended appropriate amounts of help to your students who, yes, sound underprepared, like mine. The rest of them have done the work and are slowly but surely getting it. But there comes a time when you need to draw the line. I think you need to draw it here with this student, and not least because you're about to have a baby and you have told the students from the start this is the case. This guy's lack of planning probably doesn't come from a bad place, but I really, really don't think it is your problem at this point. There is underprepared and then there is "not even willing or able to access the remedial help available."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:53 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I missed your part saying that the student had already missed a significant amount of work, including class. My advice would detail my posture towards student in general, but with students who are simply not making the effort and not showing up and scrambling to not fail, I would actually cut the line a lot more quickly. Ruthless Bunny is right on.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:09 PM on March 10, 2014

Sometimes it is important to tell people "Everything is written out in the description of the assignment I gave to you on such and such date."

I don't know if students forget those papers exist, or anxiety themselves into over analyzing every single word until it no longer computes.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:14 PM on March 10, 2014

SpacemanStix said it better in both of his comments than I ever could. Yes, be empathetic, and suggest either the writing/tutoring center, or that he email you a specific draft or a specific question. Anything you don't like just respond "This is too broad for me to address in one email. Please work on [specific thing] and get back to me if you need help." Any more help than that, especially if it is needed due to his slacking, is beyond you, and this is FINE and NOT being "mean" or "unhelpful".

My SO, who is also a professor, likes to say, "You can't make corn grow by standing over it and pulling at the stalks." I like to keep that in mind when I have to deal with my own undergraduates.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:15 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

The kid's panicking and is probably under-confident and under-equipped - sounds just lost. (Even if he's "lazy", he's lost.) He probably thinks he's being proactive by emailing you. Other issues may be going on.

Definitely point him to the writing centre and other learning skills resources.

It would be a kindness if you also 1) told him what grade he would need to achieve on this paper and remaining work to obtain a passing grade in the course, and 2) offered an estimate of how many hours per week this might take a student who has not had the hiccups he seems to have had and 3) gave him a link to information from the registrar's office around the drop date (and academic and financial penalties). This is maybe above and beyond but he'll probably screw himself otherwise. eg:

"I am glad you have been communicating with me and seeking support. However, I think you may need more individualized help than I am able to offer. I would strongly suggest you seek assistance in approaching this assignment at the Writing Centre, which can be found on x web page. They can offer help with understanding and approaching the assignment [also - if you have a rubric, attach it so expectations are clear]. Staff there are very good at helping students on a one-to-one basis.

You should know that in order to achieve a passing grade (C) in this class, you will need to obtain a x on this paper. This ordinarily takes x hours per week; it may take some students take a bit more than that.

If it looks like this time commitment would be a problem, it might be worth considering taking the section next year and dropping the class. If you chose to do so, this would not be held against you. However, if you do not communicate this intention to the Registrar's Office by the drop deadline, you may experience penalties - please see ____ for drop dates and a description of penalties. These could include an F on your permanent transcript. So if you do opt to drop, it is in your interest to stay in communication with the Registrar's Office and to submit your [whatever, petition] before the deadline.

If there are nonacademic issues affecting your participation in the course, you should let me know, and may also want to seek the support of Counselling Services at _________ . They may also be able to advise you on next steps.

If you feel you would like to proceed with the course, I again urge you to make use of the Writing Centre. They are best placed to help you at this point. They are also very nice people, so you should not worry about making use of their assistance.

Best of luck,

posted by cotton dress sock at 5:46 PM on March 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

derp. if you do send something like that, obviously cut out the repetition - rushing, sorry.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:56 PM on March 10, 2014

4th Ruthless Bunny

This student is barely scraping by and is going to fail hard soon. Better your class now, which is easy to recover from (take again next semester) than screwing up a major interview or awesome internship later.
posted by flimflam at 6:01 PM on March 10, 2014

Nthing to just refer him to your school's writing center. The student tutors there get paid by the hour to deal with this crap -- you don't.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:05 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband teaches similar students and has had this come up - he says if the kid is such an outlier from the rest of the class, there's probably something more going on. He suggests meeting up with the student in person if possible because email is going to drag out and mask issues. A face-to-face by Skype or a phone call would be faster for you to deal with this. Also, he suggests referring the student specifically to a couple of other students who you know are ahead in the task and generally helpful.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:09 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

At the very least, you should be telling him that you cannot meet in person because due to baby, you may need to bail at any moment. Sheesh, dude. You cannot expect a hugely pregnant woman to be at your beck and call.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:25 PM on March 10, 2014

Ditto what sm1tten said.

I currently work in a writing center. When it comes to understanding the assignment, the staff typically looks to students to explain their assignments; students are experts on the class, not the center staff. Of course, I can't speak for the specifics of your writing center's practices or philosophy, but I'd suggest the recommendation for a writing center visit be accompanied by an explicit description of what they do in the center and what the student can expect. (Typically, that means 1. not remedial, 2. the staff will not write the paper for the student, and 3. the staff cannot give definitive answers about the expectations for any given assignment.)

I'd worry that, without a heads-up about how the center operates, sending the student to the center would just shift the burden of hand-holding to the writing center personnel, which won't be productive for anyone.
posted by xenization at 8:00 PM on March 10, 2014

he then emailed me a long list of potential articles he could read and asked me which ones he should pick and how to create a thesis from them.

Sorry to come back... this kid doesn't even know what he doesn't know. If writing centre staff are saying this is a bigger load than they normally handle, is there a way he could be reassigned to an appropriate class, perhaps after you speak with him in person and suss out what's really going on (and exclude mental health/personal/family issues)? I don't know if your institution offers something like this, but a number of universities in my area deliver academic upgrading/bridging programs covering the most-most basic academic skills; they're usually targeted towards mature students (e.g. those who haven't completed high school).

(Just a note: it might be a bit much to expect a boy/man just out of teenhood to appreciate the needs of a pregnant woman he may think of as "teacher", especially given what else you know about him so far. I know one or two fully grown men who struggle to work it out.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:01 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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