Monday, February 5, 2007

No, Virginia, honesty *isn't* always the best policy

What do students hope to gain when they say to professors such things as, "To be perfectly honest, I'm not really interested in [your subject matter]; my main interest is [something completely different, usually very contemporary]. No offense." Seriously, what? Am I supposed to reward them for their honesty? Would they expect an equal reward for saying, "To be perfectly honest, I think your shoes are ugly. I prefer mine"?

And what am I supposed to say? What I really, really want to say is, "It's too bad you have such narrow tastes and a lack of curiosity about anything older than your lifetime." But what I usually say is, "That's OK -- it's not for everyone, and you can learn it without liking it." True enough. And at the end of the day, if they learn how to approach older texts and their scholarship, and realize that the novel or the short story and their conventions do not define all of literary history, then I've done my job.

But I also want to shake them and say, "Way to win friends and influence people, bozo!" Seriously. Are they going to say something similar on a job interview ("To be honest, I just need a job, and this will do, even though your business isn't really interesting to me")?! I mean, I would never hold this kind of comment against a particular student when I grade their work, but some others might, consciously or not. It's just not a particularly good life skill to insult the interests of people in a position of power over you. But as I've said many a time before here, students don't seem to get that college and all its experiences teach you more than the subject matter of the courses you take. I swear, next time a students says something like that to me, I *am* going to say, "That's really not a very politic thing to say -- here's why." I'll do it nicely, but they really need to get out of this habit of thinking that honesty is always going to be rewarded and commended.


jb said...

I actually did say something like that in a job interview once, and I actually got the job. But I cringe when I think of it (and it was pretty obvious, given the mismatch between the job and my resume, that I wasn't going into it for the professional experience).

Anyway--I think your proposed response is great. It'd be a service to the student(s), but, more importantly, it would feel really really good to say. Mind if I borrow it, should the occasion arise?

Ancrene Wiseass said...


I once had to tell an entire class of students that they were no longer allowed to complain to me about disliking the Middle Ages, because (1) it wasn't productive, (2) it wasn't my problem, (3) it was annoyingly similar to the behavior of children who decide they don't like broccoli without ever having tasted it, and (4) it was a waste of everyone's time.

Bev said...

How about the student who attempts to justify cheating on a quiz because "This course isn't relevant to my major; I would never cheat in a course that really mattered to me." I had a student say something very much like this---in writing! What do you say in response? "Um, yeah, sure, go ahead and cheat in my class since it really doesn't matter, and while you're at it why don't you plagiarize all the papers and send me bogus excuses?"

HeoCwaeth said...

Ooh! I have one.

"I mean, this is ENglish (derisive tones), I expected this class to be easy."

My response: "Whoops. It kind of sucks when you do that to yourself, doesn't it?"

k8 said...

In his/her blog last semester, one of my students remarked that s/he was shocked(!) that his/her english class (ours) had the most difficult readings(our class was part of a freshman interest group cluster).

Now, I expect gen. ed. course students to have interests beyond English, but I wouldn't expect the situation you described. At the very least, students needs to learn to address their interests (and the ways they might differ from the course itself) in a more tactful way. One approach: indicating primary area of interest while acknowledging that some aspect of said course is of interest or how it seems to connect in some way. Is that so difficult?

Murky Thoughts said...

I hear ya, and yet if you're right that they haven't hurt their grades with you, then you've little reason to doubt their savvy. They got your number, after all, and it takes a load off to be honest when you can. Keeps you fresh for the profs to whom you have to suck up. As to what they mean to convey, perhaps "I do respect you enough to care what you think of me, and this is to let you know it's nothing personal that I yawn through these lectures into which you put your heart and soul, and certainly it's not that I'm not sharp as a tack because--hey--I'm not even breaking a sweat here. Also, although your life's passion is just a monotonous parade of useless trivia, as far as I'm concerned, obviously I appreciate that tastes differ, or else how do I manage this respectful tone of voice and the absence of a sneer?" I think I might have met a student like that once.

Dr. Virago said...

MT -- The funny thing is, I think he thought he *was* sucking up. Or making a justifiable excuse for his not doing well on the first short assignment. Cuz, you know, their not liking something means we grade them easier. They're just "not into it."

Which brings me to Bev -- I wonder if said student will use his/her questionable ethics someday to justify cheating clients/customers/constituents who they don't really know and therefore don't have to be good to. "But I'm good to the people who matter to me!"

And K8 -- Yeah, I don't expect everyone to fall in love with medieval lit and to have other interests. But dudes, make connections! Or at least learn the difference between appreciating something intellectually and liking something emotionally. That's part of forming your aesthetic tastes. Btw, in this most recent case, the student was a creative writing major (they are often the most close-minded and often think that the "rules" they've been taught for "good" writing apply trans-historically) and when I asked him what he read for inspiration, he listed multiple SF writers.

That's right, he likes SF (and not just the hardcore science realists) and yet he thinks medieval lit has nothing to offer him.


What Now? said...

The last time I taught freshmen, I had a particular bunch who would groan aloud, put their heads on desk in apparent despair, and the like whenever I gave an assignment, we started a new reading, or whatever. One day early on I got tired of it and talked with them about the importance of *faking* enthusiasm when one doesn't actually have it, how this was an important skill that would get them far in life. So we did an impromptu exercise and went around the room, with each student having to express believable enthusiasm about something academic. "Wow, I really expect to get a lot out of this assignment!" and the like. It became a joke, of course, but one that I could refer to for the rest of the term whenever they wanted to start bitching and moaning about having to do actual work in a college course.

HeoCwaeth said...

I was thinking that I actually have done this, but in another way. There have been a few times that I've expressed *concern* because the topic covered in class was so far off my usual path that I might not be able to fully understand the nuances...etc.

Basically, this was "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, and I'm not sure I care yet" masquerading as a humility topos.

Hm. Maybe I'm a medievalist because I enjoy the new -for me- examples of rhetorical weaseling.

Dean Dad said...

Students aren't the only ones who do this. Many faculty seem to believe that tenure means never having to say you're sorry.