Indestructible Student Relationships

Shari Wilson wonders why so many of the couples and friendships she sees involve one member being dragged down academically.

August 22, 2005

par-a-site n. 1. An often harmful organism that lives on or in a  different organism. 2. A person who habitually takes advantage   of the generosity of others without making any useful return.  -- Webster's Dictionary.

It is the first day of class. A student in his early 20s strides into the classroom. A beautiful young woman walks quickly to keep up with him; she is so close to him that she bumps into his side. They sit in adjoining seats in the next-to-back row. I smile and look down at my census sheet. I call roll. He is Alex, with a last name I've never had the chance to pronounce before. She is Traci. "Ah, true love," I think. Smiling, I ponder young love as the students settle in to the assignment.

Three weeks into the fall semester, I realize the inequity. She is an A student -- bright, intelligent, motivated. He? A C student, haggling with instructors, looking for extra credit, borrowing her notes and time. The problem? He is bringing her down. Her grade slips because she turns her paper in late -- along with his. I know that she has done hers on time, but she holds on to it until he is ready, too.

In another world, I might think it is a beautiful sympathetic gesture; here I think it is a mismatched sign of her devotion. He does poorly on quizzes; she misses a few. I wonder if she does it to bridge the gap between them. In group work, he sits like a stone; she mimics his silence. Together they sit, mute, refusing to participate. They stride into class together every day -- late -- 5, 8, 12 minutes. Her attendance grade lowers, as does his. I can't help but want to take her into my office and tell her what I think. "Traci," I imagine myself saying, "He's bringing you down. He's a loser -- an underachiever. Think of what he'll be like later in the job force." With a wan smile,
I might add, "Yes, I know you love him, but consider your future."

But I do not intervene. Why? Because I do not think that she will listen. She will act just as I did when I "fell in love" with a 21-year-old underachiever while in high school. My parents tried to warn me. My grandparents lectured me. My sisters smirked; but I held on to that man, desperate to make my own choices -- to someday show them all.

The result? I dropped out of high school, worked as a waitress and tried to impress him, me and the world. Finally he found another young woman to admire him and I was lucky enough to bury my sorrows at a local junior college. I hope that Traci, too, will find her way, with or without the underachiever who tucks her hand into his coat pocket as he stands in the hallway, his textbook clean, untouched.

It's an odd partnership, I think. But is it? On every campus I have worked, I have seen it over and over. The academically weaker ones attaching themselves to the stronger; hoping for a lift, a chance, a ride on someone else's success. Blatantly exchanging sex (or sex appeal), bravado, status, money or simply a ride to campus for
another's brain-on-loan. Sometimes it develops into a romance -- but more often than not a partnership develops that seems mismatched. I want to be shocked; but I have seen so many things. Students buying term papers from one another. Students lying about work not produced. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

In my office, deluged with yet another onslaught of excuses, the phone rang. After four minutes of all the sympathy I could offer, along with the assertion that I would tape an assignment to my door, I turned to my colleague. "Guess she can only use that excuse one more time," I said to him. "Dead grandmother," I answered him before he could even ask. "Oh, yeah," he replies, his voice tired, "I've already had two and it's only four weeks into the semester."

Yes, we're cynical. But we buck up, lace our shoes tighter and get ready for another class. And we are prepared to see them arriving two by two, like a twisted version of Noah's ark. The all-too-attractive  girl who can't spell with the engineering major who has already received four scholarship offers. The funny returning front-row student who is attached to the young man who can't seem to make it to class one out of every three sessions. Even the pal-teams are suspect.

In class today I noticed a young man who has missed two deadlines for  papers. He sits and chats with a another young man on international status who has trouble with English. I can't imagine what that exchange
will provide. I can only hope the international student will receive some pronunciation tips while the local student will hustle through his work and turn it in on time.

In my night class at another campus, two women friends straggle in 15 minutes late. Both are in their early 20s, with the usual giggling and guffawing as they sit. Yet when it comes to class work, one is head and shoulders above the other. That night I notice that the overachiever has started to use the same make-up techniques as her friend. I wonder if poor study habits will follow now, too.

What is the drive to couple up in college? Why the buddy system in the face of education? I think that fear plays a big part. At one large institution where I've taught, there are more than 100,000 students registered. Even faculty can be intimidated by the numbers.

Fighting for spaces to park, seats in classes, books at the campus bookstore -- even for the limited financial aid available can turn the most motivated student mad. And they do not bring their complaints to staff or faculty; they share them with each other. Many of the students will not take the college catalog or schedule at its word. They talk to peers and press for the underground news on campus. Who is the easiest grader? Will this transfer to a
state university? If they take this course, how much will the instructor expect?

Can I get into this class -- or should I try at night? And by the time they get into the class, partnerships are forged. With the constant barrage of information, they steel themselves for another assignment. And who can understand their pain and confusion most? Their colleague in class. That sympathetic gal or guy sitting to their right who will not only lend them a #2 pencil, but will walk with them to their next  class. An alliance is born -- and having been forged under the pressure of academia, it may be tempered so strongly that it will not easily

In some cases, these teams are really good for both students. One student's talents can help the other; they work to model positive behavior for one another. As a college student, I floundered. Wandering on a campus in Austin, Tex., I felt as though I would go mad if I saw yet one more big, shiny belt buckle. To my surprise, another West Coast student motioned me to sit next to him in accounting. Later he said that it was easy to see I was not a local -- my hairstyle and clothes branded me as "a little too liberal" for the crowd there.

Chuck helped drag me, complaining and wheedling, through bookkeeping practices. In return, I unofficially tutored him in English. At the end of two semesters, we had forged a partnership that made us each better
students. I was able to get the right side of my brain to function with numbers, and Chuck became a fair writer, turning out business letters and proposals in his class for a solid A. Teachers who saw us shook  their heads. "Those two," I heard an instructor mutter. Yes, we clowned around; yes, we laughed at the cafeteria food, but our transcripts took a tremendous leap.

Here is the value in student partnerships. Not the kind that are set up by well-meaning clubs or administrators, but born completely out of need. And the result? In this case -- fabulous.

But not all partnerships can claim success. I watch as a sympathetic working student hands his textbook to a newbie just out of high-school. She smiles at him, a Revlon red meant to attract. He looks dazed and his shiny eyes return to his handwritten notes. I know he means well, but I wonder if he will get his book back in time to study for the next quiz.

In another class, I watch as an experienced international student sweetly bullies another student into leading the group assignment. The newer student immigrant fights her natural shyness to rise to her new friend's challenge; I wonder if she will also help her more experienced friend write a thesis statement after class.
Realizing that there is not much I can do, I look at my syllabus and write down "in-class writing" for the next Monday. I hope to try and identify the students who are not really producing their own work. Even as I circle the note in medium-blue, I know that many of my students will connect, sit with another on a Tuesday night and struggle through the Wednesday homework together. I can only hope that both students lend a hand and walk away better for the experience.

My curiosity wins out and I consider these teams. At times I sense that the academically superior student receives a sense of belonging or being adored that is hard to match with simple numeric grading systems. But I admit that as we make our way into the semester, I look over my attendance sheet at night and close my eyes. I pray for the success of both students -- and hope that they both find what they need without wasted semesters. I ask for guidance and hope that none of my students will ever have to know the shame that follows when your transcripts can never be sent on to another campus.

Just as instructors find mentors useful, so do students. And like their less educated counterparts, academics find friendships more natural than forced mentorships through administration. Many of my friends at universities discuss freshman interest groups. The good news is that many students new to the campus will find support by those they trust most -- their peers. Yet even this caring environment may breed a parasitic relationship where one student takes advantage of another.  Here too, weaker scholars may find a less sophisticated counterpart to shore up their skills. The real solution is the confidence that comes with years of learning. When a student begins to sense the value of their knowledge, the cycle is less apt to continue.

On a day when I feel connected to the sky, to the grass around the campus buildings, to the instructor passing me in the hallway, and the flood of students from the parking  lot, I hope that I am wrong. That I have misjudged. I hope that the partnerships will strengthen their experience here rather than weaken  it; that they will move into
universities or the working world with all that they need. That is my hope.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about the problems with once-a-week courses.


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