Beware the Charming Student

Your eyes met across the room on the first day of class.  He was conventionally attractive, tallish, probably an athlete.  His smile had that “I’m looking forward to your vote this November” sparkle, but in spite of his polished appearance, he had enough coltish awkwardness to make him seem approachable.  He came up to you to say how happy he was to be in your class and that’s he’s considering majoring in your field.   He looked alert and engaged the whole time you were talking, and even though his one comment wasn’t really apropos, he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.  When you went home that day, you carried with you the mixed sensations of excitement and trepidation.  This kid is either God’s Gift to teachers, or he is going to break your heart.  Probably the latter.

Fast Forward fifteen weeks, and this same kid has come right up to the edge of your attendance policy.  He has turned in work late (his team had an away game), and that work is C level.  He has made appointments with you and then “forgot,” full of apologies afterward.  He assures you that he is just having a really hard time transitioning to college, that he really likes your class but is struggling.  Won’t you please, please help him out?  Remember when you assured him that he still had a chance to get an A?  Did you mean it?

There is a particular kind of student.  I find he is usually, but not always, male, usually, but not always, white.  This is the student you meet once every few semesters (God help you if you have two in one class) who has always gotten good grades, not because they are excellent, hard working students, but because they are really, really good at playing the game.  This is the kid who knows how to get what he wants out of authority figures–grades he hasn’t earned–because he’s been doing it his entire life.

Here is what I think happens:  teenagers are, in the aggregate, sort of a motley bunch.  They sleep in your class, sometimes while drooling.  They refuse to make eye contact.  They mumble.  They try to text their friends when you think they are not looking.  In short, in a room full of average teens, the student who has mastered the nuances of adult etiquette really stands out and often looks like a much better student than he actually is.  We seem to be sort of programmed to equate social competence with competence in other areas of life.  I think this is why salesmen and politicians are so effective at hoodwinking us.  In short, this type of student is sort of a budding con-artist, even if he doesn’t realize it.

These students don’t usually understand the difference between working hard on the course work and working hard on you in order to get you to give him the grade he wants.  They are essentially the same thing to him.  This is the student who is most likely to use the language of personal betrayal if he doesn’t get an A and to say things like “I need an A to keep my scholarship/to get into medical school,” because they think their grade is reflective of the quality of your relationship, not the quality of his work.

How to deal with this type of student:

  • Do not, under any circumstances, no matter how much he looks at you with those puppy dog eyes and acts like the B- he just received is sending him spiraling into a major depression, reassure him that he can get in an A in your class.  I made this mistake my second year as a TA.  The student interpreted “it is still possible for you to get an A” as “I am going to give you an A.”  I’m not sure how his little mind made that leap, but it did, and it led to all sorts of late semester unpleasantness.  Say things like, “in order to get an A, you will have to do X, Y, and Z.  Make a list for him.  Preferably in writing.  And keep a copy for yourself.
  • ALWAYS speak in terms of what the student has to do, but NEVER make promises about what you will do (grade-wise) in return.
  • Be available but set boundaries.  Like I said, this is usually a student who wants to talk to you, because that’s the way he rolls.  You may be tempted to just ignore emails or refuse to meet outside your office hours.  I’ve known instructors who do that, and I think it’s their prerogative.  But sometimes going a little out of your way to be available prevents the student from taking on further ammo if they decide to go to your department chair.
  • Have a paper trail.  While actual litigation or formal grade challenges don’t always happen, it’s helpful to have a paper trail, especially if you are a teaching assistant.  That way you can go to your supervisor and show her the content of email exchanges, point to missed appointments, attendance records, your feedback on tests and papers, etc.  It also provides an effective way to argue with the student, if you have to.

The female incarnation of this student is, of  course, Alicia Silverstone’s character from Clueless.  There are no YouTube clips that I can embed here, so you may have to dig that movie out from under your Lisa Loeb CDs and re-watch it.  There is this montage in which Cher (Silverstone) goes to all of her high school teachers, charming the pants off of them and bargaining up her grades.  Then she goes to Wallace Shawn, her debate teacher, and he is the brick wall against which her perfect grade-grubbing record is dashed.  Your goal, when dealing with a student like this, is to channel Wallace Shawn (before he finds love and starts giving out better grades because he’s happy or some crap).  Be The Shawn.

I like to think that refusing to cede ground in these cases, that being fair but kind of a hardass teaches these kids A Valuable Lesson.  Of course, I don’t really know if that’s true, but giving in in these situations certainly doesn’t make your life any easier, and it definitely doesn’t make the lives of the future instructors this student will deal with easier.

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4 thoughts on “Beware the Charming Student

  1. Ye Gods, yes! THANK YOU for so adroitly describing this particular species of student… I was unfortunate enough to have *three* of them in a comp classroom this past spring. Further exasperating: all three had the “I’m a *really* hard worker don’t hold back on the tough comments on my paper I can take it, chief!” faux-Puritan work ethic going on.

    The best solution, I’ve found, is to pull out all the stops and be as grumpety-grump as possible the first few weeks of class: I dress like a Victorian mortician, lowball the first set of grades, and strictly adhere to my attendance/reading quiz policy. I still am fiercely dedicated to meeting with students and supporting their growth as writers (I love your post about multiple assignments/revisions, and I do something similar). But I also make myself out to be more prickly and iron-hearted than I actually am in order to discourage this sort of sparkle-eyed weaseling from students.

    1. Oh dear lord, THREE?!?!

      You are absolutely right about starting out the course as a hardass. If you start out that way and then show mercy later in the semester, you appear benevolent. If you try to go the other direction, and bring down the hammer of discipline after making nice nice for several weeks, then you’re tyrannical.

  2. Agree! When I was a student, this really attractive, friendly, “motivated” girl in a few of my classes always finagled her way to better grades then she had earned. After quizzes, we would compare answers and get the same number of questions wrong. I accepted responsibility and knew I had earned the grade I studied for, and would never consider nickeling and dimming points out of the instructor. She would make an appointment with the professor for “extra help.” She always, ALWAYS ended up with a letter grade higher than me at the end of the semester though we had similar performances in class. I hope instructors become wise to these socially (but not academically) adept students, so grading is fair and impartial the way it is supposed to be.

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