• April 16, 2014

The Case of the Vampire Student

Careers Illustration - Advising a Student to Quit

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration - Advising a Student to Quit

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Every program has them: vampire students. They're the graduate students who don't grow into their degree work. They get so-so grades. They fail an exam or two but won't quit. They begin thesis work when they're far from ready. More than anything, they show up asking for help again and again only to leave you drained and frustrated because, for all the time you have devoted to them, their work shows little improvement.

My vampire came in the form of a master's student I inherited from a departing colleague. The student was in her final year, and my colleague explained that she was weak but a hard worker. Early in the fall semester, I took home a draft of her thesis, made some coffee, and started reading. As is typical in my field in the humanities, the thesis was long—close to 200 pages. I didn't get far before my heart sank: It was riddled with errors, from the small-but-jarring to the large-and-jaw-dropping. I made comments in the margins. I came up with suggestions. Working on her thesis was so slow-going that I spent a long day doing nothing else.

A few days later I met with the student and asked for her opinion of her thesis. She said she was too close to it to have an opinion. I took a deep breath and told her she was far from ready to defend. She looked dismayed but seemed to take my comments to heart, not taking notes, but listening and at times asking for clarification. Since she'd failed her comprehensive exam the previous year, I also advised her to sit in on a graduate course I was teaching, and to come to my office hours with practice exam responses for us to go over. The task ahead of her was daunting. Still, we had a plan, and the spring was a long way off.

As the weeks passed, we met to look over her revised thesis chapters, but the conversations had a curious sense of déjà vu about them. I would make comments similar to ones I'd made before, and she would listen but never take notes. I would remind her about sitting in on my course and writing practice exam responses, and she would nod and tell me she was planning to.

Before long February came around, and with it the comprehensive exam. My student failed again. To make matters worse, the next full draft of her thesis had new problems for every old one she'd resolved. I put it to her, gently, that finishing the degree might be beyond her.

In some distress, she asked if that meant defending a couple of months late.

No, I said.

Next year then?

I started talking about her options if she left the program, but here the conversation took an unanticipated turn: She insisted she would succeed and told me I had to believe in her. Encouraging her to quit, she said, would only make her more determined.

I replayed our conversation in my head for some nights afterward. Had I been unclear? Had I not conveyed the magnitude of the problems with her thesis—not to mention her failing her exam? But I countered: I'd given her a detailed evaluation of where her thesis was coming up short. I'd been plain that it wasn't in a state ready to defend—far from it!

Staring at the dark shapes of the trees outside my window, I imagined future conversations in which I would define the problems more starkly and somehow more convincingly. But in person, those conversations went less smoothly: She asked me over and over to believe in her, and grew teary when I told her that serving as her thesis adviser wasn't a matter of belief.

It was clear that I needed to take action. I looked into the procedures for dismissing a graduate student. But as it turned out, the student would need a warning with specific goals to attain and a whole semester to meet them, so dismissal was certainly no fast-track to relief.

As I considered the 40 hours I had already devoted to my vampire student, with no end in sight, I felt my blood pressure mounting. This student might be with me for another semester and would require continued thesis advising. Plus, she was now asking for weekly meetings to help her prepare for the (as yet distant) third sitting of her exam—a request I was deflecting. At times, mostly in secret and to my shame, I imagined resigning as her chair. One day I let slip that wish to a colleague who looked horrified and begged me not to.

Along the way I discussed my vampire student with colleagues who bemoaned our department's lack of rules governing how many times a student could sit the comprehensive exam, and our need for a way to counsel students out of the program. Everyone was sympathetic, and my determination to deal with my vampire student fairly but firmly wasn't disputed—quite the opposite.

What was disputed was where to fix the point of no return. Like so many departments, mine has a culture of expecting that faculty members will make every effort to ensure that students are given the support they need to do well, and such a culture seems appropriate and caring. It was also keeping me in a bind. Colleagues pointed out that my student had improved somewhat, and maybe with more help she could write a passable thesis.

Besides, she was in her third year and we'd let her stay this long and had taken her money, so wasn't she within her rights to assume she was going to get her degree? Such comments stuck with me and only made me feel worse for plotting to push her out of the program. Now I wondered if I was rushing things along because of my own frustrations with her and her demands on my time.

In retrospect, it took me too long to understand that I needed an opinion from someone beyond my department. It was April before I sought out a colleague with expertise in dealing with problem students but who knew nothing of my particular vampire student. I felt a little nervous sitting in his overheated office: It's no small matter to admit to wanting to dismiss a graduate student, not least because I knew it could reflect back on me as an incompetent or malicious adviser.

Instead, my colleague's reaction surprised me. He exclaimed, "Our university can't afford to have you put that amount of time into one student. You've worked with her on her thesis, you've offered support that she didn't use—plus most people would take failing comps twice as a sign that it's time to go." We talked through what I could say to her, and when, and what should go in writing. The guilt of what earlier had seemed to be heartless plotting against a helpless but energy-draining foe vanished.

No one in my department had told me I was wrong to pursue dismissing the student. No one had taken issue with my appraisal of the problems in her thesis. But too often what seemed to intrude was personal knowledge of the student and what her reaction to being dismissed might be: Surely we could do just a little more to help her.

I understood. The student had sobbed in my office, and the memory of it unnerved me. What I had needed was someone who hadn't met this student, who hadn't seen her cry at failing the exam, who saw the situation in a cold but clear light.

At heart, the case of the vampire student wasn't just a matter of a student's terrible disappointment bumping up against a faculty member's exasperation. It was about determining the boundary where faculty responsibility should meet student responsibility, and the costs of letting that border drift.

Anne Herbert is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the humanities at a public university in the West.

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