Thursday, April 24, 2014

Big Thirsty: Dr. Amelia has a Fred and doesn't know what to do with him

It's been a couple of years, but once again I have a Fred this semester. Fred comes to the first day or two of class and your like "Wow, that's a smart kid." And you're a little excited to have him in your class.

But then you realize that he's one of those students, almost always male for some reason, who are just hell-bent on self-sabotage.

Fred's biggest issues are coming to class and turning in work. He'll sometimes cobble together excuses, but mostly not. He takes the "no late work" policy seriously and doesn't ask for extensions. A gentle "you're missing quite a bit Fred" is met with a sigh of inevitability

Some days, when Fred makes it, he really brings it. He's pretty much always not only done the reading, but thought deeply about it and how it relates to other things he's learned before. The kid's got depth.

But it's just not enough, and Fred either ends up with a last-minute medical withdrawal or just flunks.

I have a belief that the Freds of my class have mental issues they are dealing with - usually depression. Or perhaps they just need to grow up. But in any case, coming to university and flunking class after class seems like a very expensive way to deal with these issues.

Do you have Freds? Have you figured out any way to help them?

Dr. A.


Update:  Well, shit.  It's Thursday (who knew?) and this post does end in a question.  I'd hate to miss a Big Thirsty. -- Ben


13 comments:

  1. I had a Fred this semester! He withdrew.

    I try to talk with them, to cajole them, to work with them and their schedules. Usually, they are smart enough to be one step ahead of me, and have an answer ready for every suggestion I have. Unlike other students, as you say, they take their lumps. Almost too quickly and easily. Failure should not be inevitable!

    Sigh.

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  2. I know a Fred quite well; we were both in the same department, but in different MA tracks, and later on, after I graduated, he enrolled in the PhD program in my field. The guy's bucking frilliant. He writes like an angel, can perceive and articulate complex philosophical connections in a flash, knows his pop culture better than Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and is one of the few people who can challenge me at trivia. But this Fred is a flake beyond the wildest realms of flakedom. He was notorious for incompletes and extensions in the MA program, and I understand that he never, not once, turned in anything on time in the doctoral program, where he flamed out in a spectacular kind of way in spite of his professors', friends', and classmates' best efforts to shepherd/chide/incentivize him along the twinfold path of academic righteousness and getting shit done.

    And now? Fred works in a used book store, where he's contented as a clam.

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  3. Maybe Dr. Mindbender's Fred is Spider-Man.

    I know damn well my Fred isn't.

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  4. I have a Fred this semester. He's been in the same class with me before, and that time he just stopped showing up after the mid-term, which he submitted without completing the essay portion of the test (worth 60% of the exam grade). He has also failed the same class once before with a different instructor, so this is his third go-around.

    Fred is easily one of the smartest students in my 40-student class. When he participates in class discussion, he demonstrates a keen understanding of the issues and an ability to analyze and synthesize the important points. While other students are having trouble summarizing the simple points, he's making connections with earlier lessons and explaining the significance of difficult passages. He's polite, unassuming, and friendly, and this time around he absolutely aced the mid-term.

    But he has still missed enough classes that he's on the verge of failing the class, based on participation requirements, and he also failed to submit the first of two medium-length papers required for the class. If he submits the short response papers, and the second mid-length paper, and nails the final, he can still pass the class, but I'm worried that he simply cannot find it within himself to complete the written work.

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    1. Perhaps some of Fred's relatively enhanced ability to connect earlier and later lessons stems from his having had those lessons a time or two before? But your point stands: when he's "into" something, Fred absorbs it like a sponge on steroids, and he transcends whatever material you've given him. You're left wondering, if he does this with such ease sometimes, why not all the time, or at least more often? He would go so far if only he had some consistency.

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  5. The Freds I've had like this often end up being on academic suspension, which means they have to get their GPAs up elsewhere and can then reapply to our SLAC. Often, when they return, they do better because they're older and wiser and have their meds or their shit worked out. They make me sad, but also hopeful that not all is lost.

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    1. They come to my school to get their meds, shit and GPA worked out. When I get them, I try to think of my nephew, who partied spectacularly at his expensive SLAC and then also flunked out of the school whose acronym we used to pronounce "Reject". (The college changed its name to put that to rest!)

      Said nephew went on to one of the notorious for-profit trade schools, excelled there, and is very happy in a decent career. He's getting married next fall, and we all wish them the best.

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  6. I say: let Fred take responsibility for his actions and either flunk out or drop out. With any luck, he'll join the military, seeing as they're one of the few opportunities left for young people in the U.S. The military can do lots that we're not allowed, or too afraid, to do: it might even make a man of him. Then he can return to academia with veteran's benefits after 4 years and resume his brilliant career.

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  7. My institution is one of the places some of the more privileged Freds land (often after they flunk out of a selective private university and/or SLAC, and/or the state flagship u.). Often, a few more years of maturing really does do it; there's a subset of young men who should be starting, not trying to finish, college sometime in the 21-25-year-old range. They really should be doing something else productive for a few years after high school -- the military (if the military can keep them enough in line to make them useful/they and their parents are willing to take the very real risks), working a basic job (if they can get their acts together enough to keep one), etc. I tend to like those students, especially the taking-responsibility aspect of their characters. I think they'll do pretty well in the long run, perhaps better than some of the flash-in-the-pan bright students who've never had their resilience tested.

    But/and I think you're right about mental health issues, Amelia. Depression (which, despite increased awareness, is probably still underdiagnosed in young men) is almost certainly part of the picture in many cases. Probably also undiagnosed learning issues (ADHD, dyslexia, etc.) which their brilliance have allowed them to mask. In some cases, personal/family issues which they're only just getting enough freedom and distance from their families of origin to recognize and address. And, of course, substance abuse as self-medication for all of the above. Students may figure out how to cope with some of the above on their own, but some won't (those are the ones who disappear, either for a long time or permanently, from higher ed and/or from life). Although I don't have a lot of experience with convincing someone to seek treatment for the first time (I've twice faced urgent-if-not-emergency systems that led me to use established procedures for notifying support services that a student seemed to be, if not in imminent danger, then at least in active crisis, and I've had a lot of conversations that included an exchange along the lines of "you know, I'm no expert, but that sounds like the kind of thinking that occurs when someone is depressed"/"yeah; I know; I stopped taking my meds., and I probably shouldn't have; I've got an appointment with/will make an appointment with my doctor" -- in other words, nudges to students previously in treatment to resume same), I suspect that one tactic that I see our own counseling center employing -- offering classes in things like time management and managing stress -- is a smart one; it's easier to refer a student to that sort of practical, not-scary-sounding help than to say "you need to see a counselor" (even if the latter is absolutely true).

    Also, I've found the counseling services folks at my university very willing to talk about how to cope with/help students. We may or may not be happy with the increasing amount of money universities are spending on such services, but, as long as they're there (and on many campuses, they most definitely are), we might as well make use of them.

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    1. For "systems" in paragraph 2, read "situations."

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    2. Thank you, Cassandra; you've saved me much typing. We'd likely agree that Fred is probably not as ready for college as he thinks he is, because the coping strategies that worked in high school and before are not sufficient at the college level. As Froderick and you point out, responsibity is a key factor. Fred is not necessarily entitled, or expecting others to keep him on track or bend the rules for him, but he has not yet appreciated that being responsible for himself includes recognizing when he's fucking up and then revising his approach. The latter might require reaching outside himself for new answers, but the first people he might think to ask for help from (i.e. professors in particular subjects) are not necessarily the only ones from who he needs help.

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  8. This reminds me of a student I had last Fall. I am not sure they were quite a Fred, but I suspect they were depressed. This "Fred" always asked great questions, answered my questions (shocking), and he was smart. One day they stopped coming to class. No sign of them. We all became concerned and finally someone was able to contact this student. It turns out they did not think college was what they thought it would be, (I read that as "too many snowflakes") so they were going to drop out. This student was probably depressed and the services at my school tried to help them. I hope they did.

    This student ended-up passing the class even though they missed the final.

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  9. "Fred" is a keeper of a glossary entry, if only we had one. My current Fred fits Amelia's description to a T. He has been present for the entire class less than 1/3 of the semester and has missed all but one of the assignments. Yet I found it hard to dislike his earnest, alert self until last class. That day he left 20 minutes early. Many students noticed, and the young woman who sits next to him followed suit a few minutes later. Guess I should have interrupted my lecture and passed around the attendance sheet again to make a point.

    (Yes, we're supposed to take attendance. When we drop such students, we have to include their last date of attendance, and I know of no other way to keep track of that.)

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