Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wasted Efforts

Do you ever have the student who comes to your office and acts as though nothing you say is useful?  You have gone to the trouble of offering your help, but he behaves as if he has been summoned to the principal’s office for a lecture.  Or perhaps you have had the student who listens intently to all you have to say yet spends the semester doing none of the things you suggested and is back the following semester asking your advice.

Those encounters can be really disheartening because they make us feel that our efforts are having no impact.  They can trigger bouts of insecurity because they make us feel that our efforts are somehow deficient.  They can trigger resentment because they make us feel that our efforts have been wasted.

At those times, it is good to remember that everyone wastes another’s efforts somewhere along the line.  We have all ignored the time, effort, and even friendship that others have offered; and we have no real excuse for having done so.  Yet still we do it.

I think it may be simply a part of being human.  Self-involved, we look past the gifts in front of us, ignore the time and energy expended on us, underestimate the importance of the efforts made on our behalf.  We do not do so because we are mean-spirited.  We usually do so because we are blind to what is ours for the taking, looking for a better answer, or at least an answer that better suits our short-sighted desires.  In other words, we do so out of run-of-the-mill ignorance and self-centered ingratitude.

So why be surprised or disheartened when some of our students ignore or even scorn our efforts?  They are just being human, thinking they know more than they do and dismissing sound advice in their ignorance.  As Ellen Suni often says, they don’t know what they don’t know.  Most of the time, their ingratitude stems from their frustration at falling short in an endeavor schooling that has never been a challenge to them before.  It is only human that they resent our suggesting that they need help.  It is only human that they believe they need do nothing more than work a little harder or find professors who “grade more fairly.”

It is also human to wake up at some point and realize what has been offered.  Sometimes it is too late; sometimes it is just in the nick of time; and, I suppose, sometimes it never happens.  Most of the time, it is somewhere in between.  Most of the time, despite their embarrassment and their natural tendency to cover it with a sham confidence and indifference, they actually learn from us. 

It is also human to do what we sometimes do:  to let the few obscure the many who show their appreciation by taking our help seriously.  Most students are grateful for the help we give, and most put it to good use.  We should resist our natural reactions to those who do not and remember that even those who seem to waste our efforts learn more than they let on. Sometimes they are just busy being human. (dbw)

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