Wednesday, September 30, 2009


So yesterday was a first in my career.

A student left my office crying, and continued to cry while sitting in the first row in class.

I felt bad when it happened.

And it is certainly my fault in part.

Mostly though, I felt bad, because my reaction to said student, which I will describe below, felt super familiar. Like, maybe I react like that to the kids. Often. A reaction the likes of "JESUS CHRIST HOW COULD YOU BE SO INANE?" OR "COULD YOU POSSIBLY WASTE ANY MORE OF MY TIME??"

THAT is why I felt bad.

Like SHIT. Do I make my kids want to cry when they act like, well, like children?

Not specifically because he (yes, I said "he") was crying... But that, and the fact that this had never happened to me, certainly contributed.

So here's what happened.

This class is our department's intermediate microeconomic theory class. It ends up filling up with mostly seniors who, until now, didn't know they wanted to be econ majors and only just now decided to go ahead with it because, well, frankly, they only need two or three more classes.

So, already, you can see, that the courses are not exactly populated with forward thinkers or planners of any kind.

And, for those of you, kind readers, who are NOT recovering econ majors or the like, this class is (or should be) notoriously difficult. It (should) require the student to take (and use) a very basic amount of calculus, extensive algebra, and their noggin. Meaning: there should be problems that require higher level thinking that maybe, just maybe, builds on stuff they have learned in previous classes (!).

I know, I know. I expect too much.

We don't do this very well in our department. And by "this" I mean build a major. We end up being mainly a service to the college of business, offering introductory macro and micro classes to those business students who need the classes to fill in their general education requirements on the way to their accounting or finance certifications.

This is all to say that the students here don't really see economics as a viable major until they are well on their way out. And that is to say that whereas in other universities and colleges, students take these intermediate classes in their sophomore years and then can actually USE the material in their applied courses (like labor or international, for example).

So, I'm in a pickle from the beginning as to what to do with the class and how to pitch it to students who haven't taken a derivative or solved for a variable in three years.

So here we are, fall 2009.

The students have a problem set that WAS due last week, but because I'm a softy, I gave them an extra week.

Said kid comes into my office several times for help on this. I'm usually rushed, and so I'm sure I have an air about me that says something to the effect of, this better be important, even though I don't mean to, and he comes in my office hours so I should be available to him blah blah blah.

Anyway. Yesterday it dawns on me that maybe I should have a little rudimentary calculus tutorial for him (and the rest of them in, literally, the hour following my office hours). So I get into it. Really basic stuff like -- if f(x) = a + bX, then the derivative f'(x) is b. That sort of stuff.

So get this, I finish that up and he says something to the effect of, why are you waisting our time???

So I literally pause, and start in on attempting to describe my day to him. Any of you out there with kids and a commute gets exactly what I'm getting at here. I'm all dude, I have two kids and X amount of free time, and can't you see me eating my lunch (which consists of literally a piece of chicken left over from last night's dinner. No bread or lettuce or condiments or anything of the like because I didn't have time to pack it this morning because I was herding cattle trying to get myself and my daughter out of the house before 7 a.m. and, by the way, I think I turned in this class' textbook into the book drop at the library because I was so out of my mind, and rather than being particularly concerned about that, I'm more concerned about the added task on my list because I'll have to go to the library later this week to retrieve said textbook) right here in front of you because I literally have three classes in a row after this god-awful session of office hours and five minutes between classes??????

Okay, we move on.

We move on to DIRECTLY applying a problem FROM THE HOMEWORK set that looks EXACTLY like the one described above that he DIDN'T know how to take the derivative of MOMENTS before.

So then, we get to what is legitimately the hardest problem on the problem set (#4) which basically asks them to recall knowledge from previous classes and do a lot of detailed algebra.

I get going and get to a logical point to pause and check to see if they are with me.

He gets a little, what we say in our house, tone with the following comment: When you were doing this problem for me last week you got a COMPLETELY different answer than the one you just did.

I about explode.

Nine may as well have dumped soggy garbage over my newly handwashed floor.


I pause, then, trying not to be defensive, I look at his notes and compare to the work I had just done. I mean, dude, I can make a mistake. But what I find is this, the two "radically different" answers:

P* = (a-c)/(d+b) versus P* = -(c-a)/(b+d)

It's like the flip side of a coin, or looking at a word in a mirror. They're just the negatives of each other.

I must have sounded enormously frustrated as I (probably not very gently) pointed this out to him, possibly as though it were the most obvious thing in the world and, again, with an undertone of who-is-wasting-whose-time now sort of thing.

I paused again. Quickly reversed the problem so that it matched his notes and sent him on his way, only to find tears coming down his cheeks in class.


Catherine said...

Oh gawd. I used to employ college students and often had to fire them. Not usually a big deal, since they usually saw it coming too (you know, missing work 6 times in a row [I was a softie] because of partying too hard the night before, yadda yadda). But dude, I had one cry on me once too. And he was a dude. Totally threw me off. More power to you.

Jenn said...

Oh my. Oh my. I have such a hard time imagining someone leaving your office in tears. I mean, really? I did, however, brew up tears in my college econ prof's office, but for much different reasons than your silly boy did.

Stick to your guns, lady. Sometime you just gotta be the tough one. Good work.