What do you do when a student asks if you would grade their homework even though a) they are not enrolled in your class and b) there is no way they can attend your class meetings because they are taking another, famously demanding and time-consuming class? If you are me, you obsess about it for days, then say no, then feel super guilty about your decision so you ask the facebook hive mind, then feel conflicted, then use your inner turmoil to inspire your next blog post. So here it goes.
A few days ago, I received this email from a student saying that they wanted to do the homework for the class and would I grade it. The reason I was conflicted in the first place was that I liked the initiative. This is someone who was interested in my intensive, five-week p-adic numbers course. But they had to take another class to fulfill the requirements for the major. OK. I thought about it. But in the end it seemed to make no sense to me. I am teaching the class in an inquiry-based format (like I do with many of my upper-level math courses), and it seems like it defeats the purpose if they are only turning in assignments without the classroom and social experience of the class (a big deal in an IBL course). So a few days later (it really did take me that long to make the decision), I emailed the student and said no. I tried to explain the reasons, making the point that they should focus on the class that they were already taking (an intensive, five-week introduction to proofs we affectionately call “math camp”). I said that it would not be a very beneficial experience if they are missing on the class meetings and the experience of the course, and that I was teaching number theory next year and that they should take that if they were interested in the subject. But really, deeply, I felt that I should focus on the students that are registered, which means giving my attention to their homework, and use the rest of my time on things that are important for me, like research and having a life.
Right away I felt like I was not very nice. So I did what I always do, which is outsource the problem to my social networks. The answers were varied, but most people seemed to think that yes, this would be a nice thing to do for the student, but that given that I have other students to take care of and many other commitments (among them the looming terror that is my Fall tenure review), it was smart to say no. A few days went by.
And then I got this response from the student: ” I understand that professors always want the best for their students. To be honest, I don’t know how submitting homework without taking a class will benefit me, I don’t even know how any of this math will ever benefit me. But one thing I do know is that I am interested in the subject matter, and I will not be stopped because “math camp is busy” or “I don’t have the prerequisite” or “I can do it later”. I’m sure that no one who is passionate about math will stop or delay his/her learning for any of such trivial reasons.
So if you decide to grade my homework just once a week, thank you so much because I know you are doing me a huge favor. You have just helped another student become more interested in number theory, the field that you are passionate about. But if you decide not to, which you have every right to do so, then thank you for your time and advice.”
The first paragraph was so antagonistic I didn’t even read the second one carefully. Now that I do, I am less upset by the response. I believe the student was just trying to express their motivation and dedication to mathematics, but they were a little bit too aggressive for my taste. I also realize that the mistake was mine: rather than trying to explain that they should be careful in how they are allotting their time, I should have been more honest and tried to explain how I need to allot my own. As a friend of mine cleverly put on facebook: “I think the moral here is that it’s often better simply to give the actual reason you don’t want to do something, rather than fake reasons meant to sound considerate or merciful to the recipient of the message. Source: A guy who has had a lot of people break up with me.”
Another amusing by-product of my posting this on facebook is that many of my Bates friends were trying to guess who this student was (incorrectly I might add), which proves that there are a LOT of students who are very driven on our campus. This is not a bad thing! They might need to have a crash course in how to make a better case for their request, but it is kind of great to have such motivated and driven students in a way. I did ask around about this student and the general consensus was that they were incredibly bright and just a little pushy. But that is probably the best combination if you want to succeed as a mathematician! However, this did not deter me from my decision. My last email to this student was essentially: “I am glad that you are so motivated. I encourage you to work on the homework and discuss it with your friends in the class. However, I will not be able to grade it.” And thusly, I may have just slowed down a perfectly good mathematician by not wanting to give myself any extra work.
So, dear readers, how would you have handled this situation? Would you have said yes or no? Please share any thoughts in the comments section below.