Monday, November 08, 2010

Don't Ask Me

A colleague and I typically teach each other's classes 1-3 times each term when the other is traveling. Although it can be strange to drop into someone's class for a lecture or three, it can also be fun. Sometimes.

During my last substitution experience, it was just my luck that I also had to return an exam. The graduate student who was originally assigned to be a grader and assistant for this large class had been fired from that position recently, so I was on my own. I decided to return the exams at the end of class, stopping my lecture a bit early to allow time for the chaos of returning exams to a large class. Before returning the exams, I told the students to talk to Professor X if they had any questions about their exams. In fact, Professor X had told them in the previous class that they should direct all question to him, the professor of the class, and not to me, the substitute who was just filling in for the next class.

When the exams were handed back, one student approached me, exam in hand.

Student: I have a question about how I was graded on question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that.

Student: But I just want to know why I lost points on question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that. I haven't even looked at the exam.

Student: But I just have this one question.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X your question. I did not grade the exam. I have not looked at the exam. I cannot answer your question.

Student: But my question is about [TOPIC], which I wrote about in question #9.

Me: You will have to ask Professor X about that.

Student: I just want to know about this question (starts reading aloud his answer to question #9).

Me: What part of "You will have to ask Professor X" don't you understand?

OK, I did not really say that. Let me try again.

Me: Maybe if you were a better listener, you wouldn't have gotten such a low grade on the exam.

No, I didn't say that either. I was, however, reminded of a time, years ago, when I used to dog-sit for a friend of mine. When she and her family were out of town for short trips, I would stay overnight at her house and take care of her dogs. My cats, who had to spend the night at our house without me, were very mature about this, and I enjoyed having some dog-time.

One of the dogs was very young and energetic. I spent a lot of time playing fetch with this dog, and she was always disappointed when I stopped throwing her favorite ball; she never wanted to stop. One day, I decided that I was going to play fetch until the dog got tired of it. I wanted to find her limit; I was going to wear that dog out if it took all night. We played fetch for more than 4 hours without stopping, and then I gave up. She was sad when we stopped, and kept dropping the ball at my feet and looking at me beseechingly. Wouldn't I just throw it a few or a thousand more times?

I was reminded of this because, when this student kept repeating his question, I decided to wear him down. I wanted to make him give up asking me this same question over and over. And I was curious: How many times could he ask this question, despite my repeated insistence that I was not going to answer his question? Who would give in first?

Pop quiz!

The correct answers to the questions above are:

a. 11 times, FSP gave in first
b. 11 times, student gave in first
c. Why are you so competitive with puppies and students?
d. Why do you hate men and dogs so much?

This student was extremely annoying and seemed to lack certain listening/comprehension skills, but perhaps his persistence will be useful to him in some career?


Klaas said...

Could it be that your student is now a technical equipment sales rep in my area?

Matthias Gallé said...

Humans are said to be more intelligent than dogs (and cats if it matters...)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I am curious if there was perhaps a cultural dissonance component to your experience. I have had similar experiences with students seeking my participation on qualifying exam or PhD thesis committees.

I receive a long-winded e-mail from the student going on and on about my esteemed expertise and how valuable it would be and what an honor it would be to have me blah, blah, blah. I look at my schedule and decide I can't take it on, so I write back, "No, I won't be able to do this, due to workload constraints."

And this is apparently perceived by the student as only the starting point for a negotiation, and leads to even longer-winded e-mails about how esteemed my expertise is and how it will be so crucial to the student's professional and scientific development and we can work the scheduling around my needs and blah, blah, blah. And I reply, "No, like I already said, I won't be able to participate". And more e-mails come about how it won't really be that much time on my part and blah, esteemed expertise, blah. Eventually they do just peter out.

This kind of scenario only transpires with students from certain countries, and makes me wonder if in those countries "No" generally does just typically serve as the beginning of a negotiation, and not a final outcome.

Dr. B said...

That is really funny! I'm going to go with b... and I hope that's the right answer because I'm willing to stand here and ask about it all day! Luckily I never had to give back someone else's test... it was bad enough with my own!

Anonymous said...

e. Why do you hate men and CATS so much?!!!

Poor cats. You probably hate pistachio ice cream, too.

C said...


Love the dog story!

A student once asked me if I would do something for him (something not part of my duties). I replied "No, sorry, I don't have time to do that." He asked again (in a slightly puppy-dog way), and I replied "no", repeating this all the way down the corridor until I got in my office and shut the door.

I said "no" 14 times to this student.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm going with a and i am guessing that the student had aspirations to attend medical school or some other similarly competitive post-graduate program.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to guess A.

I'm also going to guess that this student probably used this same tactic on the professor of the class to convince the professor to get points back on the question. (I know I've had students try this on me.)

Jean Grey said...

Ah...choice D...thanks for starting my Monday morning with a good laugh. :)

Real answer: B

Tiger Mom PhD said...

@Klaas, I was going to say a customer service person for my Internet company!

The student sounds really persistent and you don't have all the time in the world on your hands so my guess is "a"

M. S. AtKisson said...

To quote an old friend, "There is such a thing as a stupid question. It is the one you ask for the third time, hoping the answer will change.

M. S. AtKisson said...

To quote an old friend, "There is such a thing as a stupid question. It is the one you ask for the third time, hoping the answer will change.

Patchi said...

I am facing the same problem with my toddler... I even bought him a book called "Why should I listen".

I would definitely not have lasted 11 times, by the 4th I would say something like "aren't you late for your next class?" or that I was. I guess you can't send college students to "time out" until they are ready to listen...

Anonymous said...

I *knew* you were a dog hater (it goes with the man-hating, no?)

I hope it was B. But, if it was A, I do think that he has a future in some career where rejection is common and accepted (sales, someone mentioned. politics?

SoloGen said...

Was the student a freshman or alike? Maybe the problem is the way a student sees the job of a professor: someone who knows everything about all his/her university-related concerns. So to him/her, you are the same as your other colleague - as all bartenders are the same.

I think many kids have similar perception of the world when they are in the primary school. When do they understand the concept of specialization in the work? I don't know, but maybe a bit late! (;

Alex said...

When somebody keeps asking me essentially the same question over and over, I give my answer and follow it with "I can repeat this as many times as you deem necessary."

What always gets me is the students in my class who want me to fix their grade right then and there. I try to explain that no matter how wronged they were, the only fix that matters is the one I apply when I'm in my office in front of my grades spreadsheet, so they should come to my office if they are seeking amends.

Female Science Professor said...

There were no apparently cultural aspects to this interact. The student was a Caucasian male, native English-speaker. I have no idea whether he was a first year or nth year student.

Anonymous said...

@ Klaas

ROFL! Could it be that we have the same sales rep?

Anonymous said...


I have 2 dogs who like to fetch, one tore his MCL before stopping and the other will tear the pads off her feet and never give in.

Candid Engineer said...

D, but only because I love unexpected humor.

Anonymous said...

you're pretty stubborn, i think it's b. :)

Anonymous said...

My bet - 11 times and you gave in first.

Listening seems to be such an issue with students. I can't believe how much time I'll spend explaining what's due on an assignment - only to have students ask me 5 minutes later "what's due next week?". Maybe it's always been this way but I remember writing things down in college - you know things my prof told me. I have honestly had to tell them to get out paper and pen and write the assignment down (it's a sophomore/junior class). Has college just become highschool+?

Anonymous said...

It could be some kind of neurological damage -- I know it sounds extreme, but I once mentioned I'd missed class for a medical procedure (in a 20 student class). A student asked me what it was, and I said I didn't want to go into details. He asked me three times, until the other students told him to shut up; it was so obnoxious..... but then I found out later that he had been in a bicycle accident a year earlier, and could not read a lot of social cues. I ended up feeling so bad for him ....

Anonymous said...

I suspect it's an issue akin to pitting your parents against each other. The student probably feels okay with asking you the question, because it's not *really* a grading thing, it's an issue of Dr. SoAndSo not understanding the student's description of how Science works. And if he can get someone else on his side confirming that his method of Science works, *then* it will be a grading thing, and he'll totally speak to Dr. SoAndSo about that, making sure to mention that you agreed. :)

Female Science Professor said...

Answer Key:


Nicole said...

My students this semester are really really squirrelly in one of my classes... what would have happened in that case is that ask #3 a bunch of other students would have said, "Dude, she ALREADY SAID X, so SHUT UP"

I know this because it has happened many times this semester.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

@Nicole: What rude, intolerant students you have!

Do you know where I can get some?

NatC said...

Love it! I'm guessing it was a., just because I've had too much experience with puppies to think that any comparable being would give up so easily.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious 1) why the TA got fired - never heard of such a thing in the middle of a semester for a large class-must have been pretty major offense 2) how did you manage to hand back the exams to a large class when you didn't know anyone without the process taking forever?

Also, a bit off topic (except it's about clueless students) what is your opinion of students swearing within earshot of instructors? I am a TA for a large class and today, before class started, a student sitting right next to me said loudly to another student a few seats to my other side that the term paper was worth "a shit-ton" of credits toward their grades. I felt oddly annoyed, not sure why.

Anonymous said...

I had a very similar experience. I subbed for a fellow TA in week 2 of the lab. All students had to be there week 1 or else they were dropped from the class. Real TA is male with beard, glasses and earrings. I am female, no beard, no glasses, and no earrings.

Student comes up to me post lecture to explain why he didn't email me the data for the assignment due that day and wanting to know how he could get credit.

Me: I didn't discuss the assignment with Real TA. His wife is in the hospital. You'll have to speak with him.

Stu: But I didn't email you the data. Can I email you later and get credit?

Me: I know you didn't email me the assignment. I am not your TA. You need to discuss this with Real TA.

Stu: But can I email my data later and get credit?

Me: No. You don't have my email address. I am not your TA. Email Real TA.

Stu: But...

Me: Were you in class last week?

Stu: Yes.

Me: You should recognize that I am not the same person that taught you last week. I am not Real TA. I am not male. I do not have a beard. Do you remember your TA?

Stu: No. So, I can email you my data?

Me (looking at Stu's group): Can one of you explain this to him?

I am glad I wasn't his TA.

Doctor Pion said...

"Can I have your name?"

Student Snowflake.

"Thanks. I'll be sure to tell Prof. X that you had a question about problem 9 but didn't pay attention when you were told not to ask me any questions about the exam."


"Because if you were my student, I'd want to know. I'd take off one additional point for annoying a substitute by failing to follow directions."

Student exits right, to nearest bar.

Anonymous said...

I like the ones that think you're omniscient. I was subbing in my wife's class last week, and one of the students looks at me and asks:

"What's the answer to number 5"

Me: "I don't know. What?"

Student "Number five... right here."

Me:"what's it about?"

Student "Number five."

At this point, I start to feel like I'm talking to Yoko Ono.

Me:"No, what is question number five asking?"

Student, turning book around "Here!"

They don't realize that our approach to understanding the material is NOT memorizing the specific questions and their answers, but internalizing the concepts that enable us to solve them.

jersey said...

Your patience is amazing, FSP. As a young FSP, I would have stopped them on #3. Are you more patient now than you were? My students are good at boxing me into corners (I have a small class and there is often discussion).

Anonymous said...

Future career: Car salesman!
(Credit that to my husband, also a professor. Had to share this column with him!)

Female Science Professor said...

I am not usually willing to see these conversations to the bitter end. I guess I was just in a strange mood at that moment and curious about what would happen.

Bagelsan said...

I'm curious 1) why the TA got fired - never heard of such a thing in the middle of a semester for a large class-must have been pretty major offense

Perhaps he or she stabbed the last student who tried to ask the same question 11 times in a row? :D

Female Science Professor said...

I don't know the details (IT'S NOT MY CLASS), but apparently the grad student was unable to grade in a correct, consistent, and fair way, even when given an answer key, resulting in chaos in this large class.

Jenn said...

I am delighted to have found this blog, even though I'm in a much "softer" field...

My response, a variation on one of my favorite "please get out of my face and use your own grey matter" techniques, would have been to look sagely at the student and say, "Take the test home. Examine the question overnight. If you still have not figured it out by the next class, come fully prepared to defend your answer and why it should not have been marked as incorrect, to your regular professor."

(I like Doctor Pion's though!)