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Here we are, in spring semester 2021. It’s the second semester of fully remote learning, thanks to living in the time of COVID. I miss in-person interaction with my students, but I also find myself missing the myriad ways over the years that they have annoyed me.
That’s right: sometimes my students annoy me. I love teaching writing and I love my students, but I’m only human and sometimes those very same students can be frustrating, exasperating and just plain annoying.
I have been annoyed when my students drop my class because their grade at midterm is a C -- or even a B! Despite midterm conferences in which I encourage struggling students and help them to strategize a plan to improve their grades over the remainder of the course, they withdraw anyway. “It’s about my GPA,” they say. Or “My dad will be mad if I don’t get an A.” Or “My future will be ruined if I don’t get all A’s.” I can’t compete with the (sometimes) unrealistic expectations they place on themselves -- or that other people have placed on them. I feel frustrated by their choice to withdraw from the class.
If they don’t withdraw, they obsess over their assignment grades instead of over the writing process. They fret about how many points an assignment is worth or what percentage of their overall grade each assignment represents. Despite my efforts to redirect their passion away from grading and toward the writing process, I lose that battle almost every time.
When they’re not obsessing over assignment grades, they’re obsessing over competing against their peers instead of growing as academic writers. They rarely think about the writers they were the previous year, or even at the start of the semester -- nor do they consider how their writing skills have evolved. So they reject my explanations that writing is recursive, often looking at me as if I just announced that I hate puppies and sunshine. Their refusal to envision writing as something other than a course that needs to be checked off on their degree plan annoys me.
Oh, and Diary, if you think that’s bad, it’s even worse when their first question following my detailed review of a well-crafted assignment is, “How long does it have to be?” For them, the assignment is an item on their homework to-do list, not a journey of discovery, of finding their own voice or appreciating that their writing contributes to an ongoing conversation.
My students annoy me when they don’t read my feedback on their draft writing. Yes, Diary, I know research concludes they often don’t do this, so I’m aware this phenomenon is not unique to my students. Sometimes they even say they didn’t know I left feedback on their drafts, despite my announcements to the contrary, leaving me feeling that my time and efforts are wasted.
Speaking of wasted time, my students annoy me when they don’t take advantage of my office hours -- even the online ones. Too often, they do so only late in the semester when they (finally) recognize they’re likely to fail the course. They tell me sad stories about their struggles and ask me for extra credit. Sometimes they cry. Funny how those tears dry quickly and their voices rise in anger when I appear to be unmoved by their plight. The attempt to manipulate me is also annoying.
While I’m on a roll here, Diary, my students annoy me when they don’t read the syllabus. (“What’s the homework?” “Where’s the computer lab?”) Try as I might to encourage them to be responsible consumers of information about the class, they often fail to be.
Finally, my students annoy me when they decline to participate in our classroom community. They say things such as, “I don’t want to make friends” or “I’m terrible with names” as excuses that only alienate them from their classmates and from me. I work hard to cultivate community, and when they refuse to respond, I feel that I failed to do that and, worse, failed to demonstrate the importance of each individual who makes up the whole of the class.
Truth is, Diary, my remote-learning students these past two semesters still drop the course if they think their grades are not high enough. They still obsess over their assignment grades and competing with their peers. They still consider assignments to be items to cross off their to-do lists, ask disappointing questions about those assignments, ignore my feedback on their draft writing and don’t come to my online office hours or read the syllabus. (They do, however, care about creating community in the virtual classroom space, so that’s a win in my book.)
The more important truth is, in COVID times, these things don’t annoy me anymore. I find myself no longer caring as much about these annoyances that I used to spend mental time and energy on. They have become small concerns. Even due dates and late-work penalties have less relevance than they once did. Yes, I still care about the students’ experience of my class and its content. I still care about their growth as writers and as members of the class and university communities. I still want them to be responsible consumers of information.
But I care more about whether my students are sick or caring for a sick family member. I care about whether they have consistent access to reliable technology. I care about how they are coping with the loneliness and anxiety that accompany continued lockdown, quarantine and social distancing mandates. For my international students, who already experience the stress of pursuing higher education in the United States and navigating an unfamiliar language and culture, I care about how the public health measures have exacerbated their feelings of homesickness and isolation. For all my students, I care about their emotional, mental and physical wellness -- whether they are eating nutritious foods, sleeping soundly, breathing fresh air and exercising. I care about helping them navigate what is, for some, an unfamiliar LMS and mode of instruction. I care about whether they can even afford to remain in college, given the financial havoc wreaked by the economic and educational shutdown.
I think that as long as I care more about their physical, mental and emotional needs over how they approach their own academic needs, I cannot possibly feel annoyed by my students. I seem to have found a well of patience that runs deeper than the one I drew from pre-COVID. Although I am still aware of and operating somewhat upon the teacher-student connection in my interactions with my students, now that we are meeting in a virtual classroom, those interactions have been driven primarily by the human-to-human connection. For months, I have found myself wondering if, in fact, my students will ever annoy me again.
I’m pleased to say yes, they will! They already have. Last week, I posted an announcement in the LMS with information specific to the class’s current writing project. One day later, a student messaged me to ask a question that was answered in the previous day’s announcement. I admit it, Diary, I felt annoyed. For the first time in a year, I felt annoyed with a student. It was a fleeting feeling, but it was very present.
That feeling reassured me that I haven’t become perfect during the COVID era. It reminded me that teaching is difficult, our students don’t always pay attention to us and patience is a commodity that needs to be regularly replenished. Feeling annoyed, however briefly, is a sign that one day Pandemic Times will be over. My students and I will be together in the same classroom again, reading, talking, writing, drafting and responding. In spite of my best efforts, some of the students will continue to resist, obsess, ignore and decline … and that will annoy me, blissfully so.