PSA: Big Head Leads to Pain in the Neck

A student has been scoring in the 60s and 70s in a class where the average score on the tests is in the mid-70s. He’s not failing, but he won’t be getting a great grade, either.

He doesn’t come to class or office hours. He submits homework only intermittently. He tells me that he’s too busy with projects for other classes. He also tells me, verbatim, “… I focus more on higher levels of abstraction, which makes it harder for me to work with low-level [material].”

He’s blowing off my course; fine. But this student is full of $hit, and I hope he knows it. Otherwise, I worry about him, for this big head of his will result in a pain in the neck. There’s no such thing as being too cool for low-level stuff before you’ve actually shown mastery of said low-level stuff. Nobody who’s ever mastered anything would buy this, and I can’t believe that’s what he’s selling.



  1. Ugh, the dilettante dudes. The happy shiny progressive educators seem to have a mixed view of them. On the one hand,they critique The System for making people master tedious skills. On the other hand, they can be weird and uncool.

    But I am a curmudgeon and I just plain hate the dilettante dudes.

  2. I always think the most mind-bending part of these conversations is that the student actually believes what they’re telling me. I mean, if they were just saying these things because they wanted me off their case, fine (it’s not my job to be on their case, and I don’t have the time to do it anyway)… but I think they actually believe it, and that’s what scares me the most on their behalf. I think probably the biggest favor you could do for this student in the long run is to convince him that he actually isn’t learning what he needs to be learning to get to the “higher levels of abstraction” he’s supposedly only interested in thinking about. Too bad he’d never be able to hear it from you.

    I also always leave these conversations with the niggling question in the back of my mind of whether my male colleagues get them as frequently. There are those data showing that male professors are much more likely to be described in student evaluations as “geniuses” or “brilliant,” and I wonder if a kid like this would tell his “genius” professor that the work was at too low a level of abstraction for him. I suspect not. You didn’t bring up gender, but I’m going to go ahead and get grumpy about it on your behalf.

  3. I second the gender issue raised by lyra211. I have never heard of a student saying something similar to any of my men colleagues. My experience has been that revelations of this sort — that the material we teach is too basic — is usually reserved for us womenfolk.

  4. At the risk of mansplaining, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with the dilettantes. They probably don’t offer their “insights” to me as critically as they would to women, but I’ve definitely run into “I get, like, the concepts, and I really like the abstract ideas, but doing all the calculations isn’t my thing.”

    Once, after spending some time showing the class how my own research (on biological applications of optics) relates to the topics presented that day in lecture, a dilettante dude approached me and said “That research sounds nice, but do you do any M Theory?” He fancied himself a future string theorist, but he didn’t know enough about the field to realize that a physicist in my specialty is VERY unlikely to also work on string theory. (There were a great many other things that he didn’t know; a colleague said that instead of M theory this kid should first try B and C theory, because he was mostly doing D and F theory.)

    So, yeah, we run into dilettantes who earnestly explain that they’re really good at the higher-level abstract concepts but it’s the whole, like, calculation thing that they’re, like, not so goodly at, you know?

    In college I also knew a female physics major who explained that she was switching from physics to philosophy because her mind preferred really abstract, nonlinear concepts over the calculations done in freshman physics. She supposedly would have been happier if we’d just jumped right into quantum mechanics…until they made her solve a differential equation.

    But overall the dilettantes seem more likely to be male than female. There are exceptions (e.g. my college acquaintance) and I fully support the right of men, women, and people of non-binary identities to be annoying dilettantes, but it seems to be a male-dominated niche.

  5. We have one of these in the department. Not exactly the same (the context is research), but they appear to honestly believe that their undergrad research will overturn their area of research if only they can get “one more quick experiment” done to prove the theory is correct.

    Now that they’re close to graduating, all of the profs in the department with any expertise in what they want to do should drop everything to help with their time / lab space / equipment. You see because after graduation, they’re going to become a doctor (uhoh) so they won’t have time to do any more research. And this research is too important NOT to get done since after all it is going to revolutionize the field, so if we don’t “help” (aka do the experiments for them) WE are actually selfish and shortsighted for holding back progress.

    This student is like Anakin Skywalker “Obiwan is holding me back!!!” 😥

  6. I wonder if you’re teaching a first year graduate student that is in my lab. He’s taking an undergraduate level course that fits in an area of expertise in the other lab he is jointly in. He’s failing and considering dropping. But his reason for failing is exactly the same: “it’s harder for me to work with low-level material.” UGH. Same graduate student has a lot of excuses of why he doesn’t get things done in lab… I’m waiting for his first group meeting/first important deadline missed/etc. for him to wake up.

  7. Thanks lyra and nnnnnn. Not sure what this student was thinking, but yeah, there is always potential for some weirdness that men wouldn’t experience. For instance, I have midterm 3 in a couple of weeks, which means I have hordes of students in my office all day every day. One kid commented how I had to do spring cleaning in my office. It doesn’t look bad but it’s more cluttered than usual, with a box with new toner, several boxes with paper for printers (my and my students’), and just stacks of papers and books. As always in the spring semester, my office looks as tired and cluttered as I am; there is always ritual cleaning at the end of the semester and this academic year has been a very rough one. But the fact that these kids think it’s a good idea to hint that I should clean my office is some high-level cluelessness/rudeness/god knows what. And it’s always the young dudes making these comments. I cannot imagine a female student making this type of comment, ever.

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