How to Polish an Apple: Step 1. Follow the Directions

I was hoping that this week, which is finals week, would be free of drama. Well, it’s Tuesday, and my streak is already over. But what fun would no drama be anyway? To be fair, it’s not my drama. I’m as cool as cucumber, as chill as a pill, as lazy as a Susan (with apologies to all the hard working Susans out there.) I just want to read some clever prose and eat a few shiny apples. Don’t make me get out of my chair.

I gave a final exam yesterday, which basically means I sat in the classroom while my students wrote nose-browning essays on what they learned in my class. The final reflection is designed to give students the opportunity to look back on the course and see what they got out of it without raising their blood pressure too much. I want to read their final thoughts, but I also want them to be able to coast to the end. Unfortunately, some of them just can’t get to the finish line without engaging maximum overdrive—some students have saved their nitrous blast all semester and they’re hitting the gas when they should be applying the brakes.

There are students who understand the fine art of apple polishing. I have read some lovely final essays (and I actually got some yesterday.) Some of my favorites include a student who quoted my lecture joke: “The rhetorical canon is not an actual cannon. Don’t blow it.” It was clever and relevant to his self-reflection. I had another student use a Dungeons and Dragons metaphor for feminism throughout his essay. He likened fighting the patriarchy to sword-wielding adventurers slaying a Displacer Beast. That’s how you shine fruit, ladies and gentlemen—appeal to the interests and ego of the instructor.

So, when a sweaty panicked student comes into my office half an hour before the exam asking for an extension, I just have to shake my head. For what? I wonder. What is so overwhelming about my brown-nosy, ass-kissy final essay that might require the granting of extra time? The stakes are so low on this last bit of writing, that even a C student could crap it out in half an hour without any preparation. Also, this was a C student.

I told him to go to the computer lab and use the next 30 minutes to finish whatever he thought needed an extension. I checked some emails and went to the exam room. The final started at 2:15 p.m. He arrived at 2:45. Seriously, there’s easing over the finish line, and then there’s running out of gas. Most of his peers finished their essays in approximately 15 minutes. He sat there for over an hour. I started to wonder what he was even working on. It should not take that long. Finally, when he turned in his essay and left, I discovered what was up. He didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing. *sigh*

At the beginning of the final (you know, before he got there) I asked if everyone knew what they were doing. A few people raised their hands and asked for clarification on logistics: Can we leave when we’re done? Do I need to write the date? Nothing major. Everyone pretty much knew the drill. Why? Because I had given them detailed, written instructions three weeks in advance so they would have adequate time to prepare. Also, they had time during class last week to draft their outlines. Because I’m cool like that. The only way a student could not be prepared for this final “exam” was if that student had missed a lot of class in those last three weeks. (If this blog was a movie, there would be an ominous musical crescendo to signal the upcoming drama. Dun-dun-dun! That’s called foreshadowing.)

Let me back up for a moment. If you recall from a week or so ago, I wrote about the terrible idea of using student evaluations as sole criteria for instructor retention. I mentioned a student who was so clueless, he had stopped showing up to class because he “heard” the course was over and he didn’t have to attend anymore. I think you see where I’m going with this. Yes, same guy. He forgot how to college.

Now, here’s my point. He wasted his time on the wrong work. In fact, he did way more than what was actually assigned to overcompensate for the previous week’s blunder. That’s probably the reason he was panicking and wanting an extension. He was trying to reinvent the wheel in order to drive his car the last few yards to the finish line. (He had some peers roll in on four flats, but that’s another story.) I am more than willing to work with struggling students all semester long but there isn’t much I can do half an hour before the final.

In summation, if you’re trying to impress your instructor at the eleventh hour, at least read the instructions.