Arshad Ahmad
1992 3M Teaching Fellow

ive minutes before the class starts, I try to mingle with as many as I can in the narrow space outside the classroom door; It is an important day for many reasons. A significant piece of work worth twenty-five percent is to be handed in.

“I can’t believe what he did,” whispers Michael. “I couldn’t make it, but it’s true isn’t it? He gave out the f-ing solutions!” “Sure. The TA is the profs protégé and wants to impress. But let me tell you who he impresses most: the three models parked in the front row. Anyway, what’s the big deal, Mike? Good information levels the playing field!”

Amir’s responses have a mixed effect on Michael. “But I don’t have the damn solutions!” Michael heaves a deep sigh. Amir is persistent: “Don’t you get it? What if my uncle was the minister of finance? The case was a take-home, solutions however you get them is fair game.”

This conversation brings my antennas to full mast. I am amazed at how students find new ways of communicating with me. Then another exclamation: “Shit man, I really worked hard on that case.”

What a sea of grim faces! There must have been something contagious about Michael and Amir’s comments. My quick survey of the classroom prompts me to abandon the routine I follow at the start of each class. Another lesson learned must be tested today: Deal with rumors openly before they are permitted to fester into fatal wounds.

“Good afternoon class.” Pause. “I heard about the tutorial. A number of students seem to love the TA.” (Why on earth did I say that?) “Was the tutorial excellent or what?” (Will reverse psychology convince this class?) There is no response. A pen falls down and rolls towards the trash can. “How many attended?” The majority of hands go up. I remark with satisfaction how pleased I am that so many students gave up their valuable weekend to attend a tutorial arranged at the last minute. “What an amazing group you guys are!” I exclaim. (Well, at least there is some truth in this statement. But why must I go through these warm-up statements to be really honest with my students?)

Then I ask what the tutor covered. Again, there is no response. I ask again, this time referring to specific problems from specific chapters that were intended to help them with the case study. Silence. Then Meral, who can never help herself, divulges in a louder than usual voice: “He really was helpful, sir, he did a lot of stuff …. “

“Was he helpful in your analysis of the case?” I ask. Someone whispers: “Solve would be a better word.” More silence.

All of us are waiting for something to happen. Some in the back are squirming around in their seats. Others are not blinking. I finally ask in a confident voice (the kind reserved for questions I know the answer to): “Did the tutor solve the assignment?” Cold silence. “OK, you guys may have done a lot of work or even all of the work, but, did the tutor give out the solutions? Hey, if l know what happened, I can try and fix the problem.”

Meral blurted out: “Yes he did, but he’s really a nice guy. He’s also funny and he can do impressions, sir! You really shouldn’t get mad at him. It’s not his fault, you know. I mean, like that’s what any one of us might do …. “

Michael interrupts, “But what about those of us who had to work that day and couldn’t go? Is it fair that just because I have to work to pay my bills I get sacrificed? I did my work with Jean.”

“Your choice, Michael. Stop laying the work routine guilt. I work longer hours than you ever will and made my choice.”

Wow. This was the first time I had heard Stephen talk.

More people talk.

“I don’t think I should count this assignment for marks,” I announce in a firm voice that suggests much contemplation, though I had come to this decision seconds before. Just as I begin to explain why, I hear “You are not serious!” This defiance triggers others to speak up. They are fuelled by the atmosphere of complaints. The noise rebounds until I hear Jason’s loud voice: “This really sucks. I mean it does not make any sense. Why should it matter to you how we solved the assignment? It was a take-home, for Christ’s sake!”

Samantha finally adds her critical judgment. Her summary will echo the swelling discontent of her comrades. Why does her voice command so much attention (respect?) from others? Academically, she is not as impressive as half a dozen others, but she always strikes the chord of reason. I admire the Samanthas of our class.

“A big H for hypocrisy, sir. You are one of the few profs who has been encouraging us to seek help and work with our buddies. What about your three commandments-combine, cooperate, collaborate? How many times have you repeated that mantra? We agree with you, sir. The most important learning takes place outside of class. So what’s the fuss all about? Can you please reconsider and just leave it alone. You’ll know who didn’t regurgitate the solutions, won’t you? And we know you’ll be lenient with them, right? Come on, it’s the summer, let’s move on!”

“By the way, Prof, this assignment is in the course outline. Remember the contract you discussed with so much reverence? Cancel this, then cancel the final exam. That would mal

It is time for my gut to take over. It has been struggling with the brain to take action. It has even suggested that student empowerment has reached its limits even though the discussion so far has been quite reasonable.

Control is slipping away as surely as the clock is ticking. Three students stand up one after another and must have decided that they have had enough. They gather their things together and two of them move in defiance towards the door. I look at them helplessly, wondering how it has come to this.

I am crushing two tiny pieces of chalk. The chalk does not mix well with my cold and clammy hand. I feel trapped. The whole hour has somehow been reduced to ten minutes. Who stole my class? I feel a sense of betrayal. The TA I encouraged and apprenticed as my right hand had done the unthinkable. Wait a second. This is not about me but about the TA. just stop thinking and act. Two students are now walking out of the class. What are you going to do about this, Arshad? Wake up!

There is a lump in my throat and for the first time in years I feel a cold sweat running down my spine.

I have no idea what I am going to do next.


We scheduled another class, another assignment, and another chance to learn from each other. I exaggerated the effects of unrest during that sunny afternoon just as I do when reacting to a single student evaluation that punctures my ego. Why is it so easy to lose the big picture, in the heat of the moment?