"Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse."... ... Thomas Szasz.
Commentary of the Day - May 25, 2005: Better than a dead grandmother. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
[Ed. Note: It's finals week here at Krispy Kreme U., and those of us who have many years of teaching behind us always give a shudder for all those poor grandmothers whose lives seem to come to an end at this time of year. It's amazing how many students seem to have grandparents whose health suddenly declines as finals approach. And, we long for more original excuses. Well, the following story from our favorite curmudgeon Sanford Pinsker fits that bill.]
Now that I've fully retired and made my way to ever-sunny south Florida I find myself confronted by people in the pool who ask what I've come to call "the usual questions": Did you find that students were worse at the end of your career than they were at the beginning? ("Not really, I would answer, "the good ones are still good and the uninterested still uninterested"); Don't you miss the camaraderie of your colleagues ("Again, not really. Besides if I want to attend a boring, often contentious meeting, our condo holds one every month."); and finally, the question that gets asked most of all: What's the wackiest undergraduate excuse you ever got? The answer to that question requires some explanation.
For starters, we have to return to the days when students -- and even professors -- pecked out papers on a now-obsolete machine known as a "typewriter." I mention this because excuses for late work changed abruptly in the age of computers. Now, a student will spin out sad tales about how his or her computer crashed -- and always on the night before the paper was due.
One thing, I should add, that has not changed over the decades is the (mistaken) undergraduate belief that genius works best when up against a deadline. "Probably so," I would tell my students, "but you'd better be sure you're a genius as the clock hands approach 2: 30 AM. On the other hand, however, I must admit that waves of empathy used to wash over me when students sighed about their crashed computer. Why so? Because I know what it's like to lose pages of what I thought was damn fine text into the maw of whatever cyberspace is. So, I cut such students a large chunk of slack -- and tell them to scream at their computer for, say, fifteen high decibel minutes, and then to sit down, sigh once, and try to reconstruct as much the paper as possible. We also agree on a "date certain" when the paper is due.
But in the benighted days of the typewriter, students would look teachers in the face and explain that "my dog ate the paper." That excuse has become a staple of procrastinators everywhere, along with the grandmother who dies semester after semester. In short, most undergraduate excuses were as predictable as they were unimaginative -- that is, until the day in l967 when a young man sat down in my office and spun a truly remarkable tale.
It seems that his ex-girlfriend had been so unglued by their breakup that she made it a point to visit his apartment when she knew he'd be in class (she still had a key) and took a butcher knife from the kitchen and, in an act of poetic revenge that sounds as if it belonged in the house of Atreus, she mercilessly attacked his water bed -- the former sight of their amorous trysts and now the object of her uncontrollable anger. She poked and slashed, slashed and poked, until the water bed gave up the ghost and unleashed a torrent of water into her ex-lover's apartment. His paper, the one due the next morning, was hopelessly drowned.
I must admit that the student's story had me on the edge of my chair, not only because the story was so riveting in its own right but also because it raised the specter of tragedy in ways I did not normally associate with college teaching.
A postscript: That evening, with the infamous water bed excuse still dancing around in my head, I decided to work up a release form that I would insist that a student sign before I would listen to his or her story. In the best legalese I could muster the document I push across the desk transfers the rights to the excuse I am about to hear. I am then free to use the "story" in a story of my own, in an article, as well as in adaptations of the story for radio, television, or motion pictures.
As students -- not used to signing legal documents -- skim down the page, I reassure them that I probably won't use their story for the very good reason that most undergraduate excuses are just so banal and, well, boring. But some just knock my socks off, and those are the ones my lawyer tells me will require signed waivers down the road. After all, once I have the rights to these stories, I can pretty much do what I want with them.
I do all this with a straight face, knowing well that students will have little choice in the matter: if they refuse to sign my trumped-up waiver, I simply can't listen to their excuse.
After a while, the joke got out and I filed away my first and only foray into legalese. Some students, I am told, thought that the hoax was hilarious; others, I am told, wondered if I could be taken up on charges. As I said at the beginning, some students, then and now, are interesting; and some are just the sort who would accuse a funny professor of a crime
©2005 Sanford Pinsker.
A frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor, Sanford Pinsker now resides in south Florida where he keeps a sharp eye on the ocean and thinks about becoming a stand-up comic.
The IP comments: We were fortunate to visit with Sandy Pinsker and his lovely wife Ann during a recent short stay in Ft. Lauderdale. Sandy's swears that the events he describes really happened.
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