Thursday, April 19, 2007

Dubious Student Help

Our agency gets volunteer student workers from a local work-study program that helps train kids aged about 16-19, most of whom are high school drop-outs, in a variety of vocational areas so that they can get jobs. I use some of these students to help me with survey projects and overall, their (free) assistance has been critical to completing them. For instance, I am fortunate to get many of the best typing specialists to do data entry for a survey project in which they have, to date, completed perhaps 20,000 surveys with a high degree of accuracy.

However, sometimes I'm not so lucky on the workers I get.

The most spectacular case of incompetence was a student assigned to help me with a survey mailout. The first step of this mailout was to take a survey (single sheet of 8x11 paper) and fold it in thirds. Folding a paper exactly in thirds does require some judgment, so I showed the students that if they made the first fold at a particular point in the paper, they could be ensured that the paper would fold into even thirds, and I demonstrated the folding technique I wanted them to use. Simple enough, right? But one student had a serious problem with this. He took the edge of his paper, lined it up where I had shown him, pushed down on the folded edge of the paper in a general way with his hand, and then released it, whereupon the paper immediately completely unfolded because he did not understand that he had to crease the paper to keep it folded. Um, O-K, I thought, but I have worked with some one-step-above-a-rock students before and explicitly explained about the creasing step while showing the technique again. He tried again, still couldn't get it about creasing the paper, and the paper flopped open. I was starting to wonder if the kid was just screwing with me or what and looked him in the eye, seeing the blankest, stupidest look I believe I have ever seen on a human being. I said, OK, wait here for a minute, and went to call the woman who oversees the student worker program for our agency. When I told her what had happened, she sighed, apologized, and said with no surprise, I had hoped that this job wouldn't be beyond him. She came to get him and set him on who knows what task - holding a desk onto the floor with his head, possibly.

This week, we were doing a big survey preparation job that involved sequential numbering of surveys by hand (to give each survey a unique ID). As I told the students, this is a simple enough job that the real danger is that you stop paying attention, let your mind wander, and lose your place, which I find myself doing pretty often, so it's important to keep checking that you're on track. This is the 9th of these numbering jobs we've done, and in all that time, I've never had a student with a serious problem with the numbering. Until now. I had hired a temp worker to work with and oversee the students on this project, and when I went to do a final reckoning on the surveys after everything was finished, to ensure that the final number for each batch of surveys matched what I expected, I discovered that one student was startlingly innumerate. Not once, not twice, but three times he numbered the surveys 1000-1099, 2000-2099, 3000. Fortunately, his incompetence was matched by his inefficiency and lack of work ethic, so I was able to fix his mistakes in about 45 minutes.

I haven't determined any obvious pattern in ability, effectiveness, professionalism, or personality among students by gender or ethnicity, except that the smart-ass kids, somewhat smarter than the training center average, who shout "fuck-up" rather than "disadvantaged youth" are always Anglo guys. These guys really enjoy standing around trying to involve me in lengthy conversations to doing any actual work. Favorite topics thus far have included:
  • His poetry, which he wanted me to read, and which was perhaps not wretched by the standards of a 16 year old boy who dropped-out of school, but was still rather more painful than I could tolerate. The one I did read was about a rose or something. At least it didn't involve the violent death of himself or those who misunderstood him, etc.
  • His plans for starting a gaming software company with a friend.
  • The dramas of his coming out to his family and friends and his continuing problems with his boyfriend who is back home, not at the training center (which has a live-in dorm).
  • His desire for a sex change operation (90% sure he was fucking with me).
  • How well he did at college (all complete and obvious bullshit).


jen said...

By contrast, our "student help" generally consists of graduate students who actually get the more interesting and challenging projects. I'm overseeing two interns now who are thankfully well beyond folding paper into thirds (and failing), but you still never know what questions they might have, especially when English is a second language. :)

Sally said...

This reminds me of the Chinese grad student working on a project overseen (poorly) by one of our partner agencies who produced the worst report of descriptive statistics I have ever seen. It's like this woman's purpose in life is to serve as a walking refutation of the idea that all Asians are good at math. And the writing in the report was also wretched and so ungrammatical that it was beyond comprehension. You could look at the table and look at her description and not be able to tell what the hell this is supposed to be getting at other than it is obviously wrong. Like, when you look at a table of number of trips taken in the last 2 years and 5% of the respondents said "99," it's pretty obvious that 99 is the numerical code for "don't know" and should not be included in calculating a mean. And many of the stupidest things could not have happened easily; she had to actually select bizarre alternatives to the default options in the software.