The HIghs and Lows of Teaching

What you will read here are the actual e-mails that went back and forth with one of my students. This particular student was in my thesis writing class as my advisee in addition to being in my Religions Born in the US class. I had her last semester for Social Problems in the US. The first part is in regard to her thesis and my having edited it before submission. I did not change language, grammar, or spelling, so all mistakes are part of our human nature when writing an e-mail.
 
Student:
Dear Professor James,
Thank you again for all your work.
I am so sorry for all the stupid typos! It must have taken you forever to correct all this I feel so bad.
April 15th will be here soon and part of your torture will end.
For the record, I have learnt a lot from your comments and corrections. Wish I had learnt from you from the beginning of University. My writing would be much better.
Only 28 days left and 1 chapter to go.
See you tomorrow,

Me:
I should have you speak to my journalism class. They think I am the devil incarnate.

Student:
I would talk to them. They should be glad to have you. I have had teachers at ELTE who demanded nothing, gave me 5s, but I learned nothing. That is not how it should be. This results in students becoming so lazy that they end up hating a teacher just because they have to do something. Even though your comments sometimes make me want to jump into the Danube I greatly appreciate them. There is always room for improvement and I strive to be the best I can be. You can motivate me and I am so thankful for that.

Student: after the thesis was submitted:
Dear Professor James,
Here is the very final version of my thesis.
I can’t believe that it is done!
I am so happy that you accepted me as your advisee and I got to work with you. I couldn’t have hoped for a better supervisor. You have helped me so much and I couldn’t have done this thesis without you!
Thanks for everything!!!

Me:
I have faith in you. I think you could have done it alone! But thank you…

Student:
Having someone believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself makes all the difference!

Me:

Bear that in mind for the exams. I continue to believe!

Student:
I have been thinking how to respond to this email for the past hours but still haven’t been able to come up with anything except for a huge thank you. You made me cry.. I am going to print this, put it in my notebook that I take everywhere, and every time I feel bad or sad I will look at to feel better.

Thank you so so so much. Really!!!

Student:
Dear Professor James,
I just found out that Professor X is going to be my opponent. 
Frightened does not even describe what I’m feeling right now.

Me:
Well, we both know you did an exceptional job. Reading a thesis can be subjective, so remember no matter what she says, we know you are 5 (A) quality.

Then she received her grade for her Religions Born in the US project. Things had a slight turn-around.

Student:
Dear Professor James,
Thanks for the feedback and the evaluation!

I was just thinking. Right now I am at -10 points in the course. We have still 3 classes – 6 points for participation plus 30 for the quizzes. I think there is no problem with my participation so I should have no problem with getting the total points. However, I stink at quizzes. Of course I will prepare for them but for some reason I always mess something up.

The questions are (in advance): Can I do anything else to still get a 5? I can do another essay (although I’m pretty sure you don’t want to read any more than you already have to) or whatever extra work you can give me. Grades don’t really matter to me, I just want to learn as much as possible, but having a 5 in your class is a prestige thing. I prepare the most for your classes; your courses are the ones worth taking at this university so I want to leave ELTE with not being just one of your average students.

With that said, I am going to try my best to ace those quizzes.

Me:
I have been thinking about this all day. I am still reading student papers and have 5 theses to read and grade still. I was supposed to write a book proposal for myself over 6 months ago, but never got to it. It has to be done by the middle of May or I stand to lose a great deal of money. Do I want anything else to read? NO WAY!

Confidentially, I had some talks with other class members about their performance, grades, and potential outcome with their grade. All of this reminded me of something that happened to me in my doctoral program. I took a course on Psychology of Education. I loved the instructor and the course. The only assignment for the entire semester was to write one 60 page research paper. I cannot remember what the topic was now, but I was so engaged with it that I knew I was doing my best work. This was still in the days of Windows 95, not even Windows 98. I didn’t have MS Word back then; the main program was called WordPerfect. About six times, during that semester, my computer crashed and each time, I lost all of the work I had done up to that point.

By some stroke of luck, I had backed up part of the psychology paper on a floppy disk. This was before USB ports or external drives. After I continued writing where I had left off, I printed the essay and turned it in. I was thrilled with the way it turned out and knew the professor would be just as excited with reading it as I was with writing it. When she returned the papers, she made nice little comments to each person as she handed them their paper. “Nice work on this” or “I really enjoyed your topic” or other things in this vein. When I received mine back, she just looked at me without a word. I received a B-. I was horrified and wanted to cry. As I looked through the essay there were red marks everywhere. I could not understand it at all.

When I took a closer look, I realized that the first part of this essay that I assumed was the latest version was an older unedited version. I had not bothered to reread it since the deadline was so close and I was so certain it was a good copy.

After class, I went to the professor and apologized for giving her substandard work. I offered her an explanation. She offered me the opportunity to rewrite it and turn it in again. At first I said, yes, I would like to do this. Then I changed my mind and said this has been an important lesson for me that I will never forget. As much as I don’t want that grade, it will be a constant reminder that I need to check, double check and if need be triple check my work before turning it in.

After all of this thinking about your grade today, someone posted this on Facebook. Not that you did not do the work, but I think this will be a lesson you will never forget.

Student:
Dear Professor James,
I just found out that Professor X gave me a 5 (A) for the thesis. I am beyond happy!! Thanks again. If this makes you 1/10 as happy as it makes me that would make me even more content.

Me:
Congratulations! I had a feeling… The last time she read one of my student’s thesis, she suggested it be published.
Does this now make up for you being upset with me about the potential Religion grade?

Student:
Thank you! I am very happy!! She had some minor remarks – she especially disliked the fact that I did not refer to myself as “I.” She said it was “awkward” 🙂 Oh, well. Overall, she said she really liked it.

Well, I won’t say that it makes up for it. I am so frustrated. I can’t even tell you. I have to be honest regarding the quizzes. I feel like no matter how much I study, I will never get a 100%. I worked my butt off and studied for the whole weekend and made two outlines for the 3 religions. I have a nice word document besides the highlighted texts. I wouldn’t say this is it weren’t true. I knew everything that was to know about them. I reread everything, did extra research and even found some online tests. I knew everything except whether only psychologists, anthropologists, or sociologists use the term cultural relativism. Also, I don’t know how to interpret when only half of a statement is true. If you say Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions for medical reasons only – this is partly true. They do refuse it for medical reasons as well but mainly for religious reasons.

I had the same problem with the quizzes last semester and I cannot tell you how frustrated and sad this makes me. If you asked what cultural relativism was or to write a short essay on any of the religions, asked to define any of the terms I could do it. I am 100% sure of that.

I know life isn’t fair but I just feel stupid. The fact that no matter how much work I put into it, I won’t get a better grade. I cannot help but feel like an idiot.

I don’t mind the studying and I am happy that I am so motivated (even though I know that I screwed up the last quiz as well) to learn. This is a great thing, really. I hope you know that I have learnt a lot and will continue to study this hard for the rest of the quizzes as well. I am not upset with you particularly. I am upset because I cannot seem to change anything regardless how much effort i put into it.

Your quizzes are my enemy, not you. You are a great teacher.

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