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post-finals postmortem

Your friendly neighborhood consultant is recovering from finals after a particularly rough Spring semester. My students this time around were ... noticeably "checked out," compared to other semesters I've taught –– and across all (3) classes, too.

I suppose it would be reasonable at this juncture to say, "Well, Dr. C, the common denominator here is you." But while this is at first glance a true statement, I think a truer one might be that I am a common denominator, not the common denominator –– and not necessarily the lowest.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the biggest challenge I faced, in each of the three classes I taught this term, was the seemingly universal sense among students that the instructions not only did not matter, in the sense that the decision to follow or ignore them carried no predictable outcome, but were actually meaningless, as if they supplied no information about the assignment in question.

I have, in the past, sometimes seen students believe that a professor (usually not this professor, thank God) was capricious in handing out grades and that their ultimate score was only loosely related to their performance on an assignment. But I have never before seen an entire class believe that the assignment instructions bore no relationship to what they were supposed to do (whether they were destined to be rewarded for actually doing it or not).

This semester I saw three of them.

And it wasn't because the students were exceptionally "bad" or "lazy" or even unmotivated. That would defy probability in any case, to account for three groups en masse, but it was in this case demonstrably untrue –– many of them cared about getting things right, and asked questions in order to do so ... but they showed absolutely no consciousness that the information they were seeking by asking me questions was, in fact, in the assignment instructions I had already distributed, or even that this was a normal and reasonable place to look for such data.

On several occasions very bright young people did not look for information about how to complete an assignment in its accompanying instructions, and showed no awareness of the document's contents. On several others, they opened the instructions, completed the first two or three steps, and then ... submitted their work, without continuing through the next few bullet points.

On the narrative essays, due in the first half of April, every student but one who submitted anything submitted a chunk of text undifferentiated into paragraphs; well over 3/4 of each class submitted under 150 words.

I update my assignments to some extent every semester ... but I've taught narrative essays before (as one might imagine after teaching Comp for all these years!), and in broadly similar ways; absent references to recent course readings for examples, the instructions were virtually indistinguishable from those I used a year ago and the ones posted on this site.

Here's a sample of the apparently mystifying guidelines:

Yeah, I'm not buying that a group of moderately-intelligent college students, as a group, can be wholly incapable of grasping "Tell a story; tell me the point of the story; tell me how the story proves the point."

The "kids" are absolutely capable of doing this work ... so why didn't they?

They weren't even timed assignments, and several students submitted them early; they weren't submitting in a panic as they got caught by the clock (usually the first thing I check when I see a flood of under-performing submissions).

To a person, they seemed to be ... baffled, but not surprised, each time I sent the work back asking them to submit a completed version.

My experience from other Tales From Teaching conversations has been that it's somewhere around this "I sent the essay back" point that lay people start to say, "Well, don't send it back next time; give them an F and go on." But while that would be, in at least some of these cases, "fair" –– in the sense that it would supply a not-unreasonable assessment of the work the students actually turned in –– I am not at all convinced that it would be useful, in the sense of helping them learn ... and I would think almost any educator would agree that the primary function of grading assignments is not to get them off my desk but to ensure that as many students as possible are making steady progress in their mastery of the skills their assignments are designed to teach and assess.

I don't know the answers, but I have some theories. Well, I have a theory.

The "rules" have not mattered, and the experts have not been trustworthy, in a DISTURBINGLY long time.

Anybody who entered college out of the U.S. secondary school system in the past couple of years has watched official "guidance" change umpteen times, with and without supporting data. That isn't unique to our national handling of the COVID-19 pandemic (there have been plenty of non-pandemic examples of administrative and authoritative malfeasance, incompetence, and general half-assery), but the pandemic has presented an inescapable case study, for which these students have had, often unwillingly, front row seats.

They've watched bars open while schools closed.

They've seen their parents get told to stay home while sick, but without any support for doing so.

They've walked past unmasked school administrators standing in front of "MASKS REQUIRED" signs.

They've been told to mask, and watched a saggy piece of fabric worn sagging below the chin count the same as an elastomeric respirator.

They've been admonished to wash their hands to avoid spreading a virus known to be primarily spread through breathing.

They are not too dumb to notice the discrepancies.

At a certain point, if you can neither bring what you see into alignment with what you are told nor do anything to set the record straight ... you probably give up expecting that record to have any relationship to reality.

The other option, probably, is going mad.

Statements, in my classroom, still have a direct correlation to the subject matter at hand. The assignment instructions really indicate what students should do along the path to completing their homework. My course policies actually reflect how I will respond to absences or late work or suspected plagiarism. My office hours really happen when I say they will.

But I can understand why, in 2022, students might not hold an internalized expectation that any of those things would be true.

And I don't know how to fix it, because I live in this world, too.


Jessica Smith
Jessica Smith
May 11, 2022

While people have no doubt experienced a mass loss of confidence in public-health experts and politicians over the last few years, I think you're stretching here. They might well not assume any connection between your instructions and actually knowing the subject (just like they may not see any connection between masking rules and infection rates), but they surely see the connection between following your instructions and gaining your approval (just as they presumably saw a connection between following 2019's mask mandates and not getting booted from public buildings).

Replying to

I think you meant 2020, but in any case they could not have seen any such relationship because nobody in Alabama in 2020 was getting booted from public buildings for refusing to wear a mask, despite the state mandate. I never went into a single public building that whole year that did not have at least one unmasked person wandering around unimpeded; quite often it was over fifty percent of the people present. And other than myself, I never heard anybody say a single word to any of them about it (not that it did me much good to speak up, either).

Most of my students are from small towns and rural areas within a few counties of UNA ––…


Having been a bit skeptical of experts for much of my life, I think probably I have not been as affected by the disillusionment with the guidance or misguidance regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I can see how it might have a very detrimental effect on younger people. Marry that with the worsening reports on climate degradation and increasing lack of veracity one can expect from the media, I can understand why they would just stop listening, feeling either that their ability to differentiate truth from fiction or improve circumstances is beyond their control. That said, not holding them accountable allows them to consider themselves correct in not persevering.

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