Adventures in Naysaying

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.

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6 Responses to Adventures in Naysaying

  1. Gus says:

    I’d have said a big NO. Your time is as precious as the student’s + you did not slow down anyone. The student was not even enrolled so this wouldn’t have affected his ‘formal’ progress in the university system. There’s no missed marking that can hinder a motivated student from discussing math with friends and academics in an informal setting and wade his/her own way through science. I enjoyed this post 🙂

  2. Jason says:

    I would have said “no” as well. Grading is a very long and painful process for me—although it would be less painful since this student’s grade does not matter. If the student wanted to do a reading course and I had the time, I might be willing to do that, but it sounds like you don’t have the time. However, in this particular situation, I feel there is another matter that this student has not realized (and I did not realize until my second year of graduate school). *Homework does not need to be graded. It is often just enough that you do it and be honest with yourself.* A good student should have the mathematical maturity to know if their answer is correct or not. Sure there are a few times when they forget a case, or make a mistake, or make the proof more complicated than it needs to be. However, I think those cases get rarer as they gain ability. Moreover, if you post solutions that even gives the student more confidence that their answer is correct and something to think about if their answer is different from yours. Also, here are three anecdotes to drive my point home: (1) The semester before I went to graduate school I took Algebra II. We rushed through Galois theory, and there was no homework on it. I asked to meet the professor in the summer so he could suggest some problems from the book so I could learn Galois theory. He met with me, briefly looked at the textbook, and said “all the problems look good.” (2) In graduate school, I discovered that doing the homework does not equal learning the material. Instead carefully reading my notes and working through each proof was how to learn the material. I even learned my current area of research by reading through some well-written course notes over the summer and doing the homework problems. I never needed to contact the author of said notes. (3) As a post doc, I am doing a reading course with an undergraduate. This student is reading two books and doing the exercises. I don’t need to grade them. This students knows (or at least believes they know) which problems they can do and which problems they need help on. Over time this student has gained confidence in their own abilities. Sometimes when we meet they tell me “I had a question that I was going to ask you, but then I just figured it out.” (Sorry for the long comment. I enjoy your blog. It gives me a lot to think about.)

  3. Jason Starr says:

    I would have said “no”, mainly for the reasons that you state. Additionally, auditors are sometimes in it for a letter (presumably not your student, who is at such an early state of the major). At the end of the semester, the auditor asks for a letter of recommendation, not really based on the (partial) work completed for the course, but rather on the extrapolation of how the student would have done if fully invested. Then either you say “no, despite the work you did in this class, I cannot write you a letter”, or you write a letter based on supposition and surmise.

  4. Ursula says:

    I would have said “no” and then tried to get them to do research with me.

  5. Ben Braun says:

    I would have said no as well, for all the reasons you and others state plus one more: faculty don’t work for free. We need to make sure that our activities take place in contexts for which our work can be recognized and rewarded. While there will always be a few exceptions to this rule, we as faculty should try to hold to it. In my experience, there are lots of opportunities for me to be generous in sharing time and energy with students enrolled in my courses, serving as research assistants, my academic advisees, etc.

  6. viktor says:

    I’m a bit conflicted on whether I would have said yes or no. On one hand grading a single additional submission is not a big time investment (and if it turns out to be with this particular student, I would quit grading his/her homeworks and explain to the students that the submissions are not up to the standard of the course and take a lot of time, which I cannot spare). On the other hand, I’m not sure if this will be more helpful or harmful for the student. Sure, it provides an opportunity of structured study of the material (timed with an actual course). But the student may think that doing the assigned homework is all it takes to know the subject field, and goes on to subsequent topics with significant gaps in the background material. And giving guidence and providing help on the homework or the material outside of the classroom would require an order of magnitude more time from the instructor. So similar to Ursula, I’d invite the student to do a full independent study with me after a succesful completion of the intro-to-proof course, while recommending against hacking the field in such a matter.

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