Dumb Students 7/2/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Through the years, I must have worked with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of students. Some of them hated me, and some loved me, some were great students, and some were problematic. I’m honestly not sure if I ever had many students that actually liked me, though. Basically, the students who wanted an easy “A” in what is considered to be the difficult subject of chemistry hated me as soon a they realized that I have actual standards, but those students who have discovered that I am willing to help my students be as successful as they want to be, putting in the same amount of work that they were, tended to love me. I’ve had students complain and begin campaigns to get me fired, and I’ve had students who warned me about those campaigns and did what they could to defend me.

Either way, I definitely had an impact.

The students that I love the most are the ones who break stereotypes, students who are supposed to be “dumb”. One of these students, for example, was a platinum blonde cheerleader, two stereotypes that put her in the “dumb” category. But the interesting thing is that she very intelligent. I enjoyed working with her and looked forward to seeing where she would go in her academic and professional career, especially with her self-confidence and outspokenness. She was poised to go far. Unfortunately, she did have one problem.

Like so many students, she was a heavy, and underage, drinker. Now, before you judge, I encourage you to think of your own drinking habits, or at the very least those that are common in our society and college in particular. I myself did not drink at that age (and still don’t today), but it’s unfortunately common. She posted a photo of herself on her social media page, which the Dean of Students saw and summarily dismissed her from the institution. I lost track of her eventually, but I really hope that she has fulfilled not only her desires, but her potential as well. If I knew she was happy today, well, it would please me immensely. She was a rough-cut gem in many senses of the word, but I know she also had a heart of gold.

Another of my students, one that I have, at least to some extent, kept in touch with was a football player. Again, his stereotype is dumb and brutish. He was definitely large and intimidating, but again, incredibly intelligent. He was already a junior by the time I started teaching. By his major, I was his de facto adviser and therefore had to find a capstone project for him. When I arrived at that institution (who’s attorneys have contacted me and asked me not to use the institution name, so let’s just call it, oh, I don’t know, let’s say FU) they had a lot of equipment in the lab, but few pieces that actually functioned. In the summer before classes began, I had managed to get most of the equipment up and running well enough for educational purposes but didn’t have time to optimize and tweak it. One of these pieces of equipment is called an Atomic Absorption Spectrometer. Do you like the colors in fireworks? This is because of metal ions in salts added to the explosives. An Atomic Absorption Spectrometer analyzes the colors of burning metal ions and can identify the metal as a result.

It’s the kind of equipment that is frankly too advanced for a small institution like FU, but frankly, FU has a lot of talented people and equipment that is far beyond what it should be for an institution of that size. So, FU is actually quite a nice institution that I would recommend, but you know…FU.

Anyway, this student was very interested in a project that utilizes this instrument. It was working, so as part of his capstone, I suggested he break down the instrument, clean it, calibrate it and see how much better he can make it. That day, he was in the lab for a very long time while I worked in my office. I kept waiting for an update and became increasingly concerned as time wore on. I decided to check on him and when I walked into the AAS room he had the entire instrument disassembled and spread out everywhere. I just shook my head and walked out.

By the end of the day, he had the instrument back together, and credit where credit is due, he had this FU instrument running within manufacturer’s specifications. He eventually went on to graduate school, switching his major to Microbiology. He was immediately accepted into the program without going through the admissions committee, and landed a graduate research assistantship when typically, a teaching assistantship is the first step followed by a position on a research team. Three years later, he went to his adviser and said he felt ready to earn his master’s degree, but his adviser disagreed. He asked my former student to give him one more year, and he would get his doctorate.

Both of these students, and so many more that I have had the honor with whom to work, have broken so many molds, broken stereotypes, and exploded onto the academic scene. These were lessons for me, and frankly for anybody who was paying attention, not to prejudge based on societal biases and stereotypes. I would like to think that I helped them along in their success even if only by giving them the room to spread their proverbial wings, but the credit is all theirs. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with them.

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