My worst student
Somewhere, in a class past or future, your nemesis awaits. John Kaag on the existential terror of a pedagogical puzzle
Your worth as a teacher is not bound up with the success or failure of one student, even if it’s your worst. This may seem like quietism. It’s not
Anyone who tells you that you “get one every term” doesn’t understand how superlatives work. Worst. Most inconsiderate. Meanest. This isn’t your garden-variety annoyance. Meeting your worst student is a once-in-a-career encounter. Thankfully, many terms can pass without anyone interviewing for this position, but when a viable candidate takes your class, you know it. And so do the rest of your students. I’m pretty sure I’ve yet to meet mine (the designation of “worst student” can be made only in hindsight) but a few students have made a go of it. And so they have given me a bit of practice in facing the worst.
I know. You think that there’s no such thing as a worst student - only more or less challenging ones. You think that only professors who don’t care about their students have worsts and bests. You’d be wrong, but the mistake is an honest one. In truth, academics who don’t care about their students or about teaching are generally the ones that never encounter a “worst” student. To their way of thinking, every student is a bothersome distraction and the best that one can do is ignore these distractions and stay on task. These academics don’t lose sleep over their students. And trust me, if you face your worst, you will lose quite a bit.
So what do I mean by “worst”? Well, let’s begin with what I don’t mean. I’m not referring to the motivationally challenged ones that congregate in the back of class, or the overly anxious ones in the front. I am also not talking about the ones who have genuine difficulty grasping a subject. None of these are viable candidates. Your worst student, in my experience, is one that runs counter to your deepest care as a teacher. That’s the real reason why bad teachers don’t have worst students. Care. Yes, that virtue of all pedagogical virtues is the thing that makes the mere existence of a certain type of student so excruciatingly painful.
Let me explain.
Perhaps you remember the story that Albert Camus tells us in The Stranger about Meursault and the priest? No? Let me remind you. The priest, like any good priest, has dedicated his life to God (the way we not-so-secretly dedicate our lives to our studies). And like any good priest, he visits Meursault in prison in order to urge him to confess his sins and be reconciled with the Almighty. But Meursault doesn’t believe in the Almighty. He just doesn’t. Period. And here’s the rub. Meursault’s atheism denies the very thing that makes the priest tick. If the priest did not care about God, Meursault wouldn’t pose an existential affront to the core of his being.
But the priest does care - deeply, passionately, unflaggingly - and so Meursault is his worst student.
This tells us something important about our worst students, namely that they come in all shapes and sizes and are uniquely suited to terrorise one person, and one person alone: you. Your worst may be only moderately bothersome to me, and my worst may be one of your best. It just depends on what you truly care about, what you really believe in, and how a fateful student jeopardises that belief.
So what should you do when you meet your version of Meursault?
For starters, don’t be like the priest from The Stranger and shake your crucifix at them. Unfortunately, this approach, while temporarily satisfying, is exactly as desperate as it is comical: desperate for the priest who needs to reaffirm his belief; comical for the student who refuses to grant that belief is a big deal. Trust me, the gulf between desperation and comedy is not one that you want to explore.
Even the most secular among us have our crucifixes, those signs and icons of our abiding care for a subject. Maybe you’re a professor of English literature who has a particular hatred of plagiarism, or a historian who has a fervent passion for the civil rights movement, or an evolutionary biologist who insists with religious conviction on laboratory protocol. In any event, you might be inclined to brandish the incriminating paper, or umpteenth bigoted comment, or safety manual, at your Meursault. If at all possible, refrain from doing this. Do this only if you’ve reached the point of no return with a student, the point at which they will have to leave your class, or college, or university for their worst-ness. But if this isn’t the case (and usually it’s not), perhaps you would consider four plans of action that may at first seem deeply counter-intuitive.
First, care less. If care is what got you into this mess, it’s good idea to put a lid on it. Your worth as a teacher is not bound up with the success or failure of one student, even if it’s your worst student. Why do you need to be assured of this fact by a newly minted assistant professor? You don’t. It’s common sense. But then again, common sense is in scarce supply when you come face to face with your Meursault. So let me state the obvious. You aren’t going to eradicate plagiarism or bigotry or laboratory recklessness by making a point with a single student. This may seem like quietism or apathy to you. It’s not. It is an appeal for perspective, that valuable attribute that is typically lost in facing your worst.
Second, care more. Care more about the actual human being who’s currently trying out for the role of worst student. In my experience, you will discover that they are just trying out. Once I start caring less about my crucifix, I can usually care more about the life that is giving me and my precious symbols such trouble.