Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Something unusual happened yesterday. Something that cut me deeply, that I have been dealing with all day today.
The background is that at the college where I currently am an adjunct professor is approaching finals week. Yesterday was the last regularly scheduled regular lecture day. It’s the same course that I teach, but a different section with a different instructor. Their professor is out for the rest of the semester and asked me to fill in for him. He had completed the material and only asked that I review for their final exam next week.
And they stood me up.
For the first time in my career, I showed up and they had all decided to skip. Every single one of them. They left behind a “sacrificial lamb” to tell me that they were skipping, and decided to study in the library instead, and then that student left as well.
And me? I stayed in the classroom, alone, for the entire period ready to answer questions in case any of the decided to come back. They didn’t.
To me, that’s just rude. For the entire class to decide to just skip is frankly excessively hurtful. I don’t know what they decided to do instead, but me personally, I have my doctorate from an ivy league school, performed research with institutions such as Purdue, Princeton and Harvard, and depending on how you define it, I have at least twenty-five years of teaching experience. I had no agenda; I had planned on simply answering questions for as long as their questions held out or we ran out of time. Even students who had no specific questions didn’t even stay to listen in to what was being asked.
In essence, they simply dismissed me, my education and my experience. It had to have been a group decision; for one or two students to skip class is a matter of individual choice. This was a rebuke, and none of them had the courage to even tell me what the problem was. In a couple of days, they face a cumulative exam covering general, organic and biochemistry, with material they had not even seen in months on the table.
And I’m left wondering what the reason is. The real problem is that this hits a lot of old and open wounds for me. I’ve been ignored and dismissed my entire life, beginning with an unhealthy and dysfunctional family that insisted on absolute silence from me. I learned to play very quietly because if dad heard the slightest sound, he would become very angry and vocal about the noise. My mother would defend my father’s excessive outbursts claiming he had “sensitive hearing”, so I was left alone in my room afraid to make noise and feeling like I was never part of the family. This is where the emotional landmines began to be planted, and it only got worse.
In school, I never belonged. It was so bad, in fact, that in middle school a teacher even used me, by name, as an example of somebody not fitting in, and even concluded that I never will. I had few friends (one very good friend was my only saving grace), was never athletic, and never even dated.
Well, okay, I took a prostitute to prom.
As a professor, I’ve always felt like teaching was only part of my job. When I lecture, I try to cover material in a manner that I hope will reach a majority of the students, but no professor, no matter how good, can reach everybody all at once. With different teaching styles and different learning styles, invariably there will be students who don’t understand the approach the professor uses. These students have additional resources; the textbook provides the approach the author believes best, and nowadays there are a myriad of electronic resources available as well, but if a student is struggling and comes to me for help, I always take it as an essential part of my job to work with individual students. I try answering their questions and clarifying the lecture material using different approaches until I find one that sticks.
Now I am forced to consider that the problem might be with me. I have to say, though, that historically I’ve had students seek me out for additional help on a regular basis. My office hours would become so busy that I had students helping each other, and even had students sit in my office to do their homework so if they had a question I was right there. I never gave answers, but I would give hints to guide them in the correct direction.
So I don’t know. Is it me? Am I really that bad of a professor? Did they intend to insult me? How is it that students can be so rude, so inconsiderate, so thoughtless that an entire class just stands me up? Especially without having the nerve to talk with me about what they would like, or how I can help them better.
It’s this kind of thing that makes me think that maybe I no longer belong in academia. Meanwhile, I’ll doubtless spend the second sleepless night in a row contending with demons and the feelings that this has dredged up.