Students as Customers: If They Can't Write, They're Still Right

John C. Chalberg

“Hi I am having a lil probleming understanding this corse as I stated before im new so as you can see im failing every thing I take this is not the student I am I don’t want you to think that im just taking the quizzes at a whim that is clearly not the case for example as you can also see I have done this last assignment either I promise all this will be better next wk im just a lil thrown off by the way the online classes work but Im getting the hang of it slowly so I could please have just tomorrow to get this last dropbox in im currently at the hospital with my son and didn’t have time to do the work im not trying to get by I want you to truly understand that I just need some help and time” 

Have you caught your breath yet? I’m still trying—and for more reasons than you might suppose. This “communication” arrived, via email, from a student in my online American history course at Normandale Community College.
 
It took some extra time, but I was able to decipher the message, sort of, as I’m sure you are able to do, sort of. So what’s the big deal, some may ask? After all, emails are often written hurriedly. Let it go; answer what you think the query might have been; and let that be that.
 
For a while I thought about doing just that. Then I thought, “imagine if all of my students wrote like that.” So when I did respond, I took note of the mode of “communication” and offered some cautionary comments about what had been written.
 
In fact, I began by expressing concerns about the writing. The course is writing intensive. Was this student up to the task? To quote myself, the email was a “bit of a red flag.” At no point in my response did I take the student to task for what had been written—or for what had been left out. Nor did I inform this student that I would not respond to such “communications” in the future. 
 
While there was no need for the student to respond, one did arrive. Did it strike a note of embarrassment? No. Was there a promise to avoid such carelessness in the future? No. Was there an apology? No.
 
Instead, I was informed that I had “offened” the student. The initial email was composed as it was because the student “chose” to do so. But if the student was indeed at the hospital with a sick child, why bother with any communication at that moment, let alone one of some length? In any case, I was assured that this student did know how to use punctuation, but “chose” otherwise in this instance. 
Maybe so.
 
Actually, there was some evidence of punctuation in this second email, as it did contain a few (but not enough) periods and a few too many exclamation points. That, I suppose, might have been that, but it wasn’t.
 
That little verb “chose” led me to make a choice. So I responded a second time. In this email I might have mentioned that when asking for a favor, it’s good practice to be on one’s best grammatical behavior. Instead, I began by informing the student that had I not taken note of the writing the student might well have concluded that I really didn’t care about student writing. I then let this student know that it was now my turn to be offended, that a reasonable response on the student’s part might have been to express at least chagrin, perhaps even to apologize for such carelessness, and certainly to promise that much greater care would be taken in the future. Instead, I was simply assured that the student knew the rules of grammar (even though this missive also evidenced something less than that).
 
And that might have been that, only it wasn’t. On return serve, I was declared “unprofessional and down right rude” for having “dared” to suggest that an apology might have been in order. Our “moronic conversation” was now over. But not quite: “I will be escalating this to your superiors and we will be having a meeting.”
 
This actually is a great sentence, complete with a capital “I,” proper spelling, and, of all things, a period. Perhaps the student was right all along. Perhaps a command of the rules of grammar was always at hand.   Perhaps there is a basis for hope after all. Then again, perhaps not. We’ve created a monster out there. It’s called the student as consumer. Not that all students are like this. Far from it. But the consumer mentality has taken root. And it is being taken to extremes. Even a few students like this is one student too many. It’s the entitlement mentality gone wild.
 
I get and I’ve sent sloppy emails. We all have. But the initial email in this exchange was beyond, far beyond, anything I have ever received. The exchange itself was somewhat beyond, but not far beyond, similar experiences in recent years. To be sure, my experiences with dissatisfied, offensive students are not every day occurrences (and are mainly associated within online teaching). It’s tempting, therefore, to brush this one off as an isolated matter. I’d like to, but I can’t. The student-as-consumer mentality is bad enough. Now couple that with unpreparedness and incivility. There is an iceberg out there, a growing iceberg floating in the sea of education, and this is its tip. 
 
John C. "Chuck"  Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College.   
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