Coping With 'Oy Vey' Students

The days are still growing shorter and so are our tempers.

'Tis the season when all are fed up and stressed out. The academic semester winds up before it winds down, and the vast majority of us -- professors and students alike -- are feeling tired, overwhelmed and irritable. Holiday cheer will have to wait until after final exams are created, taken and graded. Sigh.

December 19, 2005

The days are still growing shorter and so are our tempers.

'Tis the season when all are fed up and stressed out. The academic semester winds up before it winds down, and the vast majority of us -- professors and students alike -- are feeling tired, overwhelmed and irritable. Holiday cheer will have to wait until after final exams are created, taken and graded. Sigh.

'Tis the season when the gap between the perceptions of faculty and students gape largest. Anxious students clamor for attention and dispensations. They experience their professors as cold and uncaring. Anxious professors wonder how they're ever going to get their own work done. Student attitudes seem overly entitled and demanding. Resentment flares on both sides, often because students don't realize how their requests are interpreted.

'Tis the season when the chasm between delightful and detestable students is at its greatest. There are many mature, polite, grateful, eager-to-learn students -- or most of us would leave the field -- but as the nights grow colder, the immature, rude and entitled students emerge from their dorm rooms and head towards our offices. As the holidays approach, the whining minority who clamor for special attention unfortunately eclipse those eager souls who love learning, show talent, work hard, express enthusiasm and evince creativity. Cursed be all undergrads requesting special treatment!

In 1906, Vilfredo Pareto, a Italian lecturer in economics at the University of Lausanne, noted that 20 percent of the people of Italy owned 80 percent of the property. Pareto's rule is most commonly noted today when time management experts point out that 80 percent of our productivity results from 20 percent of our effort. During the final gasp of each college term, Pareto's famous 80-20 rule becomes more extreme. And although the precise rewarding-to-annoying ratio of students appears to vary by institution, on average it seems as though 5 percent of our students cause 95 percent of our headaches.

How should we think about and deal with the obnoxious, yapping, vexing, entitled, yammering (OYVEY) minority? Despite my Irish Protestant heritage, I'll get a bit Yiddish and dub them our "Oy vey" students -- and they come in every ethnicity. For those of you fending off whining Oy vey undergrads (i.e., nearly every soul teaching this semester) here is a translation manual to help your students understand how you interpret their requests.

Translation Guide for Students

When a student says: Will that be on the test?
The professor hears: I could care less about learning. Grades are my sole concern.

When a student says: I missed the exam because I had to go to my grandmother's funeral.
The professor hears: I was too busy partying to study, so at the last minute I panicked and skipped the test.

When the student says: I have to miss class next week. What will be covered?
The professor hears: It's easier to ask teachers for special treatment than to read the syllabus.

When a student says: May I have an extension?
The professor hears: That ridiculous class rule that late papers get reduced grades shouldn't apply to me. After all, I'm the center of the solar system.

When the student says: I was sick last week. Did we cover anything important?
The professor hears: When I skipped class last week, did you cover anything I need to know for the final?  It's too much trouble to ask my nerdy classmates, and my friends don't pay attention.

When the student says: Can I still get a B?
The professor hears: I just realized that not doing any work all semester and getting a C minus on the mid-term paper might mean a low grade.

When the student says: What are your office hours?
The professor hears: I haven't even bothered to read your syllabus but I still want you to spoon feed me private tips that will get me a higher grade.

When a student says: There are personal reasons I haven't been doing well in your class this semester.
The professor hears: Maybe if I concoct a dramatic sob story for this dupe, I'll get special treatment.

When a student says: Can I do something for extra credit?
The professor hears: Even though I haven't cracked a book all semester I still deserve special dispensation and extra effort from my professors.

When a student says: I can't take the final exam when it is scheduled. Could I take it in January?
The professor hears: I talked my parents into leaving early for our ski trip to Aspen, and if I postpone the test until after the break, my friends will tell me what to study.

When a student says: Plagiarism? But I promise that I hadn't even seen the Web site when I wrote my paper. It's a totally random coincidence. I promise.
The professor hears: Busted!  And I can't believe that this dinosaur knows how to do a Google search.

When a student says: Cheat? Me? But I swear I didn't do it. You're not going to give me a zero are you?
The professor hears: Even when I'm busted, normal punishments should be rescinded because I'm the center of the universe. Better try to lie my way out of this one.

When a student is unable to talk because of choking back tears....
The professor thinks: Damnation. Gotta make another call to Counseling and Psychological Services. Hope the meds kick in quickly.

I'm sure that anyone who has taught for more than a single semester can add dozens of items to this list.  (And I look forward to chortling over your additional translations in the IHE comment section.)

There are certain Oy-vey themes that recur endlessly. How many questions are you asked that are clearly answered in the syllabus you handed out the first day of class and posted on your web site? How many of your students make comments over the course of the semester definitively indicating that their only concern with your class is their final grade?  How many students find implausible excuses for their late papers? Isn't it amazing how many relatives die at the end of each semester?    

We can all kvetch and commiserate about entitled students, but what should we do to manage their demands? Once you've copied and handed out this translation sheet to your students, what should you do next?

To begin with advice that I hate hearing: Don't take it personally. Start by realizing that the Oy-vey students honestly don't think about how their requests impact you. It hasn't occurred to them that when they ask you for a makeup test they are asking you to double your time crafting fair but challenging test items. They haven't paused to think that when they ask you to cover material they've missed in class, or provide handouts they've lost, or meet with you outside of office hours, they are asking you to do extra work to make up for their irresponsibility. It hasn't crossed their minds when they e-mail you at midnight asking "please-answer-me-immediately" questions about the paper due the next morning that you may not even be awake, much less concerned about their all-nighter angst. They never considered that they might spoil your much-needed vacation by handing in late papers. Most important, they haven't realized that consideration, common sense and initiative are much more important to success than native intelligence.

Usually, the off-putting requests of Oy-vey students are not intended as a personal slight: they're just not thinking about you. They are the centers of their universes, and all other people revolve around them. After all, most of them (hopefully) have been near the epicenter of their parents' concerns for more than 18 years.

Our job as teachers is to gently let these students know that egocentricity can be self-destructive. This is not an easy task, because most normal college-age kids don't know that they can self-destruct. They don't even know that they can die.  Why else do they jaywalk in front of still-moving automobiles?  Why else do they swerve their SUVs in front of us on busy highways?

As professors, we gently nudge our students toward the realizations that they are mortal and that the moon and stars do not revolve around their desires. We teach them about the wider world through the content of our classes. We teach them about self-control and persistence with the work we assign. We may also teach them that inconsiderate behaviors have negative consequences. This is why many professors lower grades for every day a paper is late. This is why some professors will answer a student's ringing cell phone if the student hasn't followed the stated policy of turning it off before class begins. This is why many professors assign points for class participation and include penalties for students who miss or come late to classes.
I believe that we serve our students well when we respectfully remind them of -- or teach them -- manners: especially through our own actions and interactions. It is ideal, I believe, if we impart these lessons in etiquette with grace, kindness and good humor. It is not always easy to maintain composure and respond with generosity when faced with bad-mannered students -- but we can try.

As authority figures, we automatically are role models -- and models not just of intellectual prowess, but also of attitudes and habits. We are -- like it or not -- in positions of authority vis a vis our students. Given that, the stance of a benevolent dictator is a reasonable posture to assume. An "eye for an eye" is an inappropriate strategy for those who wield power.

Part of our mission, I believe, is to demonstrate maturity, respect and empathy. Hopefully, students will internalize and assume a similar mien over time. Politeness rules. Despite my sardonic translation sheet, I do believe that we teach most effectively when we are consistently considerate of our students  I believe that we can profess most powerfully when we  keep in mind that students may be learning far more from us than the scholarly content of our class lessons..

When we start to lose our tempers and respond snidely to Oy-vey students, perhaps this quote by Albert Schweitzer is apt: "Only those who respect others can be of real use to them."

(And yes, this will be on the test.)


Mary McKinney is a clinical psychologist and career coach whose practice focuses on academics.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top