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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Insult (Προσβολή)

Yesterday, I blocked somebody from my facebook profile because I believed their comments were insulting. This reminded me of two instances where I felt insulted and abused by students to such an extent that I realised I would have to take 'terminal' action to ensure that such offensive behaviour would stop immediately. In social media, you just 'block' or 'unfriend' someone; but in real life, this kind of behaviour is very hard to control as it involves a matter of opinion, and it is often the case that you are closely connected to the person who may have insulted you in the face. For this reason, we don't really expect this to happen since most of the time, people 'behave' according to common beliefs about what is acceptable and what is not. So we often don't know which mechanisms and protocols to use to stop or prevent this behaviour from occurring. When we do encounter it, we have to decide how to handle it, often treating each case as it comes.

One of my students was regarded by his professors as a brilliant scientist. He had excellent research skills and well developed lab techniques. He was quite religious and kept a low profile, often taking time out on Friday afternoons to go to prayer in the makeshift mosque set up in the town. He was not a bad English student either, but he was not passing the institutionally-set English test. He was a nervous student, always worrying about what would happen if he didn't pass, which doesn't help one's confidence.

If students pass the test with the required score, they can then proceed to another year of studies at the institute. If they don't, they cannot proceed with their studies. It's the rule, and it's applied to everyone; there are no exceptions. At the time, we didn't have online coursework and instant lessons via the internet, like we do now, so the lessons were conducted in the classic style of teaching: lecture theatre, students with books, paper and pens, teacher with marker pen. During the Christmas holidays, when most students left the institute, I would come in for extra lessons with the students who had not passed. I did whatever I could within my powers to help them. I also arranged tutorials outside the regular class hours for students to ask me about anything that they did not understand.

Unfortunately for this particular student, he failed the examination twice which meant that he could not come back the following year to continue his studies (we now give students three chances to pass the test). So he stayed in the country illegally instead of returning home, but he was not allowed to register for courses and he had to manage his own living expenses. "But you know I know English!" he'd plead with me every time I bumped into him at the institute, which is rather small, so I would see him quite often. "Please do something so that I can get a pass mark!" But there was really nothing that I could do for him. Passing the test was up to him, not me. The same exams were set for all students, I did not pass around the questions beforehand, and I could not fake his grade. For a start, faking grades is morally wrong. And if I faked his grades, then who else's should I also fake? But really, why even put this in our heads? It just wasn't in my nature to cheat the system. Unfortunately, this issue did crop up a number of times with a number of students. (This very fact led to the abolition of the examination being managed institutionally - now, students sit a test set and graded by external agents.)

Eventually, he wrote to me via email to ask if I could get the institute to let him into the second year of studies without sitting the English exams. But I don't make the rules, and the rules said he couldn't. He thought I might have some pull in the matter. So he wrote to me again, this time invoking the name of Allah, and telling me that if I am a god-fearing person, I would always be able to find a way to help students. He really had crossed a line here, as I interpreted this statement as a threat. I had to take action swiftly and forcefully, so I forwarded the letter to my boss, who told him in no uncertain terms what the legal implications of sending a person such a letter would entail.

Of course, the student then stopped sending me emails, and if I remember rightly he did apologise (this was a long time ago). He also passed the English test eventually, and we all congratulated him, telling him that he had achieved this through his own personal efforts. There really had been no need for him to resort to his previous tactics, which could all be interpreted as acts of desperation. He finished his studies at the institute successfully, and went on to further studies in a Northern European country. For him, Greece was a stepping stone, which served him well. All's well that ends well.

But sometimes it doesn't end well. My other case of insulting behaviour directed at me by a student involved the case of a woman who had been granted an exemption to study at the institute, despite not having any of the academic requirements to be accepted for studies. She claimed refugee status, which enabled her to be accepted without documentation. On acceptance, though, she was also subject to the same rules as the other students. So she too had to pass an English test in order to be allowed to continue with her studies.

There was a great deal of discussion about her enrolment, because of her unusual status. She also behaved (and dressed) rather idiosyncratically, stopping people in their tracks, even when they were going to the bathroom, to ask about anything that concerned her, namely her grades, which were not very high, nor were they very promising. She'd ask her professors for private after-hours help, she'd complain that the material was too difficult for her to understand, and she wanted to know if this could be taken into account when she sat examinations in the science courses.

For some reason, she would never turn up to my classes, which were optional anyway because the language requirements did not necessarily have to be awarded by the institute itself; they could be earned with a passing grade in other internationally recognised English exams. We simply give students a chance to earn it without paying extra fees. But every now and then, she'd arrive at my office, asking for that extra private help to improve her language skills. I viewed this as a completely unfair way of teaching her, but as long as I didn't have other more urgent work to attend to, I couldn't deny her the extra tuition.

One day, after having written a mock test and not passed it (yet again), she asked me how the final exam would be scored. By this time, we were using tests set and graded by external parties. So I explained the procedure to her: she notes her answers (for multiple-choice questions) on a specially printed card and we send this card to the examiners. After expressing her fear that she may not write legibly, or may confuse the order she noted on the answer sheet, she asked me if we could grade her answers at the institute, instead of sending them to another organisation. The whole discussion reached a tragi-comical climax when she suggested that she would not be treated fairly, due to her writing style. I pointed out that she only had to blacken circles to express her choices, not actually write anything, and that her paper would be machine-read.

At this point, she looked at me in the face very seriously and said: "I don't believe you." I had been secretly hoping that she would execute some act of buffoonery like this one that would get me off the hook and make it look like she had crossed the line of trust, and which had nothing to do with my personal biases. In my exasperated state, I would then be able to get rid of her (and her antics) swiftly and effectively.

"You don't believe me?" I repeated her words. "Then get out of my office right now!" As I said this, I felt so sorry for her because she was from another country and it was plainly obvious that she was unfamiliar with certain levels of civility and commonly accepted academic norms. But I was at a loss, exasperated as I mentioned above, and this woman had taken me out of my clothes (as a popular Greek saying goes). I then wrote an email to my boss about how I can no longer offer extra one-to-one classes for somebody who does not trust me. Naturally, my position was accepted.

I did not see the student again for a while until about a week before the exam date. She came to my office and asked me if I could help her to pass the exam. "Certainly," I told her, and then gave her the times for the scheduled classes I had arranged with the other students in the group. She then asked if I could go over some material with her at that moment, but I told her that I had other 'more important' work to do, but I'll try to answer her questions after the scheduled class. She did not turn up for any of them. Unfortunately for her, she didn't pass the test either, so she wasn't able to continue her studies.

Social media is sometimes more dramatic than real life because we don't always 'know' who we are talking to; real life is too physical to avoid. The rules of trust in real life are generally not written, but they still have to be followed, and they apply to everyone. We start learning them from when we are young. Where to draw the limits just before the breakdown of trust is usually a matter of opinion.

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