Saturday, December 09, 2006

Professor Shoeless Joe

In "End of Term Follies," I promised a forthcoming post on memorable student bribes. In an effort to distract you all from the fact that I still haven't written "Hypertext II" as promised in "Hypertext I: Textual History," I present to you the following:

After undergrad, my first three years of academic life were split between corrupt communist systems and Confucian systems. My first gig was in Korea at a language institute, which was a sort of tutoring center for college students and businessmen who needed more practice in their conversational English. We didn't do any grading or evaluation; we just taught. For that first month, I was really surprised by how often students were offering to take me to dinner or bringing me little gifts. Being a nice, ethical Hoosier boy, I politely turned them down, all the time wondering why they would try to bribe me when I wasn't grading them.

Then a more experienced colleague took me aside. He explained to me that, yes, the students were offering gifts in the hope that I would offer them special attention, but that such gifts were not only tolerated in a Confucian education system -- they were expected. Furthermore, since the language institute was a for-profit school that needed its students to be happy if it wanted to stay in business, if the institute owners found out I was constantly turning down these little gifts and dinners, I could find myself in trouble. Clearly, I had to make a change, so I decided that, since I wasn't giving any grades, there wasn't really an ethical problem with accepting the little gifts. Such gifts were simply a way to honor the teacher, and if the students also hoped to get a little extra attention because of them, that was simply human nature.

My next gig was at a university in the former Soviet Union. By this time, Lithuania had technically gained its independence, but it was still occupied by the Red Army and still flailing around trying to find its footing in a capitalist global market. This brought out the worst of communist thuggery and, while bribery had always been a big part of the communist education system, now that bribery was backed by a greater flow of capital.

I couldn't understand why my Lithuanian students, who were all failing miserably, didn't seem at all concerned. Not even the ones who were the stars of the class seemed to care. I grew more and more frustrated, until one day I confided my frustration in a colleague from the history faculty. He explained to me that the reason they weren't concerned is that they expected to offer me a bribe at the end of the semester, and from that they would each pass.

So I made a little speech in my class the next day. I gave me usual "You're all failing so you'll have a buckle down" speech, and the students were literally yawning with boredom. I ended the speech this way: "And if you think that at the end of the semester you're just going to offer me some vodka or sausages or imported chocolates to pass the class, you are terribly mistaken." You could have heard a pin drop -- it was as if I had announced that I was an alien who had come to suck out their brains through a straw. After class, the students rushed to the front of the room clamoring for extra credit.

Some though, really had no hope of passing. They had bribed their way into university and didn't have the background to catch up. Others had screwed around so long that no amount of extra work would save them. Still others simply didn't believe me, and thought I was angling for larger bribes. Many offered me bribes anyway, and some went so far as to do things like sneak bribes into my office when I wasn't there, then avoid me. A couple went over my head to bribe the dean to change the grade.

From these early days, I had to adopt a Shoeless Joe Jackson approach to student bribery. Shoeless Joe Jackson, for those of you who don't know, was banned from baseball in part of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox bribery scandal. Along with several other players, Shoeless Joe had taken money from gamblers to throw the World Series, but then batted better in the series than he had during the regular season and made no fielding errors -- clearly, Shoeless Joe took the money but didn't throw the game. So now when students start to get fidgety and see bribery in their eyes (usually about 3/4 of the way through the semester), I state my policy on bribery in class, which is this: If you offer me a bribe, I'll take it -- but it won't affect your grade. Then you'll be out some money AND you'll have failed the class.

That little speech works wonders to deter would-be bribe offerers, but some still persist. So, after that long prelude, now for a series of mini-plays entitled "Bribes I Have Known."

Student: I'll do anything to pass the class.
Me: Well, apparently not, because studying qualifies as "anything," and you didn't do that.
Student: I mean anything within reason.

Student: (pulling out checkbook) How much will it cost to make this right?
Me: No amount of money will save you. You cheated, and so you have failed the course.
Student: Are you telling me that if I offer you a large check, you won't take it?
Me: No, I'm not saying that. In fact, I will take it. But you'll still fail the class.
Student: Why would I offer you a check, then?
Me: Out of the kindness of your heart?

Student: (places final exam on my desk, along with a bag of imported chocolates)
Me: What's this for?
Student: (winking so broadly it would embarrass a Vaudevillian actor)
Me: You know this won't change your grade, right?
Student: (winking and nodding like a maniac strolls out the door)
Me: (the next day, enjoying an imported chocolate while writing an "F" on his gradesheet)

Student: I just have to get a good grade in this class. Is there anything I can do?
Me: Well, not really, because ... (have to scoot away, because the student has just scooted her chair uncomfortably close to mine)
Me: Ehm. As I was saying, not really because ... (student puts her hand on my knee and leans forward suggestively)
Me: (moving back as far as I can, and speaking as quickly as I can) ... NOT REALLY BECAUSE YOU'RE ALREADY GETTING AN "A!" You'd have to completely fail the final to get anything lower, and with your grades right now, even if you failed the final you'd still pass the class!
Student: Really? Oh. (Stand up and heads out the door)

Student: You're just failing me because you hate me!
Me: No, I'm failing you because you haven't passed a single exam all semester.
Student: Well then how come you won't take a little gift from me?
Me: Because I think an education is more valuable than that.
Student: Well, then, I'll just bribe the Dean to change my grade.
Me: Feel free. I'll bribe him more to change it back ... and I can afford it.
Student: You'd do that?
Me: Watch me.

Student: How about if I wash your truck?
Me: How about if you write a 6-8 page paper on washing trucks?
Student: (after a long pause) How about if I mow your lawn?

Me: (Opening student portfolio to find a dime taped to the front. I laugh and laugh and laugh)

Student: (Once again, getting uncomfortably close) Don't you like me?
Me: Yes, of course I like you.
Student: Then what's the problem? No one has to know.
Me: I'll know.
Student: (putting on a pouty face) So you don't like me, then?
Me: I like you fine. I just like my wife more.
Student: What's she got that I don't?
Me: A college degree.*

Student: Here, sir, this is for you.
Me: What is it?
Student: It's a book of my father's poetry.
Me: (flipping through it) It's quite wonderful!
Student: So, can I get an "A" in the class?
Me: No, but if your father takes the class, I'm sure he will.

Student: Will it help my grade if I give you a piano?
Me: A piano?
Student: It's what my father had to give for me to get into university.
Me: But you are already getting an A.
Student: And I can get an A even if I don't give you a piano?
Me: Of course, but what's with the pianos? Why a piano?
Student: I just thought you professors liked pianos.

*One of my finer comebacks, don't you think?


  1. Anonymous12:18 PM

    The only time I got an indecent offer from a student was after a particularly stirring lecture on Abelard and Heloise. She was about 20 years older than me, and not looking for a better grade. It was funny even at the time, but also embarrassing and unpleasant.

    I sometimes think of her, now that I'm over 20 years older than my students. Gives me a realistic view of how the vast majority of my students see me -- shockingly ancient.

    I can't think of any time when I've actually been offered a bribe.

  2. I love those, especially the ones that already had As and didn't know it. Too funny.

  3. These were so funny and end-of-term apt that I blogged on them today.

    Some students are so clueless...

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  4. Anonymous7:10 AM

    Scott, you missed your calling.

    You should have been a comedian. Or a playwright, along the lines of Neil Simon.


  5. Anonymous11:43 AM

    I enjoyed the "poetry" story story. I am now more than ever sympathetic to your profession.

    And shame on the student who offered you a dime! You're definitely worth (at least) a quarter!

  6. Anonymous11:51 AM