A Rake's Progress

I currently have a student in one of my classes who has a 4 average.

No, not a 4.0 average. His average, counting attendance, participation, and a couple of quizzes, is 4 out of 100.

The thing is, he had until last Friday to drop my class.

But he didn't.

Why in the world didn't he? He almost certainly will fail, and get no credit for the class. But if he withdrew, he still would get no credit, but no 'F' against his GPA.

I have seen this a number of times. Why do these students stay enrolled?


  1. Because they believe in miracles.

  2. I can tell you for certain, without mind-reading, because I was that guy in my youth.

    There are actually a cluster of overlapping reasons:

    1. He feels he deserves the 'F' and on some level needs it. I remember telling my adviser, who asked that very question, why I hadn't dropped a couple of classes, and I said, in paraphrase, "I felt it would bring things to a head."

    2. He is desperately unhappy. This could be clinical depression, or a circumstantial but very deep sorrow about the fact that there he is in that school now. I was probably the latter rather than the former.

    3. He has ADHD and kept meaning to drop the class, but one day the deadline, mostly unnoticed, passed. This was very definitely me. It also opens the question of how much Reason 1 is an after-the-fact rationalization. Pick a value between 0 and 100%. In my case, the rationalization quotient was (probably) pretty small.

    4. Somewhat along the lines of 1, the ever-popular cry for help. "I wonder if anyone will notice or care how hurt I am? I mean, I'm too scared to say out loud, 'I am really messed up!' but maybe I can get the idea across." I think this covered me too.

    There's an outside chance the world isn't all about me, in which case there are other reasons. In any case, the explanations aren't necessarily separable. In a case like mine, depression and anxiety and self-hatred can be co-morbid with ADHD - existing in themselves "side by side" with it - or subsidiary to it. That is, ADHD gives you plenty of reasons to despise yourself, to be sad, and to suffer the entirely well-founded conviction that there's something bad impending that you haven't thought of. This is surely true of other possible neuropsychological causes.

    One thing I'm very sure of: your student has real problems. I mean, beyond the fact that he's going to get an 'F' in your class. Major issues of head and heart. I have no idea if he'd be ready to admit this to anyone though.

  3. I have seen it many times, too. To my thinking, 2 reasons (which are not necessarily altogether different):

    1) lack of initiative -- the psychological barrier of actually filling out the form to drop the class and thereby (voluntarily and forthrightly) admitting defeat is too much for them. They'd rather passively be crushed by the F appearing on their report card later than voluntarily face it today. There's probably also an element of 'woe is me, look what the world has done to me -- rather than what I have done to myself, which I'd rather not think about, but pulling the trigger myself would force me to face... let's not think about that right now...'

    2) They think possibly that you might go ahead and 'round up' their grade and pass them for such a poor performance, because you don't have the stones/are too 'compassionate' to flunk them. Probably many of their teachers have done this 'for them' in the past. Think about it -- they got this far by behaving this way in the past. Most people's behavior does not dramatically change over short time intervals. Most people have to hit rock bottom to change who they are; otherwise they coast along as far as they possibly can without exerting the effort to improve themselves. It takes a crisis to 'give people the strength' to change things.

    Why exactly do you think we're facing national bankruptcy?

    (BTW, love the new quote you have as the subhead for your blog.)

    1. What mean and ignorant thoughts you have, Scott.

    2. Ha, ha! Funny how I anticipated your answer. (It wasn't up at the time I submitted my comment.)

      Yes, I dealt with many a student like you, and you are exactly right -- it is not at all an issue of being 'stupid.' Most of them are quite intelligent. These people have real problems, and they are definitely psychological issues. Unfortunately, these things should have come out far back in childhood, as no person given to this type of behavior has any business being in college. They are not adults capable of functioning on a college campus. Their parents have really let them down, as it seems to me, anyway.

      And there really seems to be nothing to be done for them, at least in the capacity of professor. Either they face their demons down themselves, or they never do and wallow dysfunctionally in these problems forever. Anyway, I could never figure out what to do with them. Every approach only made things worse. But try telling them that it is unrealistic to expect angelic powers and behaviors from others when their own behaviors fall so far short of the mark. Most of the professors I knew would complain and complain about the maturity level of such students, and then when this kind of thing would come up, they would cave to the behavior, which only reinforced it. Wonder how those kids got that way...

      Seriously, they need to be cured of it far more than they need the grade. I had a few friends like this when I was in school. They all flunked out. Most are Occupy Wall Street-hipster types now, barely holding jobs, broken families, etc.

      I should note that the reason I have this insight is that I was very close to this personality myself, and friends with many others, so I have seen it from both ends of the problem. But I couldn't really tell you what it was that changed me. Somehow I got 'cured.' You seem to have recovered nicely. Any advice?

      And really, Gene, you should be able to channel your inner Collingwood on this. And you also read The Last Psychiatrist enough. Obviously, it is narcissism. They have personalized and internalized the failure, and see it as a dire threat to their identity. It hurts them too much to face it!

  4. There are some extremely self-destructive tendencies in some students.

    For example, in college, there were two girls who faced the risk of failing because their attendance up to that part of the year was about 20%.

    In the cafeteria, I just jestingly said to them, "Well, at least you got to see the movies every week". And they said, "Movies? We don't see any movies."

    "So do you travel around the city, just for the thrill of city life?", I ask.

    "We do that rarely, if ever."

    "Well, where do you go?"

    "Nowhere. We are always in college campus."

    "Do you do anything for fun around here?"

    "No, we just sit outside, waiting for the classes to be over."

    "So you have been coming to college every day, but simply couldn't take two steps into the classroom? And while skipping class, you remain idle every day doing nothing?"

    "Well, basically, yeah."

    The whole conversation stunned me. Like these girls deliberately wanted to sabotage their academic life completely.

  5. Anonymous8:56 AM

    If I remember correctly, when you drop a class within the allowed time period, you do not pay nearly as much. My guess is that he is either getting the money loaned to him or that his parents are taking on the bill. Certainly, his direct connection to the funding is obscured by something, and he probably doesn't much care about something as distant into the future as his final GPA.

    He's present-minded, which probably also accounts for his lack of studiousness.

  6. Maybe the student is not very bright.

    Just a theory.

  7. Anonymous1:01 PM

    You know, after thinking about it a little bit I am glad that I am not a student of Gene's. Not only because I would probably fail horribly and forget to drop the class by the deadline, but also because Gene would blog about it.

    1. Joe, I did not mention the student's name or class (or even the school, though people can find that). I don't see anyway this can be tied to the actual person. If one is to blog about teaching, one is going to want to use real events as illustrations. As long as I protect that student's anonymity, I don't see anything wrong with this.

    2. Anonymous3:21 PM

      I know, I wasn't trying to say what you think I was saying. I'm not accusing you of any wrongdoing here. I was just saying that I probably would end up in this guy's shoes, and then I would have to read about it (presumably, I would know who I am).

      It was more of an observation of my own lack of studiousness and memory, and the subsequent reminder thereof.

      Once again, I am not saying you did anything wrong. In fact, you might be doing something right.

    3. Cool cool.

      I'm pretty sure if this student read this, HE wouldn't know who he was!

    4. Anonymous3:46 PM

      Actually, after giving it a little more thought, the case is more probable that you would be glad that I am not a student of yours. ;)

    5. Anonymous3:47 PM

      The same probably is true for the rest of the class. Ha.

    6. Anonymous3:49 PM

      * i.e. that they would be glad that I am not a student of yours.


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