Wednesday, December 6, 2006

"Hi, I'm Britney's Mom."

As a department chair, I occasionally get phone calls or emails from irate parents when their special little genius hasn't received enough love and attention from one of my professors. Usually I go through the FERPA dance, letting them know that unless their special little genius has cleared me to do so, I really can't comment on the his/her progress. (Surprising how many students when asked for this say, "OH MY GOD, NO!")

Anyway, yesterday I had a rare occasion to have inside knowledge of the student and the class in question when Britney's mom called up. Britney is in a class in my department that I happen to have taught for 5 weeks during the semester. The regular instructor had a baby with some minor but involving complications so I spent more than a month with Britney. I can quite comfortably say that I've never seen a lazier student. She never appeared in class on time. Never brought a book. Begged and borrowed paper and pens whenever I'd ask them to (SIGH!) write something down, or (SIGH!) take a quiz, or (DOUBLE SIGH!) write an answer to a question in class.

There was never a moment during those 5 weeks when Britney wasn't angling to get out of class (SIGH!) early, be excused to go to the bathroom (PAINED EXPRESSION, but JUST GO ALREADY), and there was never an instruction or suggestion I gave that she didn't inquire about by saying, "Do we HAVE to (SIGH!) do this?"

I even had occasion to meet with Britney in my office once as students presented topics for a paper they were writing. She arrived 20 minutes late, brought no notes or secondary texts (clear requirements for the conference), and instead of talking about her essay, all she did was complain about how hard the class was. "It's so hard," she said. I asked her what was hard, and she said, "EVERY (SIGH!) THING!" When I asked her how she was progressing in other classes, if the workload was lighter there, she said, "Everything is so hard. I can't even make myself go to class most days. I've, like, missed 10 classes in Econ, and maybe 10 in my English class. I just like drawing. I go to all of my Art classes."

So when Britney's mom called, it was Twilight Zone time. She went on at length about her gifted and hard working daughter, about how all her high school teachers loved her, about her work ethic, her love of learning, etc. Britney won the science fair the past two years. She had an inquisitive and active mind and so on. She spent several minutes describing someone who just wasn't the Britney I knew.

I was so tempted to let the floodgates loose, to let the mother know what an outsider sees on this topic, but of course my hands were tied. When I wouldn't talk about the student, Britney's mom became irate, telling me that the professor's salary (and mine) were paid by her. There was good money coming my way on behalf of Britney, and who were we to "dash Britney's dreams" of being a doctor (!!!!!).

I gave Britney's mom our Dean's office phone number and then composed a quick note for the Dean to get him ready.

Is there anything that can be done to reveal what a student's real college experience, dreams, goals, etc. are when parents clearly don't know them?