Offering a Way Forward: Saying “No” ConstructivelyPosted: October 11, 2012
I was a shockingly bad undergraduate student. I am rather ashamed of this, in hindsight, because it could have been the most dreadful squandering of the opportunities that had been made available to me. Fortunately, intervention at a later time allowed me to recover from this mis-step and I arrived at the lofty heights that you know now: a semi-anonymous blogger with logorrhoea, employed as a low level academic at a good University. 🙂
One of the experiences that sticks in my mind, and I believe I’ve mentioned it before, was a point when I was refused supplementary examination for a course. It was, to be honest, completely reasonable that my request was refused as I had achieved the lofty score of zero for that examination and, although I was sick on the day, I had done no work at all during that term. There is no argument that my request was anything other than a small part in my continuing quest to scrape by and do as little as possible. However, what I will address is what happened next.
I was in an academic’s office, I had scored zero on the exam and I had not done any work. If someone showed up in my office under those conditions, I’d at least ask “Why?” Ok, sure, you’re not getting a supp from me, because I’m not a soft touch by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t help feeling that I’m just not doing my job unless I work out what has gone on and whether I need to step in or refer you to someone else. This probably explains why I’m so prone to jumping up and down when people talk about bad students, as if this is a permanent and immutable condition, because while I completely accept that some students (a small group) will resist all efforts to bring them into a culture, I strongly believe that it is far more likely that little effort has been spent to try and recover these students in the first place.
Was the academic right to refuse my application? Yes, no argument, but the methodology sucked. No follow-up. No identification of problems. Did I learn from this? No, I didn’t. I distanced myself from the mark because I had expended no effort – this may sound familiar from my discussion of pedagogical luck from yesterday. The same self-destructive patterns played out until someone (a big group of someones actually) took enough interest in me to make me explain what I was doing, make me realise what I was doing and show me the way forward. (And, for the record, thank you to all my friends and my wife, Katrina, but I’d like to specifically note Cathy and Andrew, where poor Cathy had to basically help me focus while I tried to learn what being a real student was about. And thanks to KJM for suggesting that I start doing the new degree in the first place.)
The reason that this is back in my mind is that our Summer Research Scholarships are being advertised at the moment, where students come and work on a research project for 6 weeks over Summer with a small stipend. Competition for these scholarships is surprisingly fierce and I am lucky enough to be offering some interesting projects, both in networking and education research, that people find attractive. Most of the students who have applied for my support have had a level of interest and academic achievement that I can easily support them in what is a highly competitive environment (University ranking systems, not mine, I hasten to add). However, one of the applicants was not all that competitive, so I had to say that I really couldn’t support them in their application. Yet. But here are some ways to be ready for this next year. What was the problem for this year? How are you going at the moment? Ok, keep working on this and I look forward to seeing you come back to me next year, but here’s another suggestion.
The way of saying “No” is important, and I believe that this student can reach the required level, they’re just not there yet. So we discussed how they could improve their overall eligibility, including coming up with their own ideas to fit in with their thoughts on research, so that when they come back next year, they come back not only more eligible but with a strong idea of what they want to do with us. I expect to see this student back next year because I’ve done similar things before and, more often than not, the student comes back: purposeful, more focused and much, much more ready to undertake the kind of projects involved. I have already loosely allocated some resources in case the student does what I’ve suggested for improvement in the shorter term. Next time, I hope that I’m in a position where I must support this student’s application but I can only claim to have helped here if I’ve taken the time to think about what is going on and how I might be able to help.
In the spirit of charity, I must confess that I have no idea if the lecturer, who didn’t ask me about what I was up to, was just having a bad day or if my performance was so poor that he just decided that I was one of the small number who wasn’t ever going to come good. You can’t judge someone on a single event or interaction and it would be ridiculous to not admit to the human failing of the ‘bad day’. However, my overall experience, as a bad student, was that I was not worth wasting time on. I was not worth the risk. And, yet, no-one ever asked me if there was a reason for it or why I was doing it, or if there was something that I needed help with.
I’m happy to say that I believe that a culture like that is now, rightly, judged and found wanting. That people are far more likely to ask why and suggest how or who to see next. But it’s not universal. We may not always achieve universality, people are people and bad days are bad days, but the first step, for me, is looking at how we say “No.”