The day before yesterday (oh, gruesome day…) she sat in the office, amid vain attempts to plan a grammar lesson. (The location is important – it is the sort of location where hard work and an open door are often at odds.) She and a colleague were chatting, a conversation in the genre of, “Wait, what are you doing in class tomorrow? Should I show the video? Did we move on to the present tense?” (This kind of conversation usually devolves into youtube-ing kittens…but is often productive.)
A young man walks into the office and announces that his professor has just assigned a text, in French, that the class should translate for homework. Something struck them as being amiss…
“Is it a French class?”
The one hint that this professor gave the poor souls, was that they might have a difficult time with Google translate or other such sites, because the text was in 18th century French. (Hint : that is not true.) He asked if either of them would have time to quickly translate a page of French for him? And it would also be lovely if they could give him an idea as to its origin and context.
“Hmm, that sounds like asking us to do your homework.”
“No, it’s not. It’s just that we’re supposed to use the resources that we can find in order to understand this passage.”
Now, what she should have said was:
“Well, kid, I’m glad that someone thinks my decade or more of intensive language study, various travels throughout the francophone world, published translations of academic texts, and a year of teaching the language are regarded as a resource for anyone, even if it’s just an undergraduate who wants to get out of doing his homework.”
What she actually said was something along the lines of:
“Well, you know, I’m thinking that this probably violates the Honor Code. I also do not have the time right now, or presumably, ever. Good luck to you.”
With perhaps a couple of “I’m sorry, but…”s thrown in.
Thinking that he would leave, she turned back to her computer.
“Do you think that anyone would be around later, who might have some time?”
She politely informed the young man that he might encounter some difficulty finding a graduate student willing to give up what would likely be quite a bit of their time, in order to do his homework for him.
“Who’s the professor? Because this strikes me as a kind of bizarre, not to mention, sort of torturous assignment…” Hey, she felt for the kid. If he were telling the truth, the assignment was, indeed, a bit of a casse-couilles.
“I’d rather not say.”
Thinking nothing of it, except how flabbergasting this request was – the request itself and also his insistent tone – she went back to the lesson at hand.
Today (oh, gruesome day…) she was back to her grammar when the student – incredibly, unabashedly, self-righteously, what-are-you-possibly-thinking-honestly-kid-I-thought-I-made-this-clear-to-you-ly – came back. Also present were two of her colleagues who had not yet made the young man’s acquaintance, (though stories of his presence, lurking around corners, were starting to circulate) and he issued the same plea. Would one of them have time to translate this passage for him? Reader, do keep in mind that he mentioned nothing of “helping” to translate. The young man made it very plain that he had no knowledge of the French language.
Again, they informed the eager student, in slightly harsher terms (Reader, forgive them, they had neither enough patience nor caffeine), that their job description did not include free translations for students whom they did not know, for classes of professors whose names remained undisclosed. This was, without the slightest doubt in the world, an inappropriate request. Had he at least tried asking one of the university’s many tutors, who are paid for their time and might be willing to help?
“They were all booked.”
Oh, sheer delight…
They spent the next five minutes convincing the young man that this was simply not a task they would perform. He would not remove himself.
He needed this translation. He was entitled to this translation. How could they not see that it was for academic purposes, for his success as a student, for his knowledge and enlightenment and further understanding of the world and all its workings?
No dice, buster. They were not to be convinced.
He finally left (when they had ceased responding) and, naturally, as graduate students do, they congratulated themselves on being completely and totally in the right. Because when you’re always the one who’s wrong, (because you scheduled it on the wrong day, because you sent the email out late, because you misspoke, misquoted, misunderstood, broke the copier, typo-ed the hell out of your Baudelaire paper…) you really have to fight to convince yourself that you’re right about what you do and say. And dammit, by Jove, zut alors, wtf, they were right!
“The cheek!” “The nerve!” “The gall!”
A tense silence resumed…and then…out of the dark corners of sheer unbelievability…because the three colleagues had apparently entered a parallel universe, where zombies cannot be killed and undergraduates cannot be silenced…
“You know, with the five minutes you spent berating me, you could have simply helped me translate this page of French.”
Let me provide a few brief citations to help us unpack the argument of the young man’s ensuing diatribe:
“You know, we all have to work together here as scholars.”
Indeed. I work my ass off to instill in my students the tools they need to gain their own knowledge.
“I always help my friends out with their homework.”
We are not friends.
“If you’re training to be professors, shouldn’t you have compassion and patience for your students?”
You are not my student.
“I hope by the time you’re all professors, you’ll learn how to work with people.”
I hope you learn how to use a dictionary.
And the parting words…
“Hmpf, what do you expect from French people…”
She spent a full hour completely livid, and is likely still harboring some residual anger…perhaps…so I’m told… But this encounter did serve to bring up an interesting point…
Was she angry because the young man was so appallingly disinterested in his own education? Or was she angry because he showed such a brazen lack of respect for her as an instructor? (Hint: one of these angers makes her none too proud of herself, and she is not even sure that she has a right to feel it…)
Though she would like to see it in a different light, she unfortunately cannot interpret this exchange as anything other than a battle of entitlements. His entitlement to the good grade gained by a hefty college tuition and enough capitalistic, dog-eat-dog self-interest disguised in “people working together” to supply an entire neo-colony. And her entitlement to not serve up translation and analysis of 18th century French texts – for free – in the same way she serves up skinny, sugar-free, decaf, vanilla lattes with no foam – for decent pay.
So yes, she is going to call it a sense of entitlement. And it’s probably not so different from the one for which she criticizes her students when they come begging for a good grade because they have to get into the business school. But later, when she is losing sleep over the morally murky waters into which one treads by the simple act of refusing help to someone who needs it – and really…is that the kind of professor she would want to be? – she will know, that she thinks, that she might have possibly, in some conceivable way, maybe, earned at least the tiniest speck of entitlement to her own time and energy.