The Meaning of Mean
Give today's students an 'A' for Annoying

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 3, 2006

"You sound like one of those cranky old professors," my sister Claire says to me on the phone.

Oh, for heaven's sakes. "All I'm saying is that there are a statistically high number of students in America today with migraine headaches and dead grandmothers," I tell her.

"Some of them are telling the truth," Claire says.

"Of course," I say. "But the point is I don't even care."

"You're mean!"

Please. This has nothing to do with being mean. (I'll show her mean!) It's about boundaries. Why should I care if a student misses class? I have absolutely no use for the migraine or the dead grandmother excuse -- or the long, drawn-out apology -- because I don't take it personally. I mark the student absent, and if he or she accumulates enough absences, it will lower the grade. End of story. "It does not affect my life."

"You're so mean!" Claire says. "That's what they're probably saying behind your back, you know. 'Watch out for her; she's really mean.' Remember those professors?"

"Those professors are dead," I say. "This is a new era. College is different."

"You don't even sound like you . . ."

"This is about responsibility," I say. "Mine is to teach. And to create an atmosphere for learning. A student's responsibility is to learn -- or at least to follow the rules I've set that will enable learning to occur."

"You have become one of them, sister," Claire says. "You have become a cranky old authority figure."

"You're giving me a migraine," I say.

"You're so mean."

"I'm hanging up."

A few weeks go by. I'm in class taking attendance. A student who missed last week hands me a doctor's excuse to help explain her absence. It's from a hospital emergency room documenting the concussion she suffered after passing out as a result of being so drunk she could not stand. "This," I say. "Why are you showing me this?" She looks at me as if to say, "You can't read, lady?" She says, "It's a doctor's excuse." We're staring at each other across a vast divide. On my side, doctors don't have the authority to absolve sins of depravity. But I find that I am speechless. So I smile, take a deep breath and move on, but I don't excuse the absence.

An atmosphere for learning. I am not mean. In fact, they think I'm nice. They think I'm the kind of professor in front of whom they can be open, honest. I encourage this atmosphere for (my own) learning. They're being open and honest, as we begin settling in with our books. One of them is bragging about how she took a professor on over the weekend. "I just had had it with him!" she says.

She then relates the story about how she missed his class, and so, naturally, she e-mailed the professor the following Sunday morning to apologize. Okay, I'm stuck right there, on every level. I imagine, back in my day, phoning one of my professors on a Sunday, or any day, to talk about myself. It's just so . . . bizarre to me. This could be a simple fact of technology. E-mail has changed the way all sorts of people interact, so, okay. I'm trying to be open. The student goes on to say that in her e-mail she asked the professor to tell her what she missed in class. He fired back a curt response saying she should contact another student for that information. "It was so rude!" she says. "I'm like, dude, I understand you're busy. I'm busy; we're all busy. But do your job. You know? Help me out here."

The class is nodding. I feel so alone. His job? His job is to give her a private tutoring session because she missed class?

"So I wrote him back and told him how disgusted I was with him," she says.

"No, you didn't," says a girl in the back row, admiringly, while a few others clap, saying the first student has done what they wish they had the courage to do. "I'm paying $50,000 of my own money for this education," one says. "What these professors don't realize is that they're working for me! I'm the customer!"

"Oh, my goodness," I'm saying. "Oh, my goodness." Customer service? What is this, a tire store?

"So, did he answer your e-mail?" one asks.

"Oh, about an hour later I got, like, a total thesis on what a disrespectful person I am," she says. "And I'm like, dude, in the time you took to write that, you could have just told me what I missed in class."

At this point I have no choice but to drop my head onto my desk and bang it, ever so slowly, bam, bam, bam. "I think we lost her," one of the students jokes. "You okay up there?"

"Not," I say. Bam, bam, bam. "Not okay." I am on the other side now. So very far removed from who they are and how they see the world.

"What?" one says. "You don't agree with us?"

"Yeah, tell us what you think," another urges.

I raise my head. They are looking at me, awaiting my interpretation.

"You don't want to know," I say. "Because I'm mean. I'm really, really mean."

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