The twit’s guide to college success

How not to insult the instructor and ruin whatever chance you have for a passing grade

Jaime O’Neill teaches English at Butte Community College, near Chico and is a frequent contributor to our sister paper, the Chico News & Review, and other publications.

This morning, one of my students asked me the question student twits have asked teachers since time immemorial: “I was absent from your last class. Did I miss anything?”

Because I’ve had students asking me that question for a very long time, I was ready with one of my standard replies. “No,” I said, “you didn’t miss anything, at all. Like most days, I simply wasted time until the hour was up.”

My alternate answer to that question is, “No, you missed nothing whatsoever. Once we realized you weren’t there, we simply observed 50 minutes of silence to mark our collective sorrow over your absence.”

Those are snide and sarcastic responses, to be sure, but students should cultivate a sensitivity to nuance, to the implications present in the way questions are phrased, especially when they are speaking to English teachers, a category of teachers notorious for being smart-asses.

So, rule one in the twit’s guide to college success is to avoid phrasing questions to your profs suggesting that it is a rare day when something of value transpires in their classes. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone hoping to attain a baccalaureate degree, professors hate that implication, even when there is truth in it. Or especially when there is truth in it.

Teachers are also disinclined to hear excuses, though there are some petty tyrants in classrooms who seem to enjoy the sight of students groveling. Professors with healthy sex lives, however, don’t really care to know why you weren’t in class. The reason doesn’t matter much, only the frequency. Miss too many classes, and the continuity is broken, as is your ability to claim credit for having played all the holes in the “course.”

It’s also unwise to kill off your grandmother in the interest of buying instructional indulgences. In the experience of most teachers, grandmothers are the most expendable of relatives. Early in my teaching career, I had a single student who claimed to have lost four of them in the span of one semester. Suffice it to say, that student’s credibility was severely clouded by not only the number of grandmothers lost, but also by the fact that he chose to use the dead grandmother cliché in the first place.

Yet another foolish error made by student twits is the practice of placing their papers at the bottom of the stack when they are turning in assigned homework. I must confess that I was just this sort of twit myself, back in my student days. I don’t know what I could have been thinking. From the view of the instructor, the farther down in the pile of papers he goes, the crabbier he gets. So your paper, which might have seemed fresh and fairly intelligent if he’d read it first, now seems stale and repetitive. Besides, now you are the one keeping him from knocking off work and going out for a beer, and you are bound to pay the price for his growing impatience and weariness with inane comments on a subject that has come to bore him. So don’t be a twit; turn in your paper on top of the stack.

Another of the behavior characteristics of student twits is the habit of compounding failures. If, for instance, you fail to get a paper done in time, you then cleverly decide that you can cover that failing by not showing up for class on the day that paper is due. This ploy seems foolproof. After all, how could you turn in the paper you had labored over so assiduously if you weren’t there? The absence buys you a couple of days to get the paper done, and no one is the wiser. It was illness, an act of God, or a death in the family that kept you from turning your paper in on time.

Yeah, right. Works every time.

Finally, as a favor to twits in classrooms everywhere, I offer this insight from the opposite side of the desk. When you are taking any sort of exam, do not panic when other students begin to turn in their tests just as you are getting started. When I was a student twit, back in the Pleistocene Era, I would routinely become rattled by my fellow students who were turning in their blue book exams just as I was beginning to write my second paragraph. I must be really slow-witted, I fretted, or it must be that they really had a far more immediate grasp of the material, I worried, or maybe I just wasn’t college material, after all, I concluded.

The reason some students turn in tests so early in the session is because they have simply struck out, and are utterly devoid of much to give back on a test. This is a valuable lesson, and I only learned it after I became a teacher myself. I would have spared myself much needless anxiety if I’d known this when I was a student. Most of the early finishers in test situations are, to state it baldly, the slackers. They are the first people to leave an exam, and the last people you should be worried about. So, the next time you’re taking a test and you find yourself the last one in the room, the one frantically trying to finish as the instructor is shuffling papers at the front of the room, keep in mind that in all probability, your test is going to be one of the best of the batch.

There is, of course, much more useful advice I could give to college twits, but another thing I’ve learned over a long time in classrooms, both as a student and as a teacher, is that, for twits, learning is most effective when offered in small bites.