Thursday, December 09, 2010

Second Chances

This whole term, I have been gripped with the same angst as the person in here suffers.

There was a time, long long ago when I considered being a teacher. I loved the notion of being able to impart some form of “knowledge”, and of presenting myself as an empathetic counselor, who would rise above and beyond repeating words from a textbook and be a “reformer”, a “mentor” of some kind. The whole concept of understanding the psychology of students and guiding them before they take a wrong turn seemed to appeal to me. I always start with lofty ideas and idealistic dreams.

I reformed this ambition over the years - scratching off ideas, introducing revisions, reinventing career paths, putting down “inter-disciplines”, diverging into roads-less-traveled, and well, continuing to pave the roads that somehow lead me to the vicinity of what I initially planned on accomplishing. While I try to frustratedly explain this to confused people, who ask me, “So, what exactly are you doing? And what does it mean”, I have to admit, there are days when I do feel grateful that my destiny swung off course and saved me from becoming a teacher.

In all these years of graduate student life, I’ve had the “privilege” of being a Teaching Assistant and Full Time Instructor, for about 6 courses. Barring a couple of instances when I actually felt a surge of satisfaction at the end of the semester and swelled with the feeling that I really did make a ripple of a difference in somebody’s life, I’ve been left utterly exasperated and disappointed. I try to make light of it by reminding myself of the gang of buffoons and baboons that I was part of in my undergraduate days. But in a way, those callous and unprofessional professors seemed to deserve the hooligans. All those bright minds that never even tried to glance at assignments and projects and blatantly copied from the nerdy first-benchers, are now in respectable positions, doing great for themselves. And I don’t suspect that they have dilapidated moral foundations either. They seemed to know when and where to draw the line.

But somebody has to come along and push me to the edge. As a graduate student, I don’t demand “respect” in the classes I help teach. My enthusiasm corroded after a few courses. Now I do my duty and leave the rest to the students, without fretting or trying too hard to inspire. I have other pressing things to focus on than go out of my way and try to inspire kids who would just sneer at my earnest attempts, or so I tell myself. I choose to ignore people who yawn, sleep, update their Facebook profile, track football scores, give wise-ass retorts, or just stare at the wall disinterestedly. It’s their prerogative. In labs, I spell out the formula and will even help them plug it all into Excel, if they choose to ask me. I hover around computers, relentlessly spilling out “hints”. I mark in big bold red markers the concept that they have to apply for the assignment staring right in front of them. And yet, it appalls me, that some would still hand in a shoddy report. Fine. So, I grade by searching for a few words that convey the concept, give partial credits for even “thinking partially”, organize extra study sessions, and what do some people still resort to? Copying, cheating and proxy signing. And to put the bitter cherry on the icing, it happens to be an Indian who hopes to get away with all of the above.

I hate stereotyping, but this is quite typical of an Indian teenager who finishes his high-school in India and walks into a class here, thinking, “Chalta hai, like this girl is even going to notice all this.” He has better things to do, like skip lab, have someone proxy sign for him, skip classes, giggle at facebook profiles, complain about how “difficult” and “irrelevant” this course is, demand more points for an utterly wrong answer, quiz about class averages, and suggest that we curve the grades. He has the nerve to turn in one of the most easiest, middle-school-level assignments, by copy-pasting his friend’s graph that quite clearly doesn’t correspond to his results. Is a TA that dumb to not notice that the numbers don’t correspond on a bar graph? Sure enough, I dig out a suspected accomplice’s paper,  another Indian, and lo! there’s his graph.  Academic dishonesty in the US is taken very very seriously - the punishments are so severe and will cast a black-mark on the transcript and is sure to haunt for the rest of one’s life.

But I hate to be the person to bring him down. As my rage boiled over, I couldn’t ignore the thought of dozens of guys I know who engaged in such acts in their under-grad days. And I still hold them in good regards. This little graph seemed harmless in a bigger perspective, especially given the fact that he had completed the other parts, and just decided to be lazy to merely plug his results into Excel. He couldn’t spare those 5 minutes and lifted his friend’s graph. However, he had met the Lab’s objectives; the graph itself was just a superfluous extension. Proxy-signing, I brushed off and marked him absent. In the grand scheme of his grades, these two things would count less than 2% of his grade. And he carelessly, idiotically decided to take the risk when the benefits were so insignificant.

I rationalized and rationalized, and eventually decided to take off points that he did not deserve and confronted him with these issues over an email. I decided not to take this up with my professor, but warned him, and “berated” him for assuming that such things go unnoticed.

At home, I relate this to the husband and he fumes at my “innocence” and “benevolence”. No one cares that you give them a second-chance, he rails. People like him don’t learn through forgiveness, he says. He then issues this warning - the more you give in, the more you forgive, the more you will be taken for a ride and treated as a doormat by such people. In effect, he lectures that I’m not being a smart, intelligent woman in a cut-throat world.

We both come from our own episodes of hurt. He tries to shake me out of the compulsion to endlessly give people multiple chances, rationalizing their flaws and forgiving their mistakes with the hope that they will one day change. I know his rant towards me goes deeper than just this episode. But I struggle to change. 

This morning, the student apologizes and asks if he can still get partial credit if he redid the work. Before I was swayed to say yes, I typed out no. No matter how long a rope you give such people, they always push the envelope and ask for more. I would love to listen to what his moral conscience, if any, is saying. However, I try to remember this book, and tell myself what a small issue this is, and how much more effectively I could have handled it to help change his ways. I guess it's indeed better that I am not a teacher.


SecondSight said...

I believe in second chances in some instances too, though not sure I would have been as benevolent in this particular case !
In a more general sense, I wonder whether the benevolence is justified, or if we are failing to act as instruments of a greater common good? But at the end of the day, it is our own conscience we live with- not the husband's or the student's ;).

Karthik said...

I think I understand your frustration, for I can see my professor feel it as he lectures to students who're half asleep or are cluelessly blinking. And it annoys me too, for I keep thinking 'How can they waste this brilliant prof's time and energy when he is taking so much effort to pass on his piercing insights?'.I myself feel guilty meeting my prof when I dont have anything useful to report or if I dont have something to say that's worth his time. I guess too many students just fail to understand that their stint in academics will be about the last time someone will encourage and lend them a helding land to learn new things.

In my opinion, its good to give another person the benifit of doubt once.I think even if it results in disappointment, its better to err on the side of being a little nice. There will be at least a tiny number of cases where its worth it.

Neeraja said...

SecondSight, I honestly couldn't figure out what greater good I'd be serving by getting him severely punished in this case. I also believe in the - "Saama-Dhana-Bheda-Dhanda" approach. I always progress till the Bheda step and then hesitate, which in some cases definitely needs to be remedied.

Karthik, I'm no hallowed student to believe that they are wasting my time or my insights :). But surely my sympathies to all such profs, including mine. But it's nonetheless frustrating when people act up when there's no need.
Yep, I also believe in erring on the nice-side, always fearing that I'll hurt someone unfairly. But most times I err more than once and it comes back to bite me ;)