From the Other Side of the Desk: the online edition

August 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

For the past three semesters, I have been fortunate enough to teach Composition II online. If you are wondering how that works, join the club–I’m the president and founder. Over a year ago, I shook my head at the idea–how in the world can anyone teach someone to write college-level essays online?

Well, I have learned and adapted, and I am proud to say that some of my students have actually learned something.

And some of them haven’t.

Teaching online presents itself with some unique issues…but really, they aren’t that unusual.

Issue #1: student expectations versus reality
Many, but not all, of my online students seem to expect that if they take a composition course online, then the class will be easier than if it were in the classroom. I guess they reason, “well, how exactly are you supposed to learn how to write an essay over the computer?” In one of my final assignments of the semester, I ask students to write a self-evaluation of their experience in the course. And inevitably I read astonishment in those assignments: “I had no idea it would be this hard,” “I’m from another major university and thought I would take this class at this college online because it would be easier…and I was wrong,” “I really had to change my priorities and focus on this class.”

Issue #2: methods of communication
As with most major colleges and universities these days, e-mail is the official form of communication. This is particularly true for online classes. How else are we expected to reach one another? This past summer, I had a student who, for several weeks, claimed he had never received a response to his e-mails…it turned out that he had forgotten how to log in to the e-mail system. I am not sure how he managed to send the e-mails (perhaps through a different system?), but at any rate, he never did read my responses. Until he e-mailed me two weeks before the drop deadline from a different e-mail address. To his shock, he was failing the class. He was shocked because he had not received any of his graded papers from me. He was failing because he never incorporated my comments or took my advice to improve upon his argument…and he never did those things because he never saw them. I now have a handout on my course website that explains what to do in the event that a student can’t access his or her school e-mail account.

Issue #3: methods of educating
Handouts. And PowerPoint presentations. But mostly handouts. I write handouts for everything. And when I figure some images will be useful, I play with Photoshop and insert images into my handouts. (For instance, I am trying a new-to-me method of uploading essays through a plagiarism-scanning software. I took screen shots of the process for my students so that they cannot tell me that they do not know how to do it.) In addition to handouts and PowerPoint presentations, I e-mail my students once a week with lengthy announcements. They have writing assignments due every single week (either so-called Checkpoint activities or research essays); this is my way of taking attendance as well as keeping track of their development as a writer. The weekly assignments are not random–they are specifically designed either to help them reflect on their reading homework for the week, or to prepare them for the next research paper that is due. In many cases, the Checkpoint actually serves as either a brainstorming exercise or even as a drafting exercise. Finally, when I read their research papers, I write comments throughout. This is the only way I can reach out to a specific student and address his or her specific issues–unless that student seeks me out and e-mails me, of course. I can only hope that my students read my comments and apply them to the next assignment.

Issue #4: teacher expectations versus reality
The ideal online student would log-in to the course webpage on the first day of class and print off every document that is loaded there. That student would read every word, e-mail me frequently, and pay special attention to my comments. The ideal student would be so motivated that s/he would be able to complete assignments without any trouble at all, realizing that my course is not going to be “easy” simply by virtue of it taking place in an online format. The reality often demonstrates the dichotomous pair to my idealized student. In reality, I have students who don’t even see the link to my handouts that I have worked so diligently to create, in spite of my instructions for them to refer to those handouts. In reality, I have students who don’t really care that this class has the exact same standards as the on-campus class (by state requirement). In reality, I have students who couldn’t be bothered even to write a full e-mail to me when they need to reach me (it is shockingly common for students to compose e-mails without subject lines, without a greeting, and without a signature–like a text message).

But I press on anyway because teaching is teaching is teaching. And my responsibility is to provide the information in order for them to attempt to learn it, just like in the classroom.

When I first started my online teaching experience, I was grateful for the opportunity to teach for my college while also staying at home with my newborn. Now, I am grateful for the experience because it has led me to understand one truism: no teacher can control how much or how little a student learns. It is a waste of my time worrying day and night over a student who doesn’t seem to pay attention in class, or who willfully ignores my lessons. I didn’t use to believe this–I used to think I could educate anyone. I have learned through my online courses that the only thing I can really control is the material I present to them. It is up to my students to read it and to ask questions when they are confused.

This realization is both liberating and terrifying. Who wants to admit that she has no control over the outcome of her career’s goals?

But I suppose that’s the beauty in goals. They are just the elements we aim for. Goals are not promises.

From the Other Side of the Desk: r-e-s-p-e-c-t and today’s entitled teen

September 28, 2011 § 7 Comments

After a few months off from teaching, it is time to re-open “From the Other Side of the Desk.” So far, this semester has been fairly routine and uneventful, which isn’t saying much considering school only started a month ago.

Until Monday morning.

I made my glorious return to this classroom after a week of wallowing in strep-throated misery. Despite my lingering cough and painful throat after speaking for longer than three minute stretches, I determined that it was my turn to teach my own class. Robert needed relief after substituting for me.

Having no expectations upon my return, I entered the classroom just generally happy to see that my students were chattering away. Of course, they were disappointed to see me. (You get used to that sort of response when you’re a teacher. Students are always hoping to find that class has been canceled forever. The presence of a teacher is cause for disillusioned depression. Apparently.) I smiled anyway, ignoring their groans and whines, making a point to lay it on thick just how much better I felt, thanks so much for asking.

Halfway through an admittedly boring lecture where we revisited the Writing Process, I noticed two students in the back stage right corner were sleeping away. I asked their classmates directly in front of them to poke them. One of them raised his head with a start and announced a little too loudly, “I wasn’t sleeping!” I smiled and said, “That may be, but I want to see your pretty face.” He proceeded to scowl his way through the remaining thirty minutes of class. All the way through the Effect/Affect lesson, through the grammar quiz, and finally through the assignment of their second essay (due one week from today–I’m not a fan of our deadlines, but it’s the way it works here). It wasn’t until the end of the grammar quiz that this specific sour-puss student affected my mood (and would, actually, have an effect on my mood for the following 48 hours). When it was near time for the quiz to wrap up, I announced, “Go ahead and take a couple more minutes to finish where you are.” Most of my students were staring at me in utter boredom, willing me to end class early because they had finished their quizzes early. I smiled and ignored them.

A few minutes later, I called time and told the students to make sure their names were on the top, and to pass the quizzes forward. Standard procedure. This is not our first quiz. This is not our first in-class assignment. This is fairly normal. I walked to the corner of the room where Pupil Scowlington was still writing feverishly. I told him to put his pen down and turn in the quiz.

“I didn’t know it was timed!” he protested.

I smiled in that way my mom used to smile when I would claim that my hand hit my sister, not me. It was a humorless smile. Meant to humiliate, mock, and ridicule. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. “Student,” I said, “of course the quiz was timed. We have a finite amount of time to be here. And we have more ground to cover before the end of class. Hand it forward now.”

He begrudgingly complied.

As I walked away to collect the rest of the essays, he huffed after me, “Next time, you need to tell us if a quiz is going to be timed.”

With my back to him and my humorless smile plastered on my face, I replied, “I appreciate your attitude. However, it is entirely inappropriate.” And that was that.

Except, my heart rate and blood pressure didn’t believe “that was that.” For the remainder of the class (the last ten or so minutes), as I assigned the second essay, I could feel myself shaking. I hid my hands behind my podium. As I recited what was already printed off on the handout, thousands of retorts that I wished I could have said galloped through my mind. Some of them were less kind and less patient than the one I said aloud.

I awoke this morning, two days later, angry, frustrated, and dreading this class. We’ll be discussing the subject of plagiarism in an hour, and I frankly have no interest in speaking to these people today. (Oh, just because I’m zeroing in on one student, do not believe that the rest of my class is innocent–he may have been the spokesman, but the rest of them agreed and made sounds to that point. They had also already said plenty in regards to when they should expect their first paper grades.) A part of me hopes this outspoken student has the gall to say something else to me today. I would love to dress him down and make sure he understands the inappropriateness of the way he expressed his opinions. I’m practically itching to be able to say the words, “Student, you will stay after class today so that we can have a little chat.”

Here’s the issue, friends.

1. My classroom is run as a benevolent dictatorship, not as a democracy.
Know who gets to determine how things are run? Me. Know who determines how long quizzes will take? Me. Know who decides whether or not to turn in papers by a particular deadline? That’s right. ME. I take into consideration very little about what my students think a composition class should look like. They have no idea what a college-level composition class is; I have been teaching this class since 2004. I’d say I’m an expert compared to them. If I left it up to them, we’d stare at each other for 75 minutes. Composition would see nary a word scribbled onto a scrap of paper. And how do I know this for certain? From experience. In my first couple of years teaching, I tried to run my class like a democracy, weighing their opinions equally with mine. It was a disaster and left me even less respected than I am now.

2. Students are entitled to nothing more than a desk and chair in my classroom.
Because colleges and universities are businesses first and institutions of learning second, students take it upon themselves to wear the mantle of Customer. They believe they are paying for a service, like paying the city for weekly waste pick-up. If my garbage collectors fail to take my garbage one week, I am entitled to some anger and indignation, not to mention some sort of restitution (preferably in the form of sending the truck back out). However, I am not in the service industry. I am not a waitress. Or a sales associate. Or a trash collector. I am a professional. In lieu of a teaching certificate, I have two degrees and will soon have a third. In any other profession, this alone should demand some respect. It seems, to my experience anyway, that the number of degrees, the number of years of expertise, have very little to do with how a student will respect or disrespect a teacher. Respect for the average student hinges almost entirely on evaluation, which brings me to the next point.

3. Grades are not to be the determining factor when respecting a teacher.
So much is tied to those ridiculous evaluative techniques that are drilled into us through years of teacher training. I personally despise the process of grading because of the visceral response I have while doing it. I have had so many aggressive confrontations in the past seven years that the very thought of grading causes my stomach to clench up, my blood pressure to rise. Despite the number of times I remind my students that grades are not up for negotiation, they still feel entitled to try to argue for that A. Because they paid for it. (See point 2.) I am not exaggerating. Each semester, I have no fewer than two students who will make the point that they have paid an exorbitant tuition (I agree with them on this point) and therefore should get an A. The students who rightfully earn A’s tend to be much more respectful toward me, while those who earn grades they don’t like are disrespectful and moody.

I don’t know what the cause of this resolute disrespect and entitlement is–college professors are fond of blaming our secondary-education peers who are fond of blaming parents and arbitrary standards set by ridiculous laws. But I have spoken to a number of high school teachers and parents, and I do not get the clear impression that either sect is responsible. I have heard from both sides that they do not tolerate disrespect, that they take an active role in the education of their students, that their students are taught to accept the grade they earned (because grades are never given, my friends). Because I have trouble locating the source of my students’ disrespect, I am left examining the common denominator in every confrontation.

What have I done as an educator to indicate that I should not be taken seriously?
What is wrong with my teaching methods that my students would not accept their grades willingly?
What is wrong with my classroom management that my students believe they have a say in how things are run?
Where did I go wrong?

I’ll tell you, friends, that I do not have the answer to a single one of those questions.

From the Other Side of the Desk: help me help you

April 13, 2011 § 16 Comments

Probably the single best part about the actual instruction involved with teaching is the motivation, the encouragement. I love it. I thrive on it. It happens all too infrequently.

Yesterday was a great teaching day. Class clicked along swimmingly (although discussion was a bit one-sided for my tastes), I had a few opportunities to demonstrate my generous benevolence, and I met with a few students in my office a full gasp! nine days before the paper is due! (That’s not meant to be read as sarcasm…I am truly astonished and thrilled.)

This paper that my students are writing is an experiment. All semester, I have asked them to consider the theme of “Identity” throughout these World Literature II texts. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve done a stand-up job. This final paper condenses a semester’s worth of lectures and thoughts into a single moment, a single exploration of the Self. I have assigned my students the weighty and nigh-on impossible task of crafting their own identities. They will interact with the literature, though, analyzing the authors’ approach to identity-making and mimicking as best they can the approaches that work best for them. I expect some creativity. I want some sparkle. This could be the last paper I read for quite some time (and at least until August–since I won’t teach this summer), so why not go out on an experimental high note? So far, I believe they are enjoying the journey. Many of them are relieved to find out that I’m fairly loosey-goosey on this particular assignment…unlike the first one which was very rules-y. (We must all learn to write in specific landscapes, yes?)

Yesterday’s good teaching day allowed me a moment’s meditation (and only a moment) on the loveliness of helping. And, in light of that, I’d like to write a short open letter to students everywhere.

To all students present and future:

To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, please help me help you. Give me the chance to demonstrate to you my knowledge. Allow me the opportunity to attempt to motivate you. Ask me questions. Open up. Be honest. Reveal your insecurities, your concerns, your fears. Be receptive to my advice, my recommendations, my suggestions. Take notes while I expound on my answers to your questions. Demonstrate to me that you are actively listening. When I see you take notes, feverishly writing to keep up with my fevered counsel, a fire burns in my heart and I become proud. I become confident. I realize that I have something of value to offer you. Give me that chance because the more often you do so, the better my advice will be.

Let me celebrate with you. Tell me about the times when you broke through your Writer’s Block. Share with me the harrowing tale of your 2 a.m. Dorito’s and Mountain Dew bender at the library and the genius that pored forth from your fingertips to the keyboard. Recount for me the time you showed your classmate a rough draft in an impromptu peer review, and how it helped you. Give me the gift of collegial joy. I’m a writer, too. I can revel in your successes, too. I can live vicariously through your victories, your triumphs, your battles hard-won, too.

Help me help you.

Offer me a moment to teach you, to feel a burst of confidence when you promise to get it, and to experience the utter, bone-deep pride when you actually do.

Respectfully yours,
Mrs. H.

From the Other Side of the Desk: student evaluations and annual reviews

April 6, 2011 § 14 Comments

I have really hesitated to write this post because I fully intend to criticize that most sacred of qualitative measure: the student evaluations.

If you are unfamiliar with student evaluations, allow me to educate you. A student evaluation is a form typically consisting of two parts. The first portion is commonly a Scantron sheet where students will rate elements of the classroom experience: the professor’s knowledge base, the clarity of the professor’s voice, the level of preparation required for this course. The second portion is ofttimes optional and can come in the form of a short-answer questionnaire where the students will “honestly” respond to questions specifically directed to that course. (For instance, there is a questionnaire for the composition classes as well as for the literature classes.) Students complete these forms on the last day of class meeting, and they typically take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete. While the students evaluate their professor and overall classroom experience, the professor is proctoring someone else’s evaluations–no professor remains in his or her own classroom during this time. It is less intimidating to the students this way and encourages them to be more honest in their responses.

The evaluations are sent off to a school somewhere else in the country (ours are sent somewhere to the West…I think) where the Scantrons are scored and averages on a scale of 0-5 are mathematically figured. The reports return to the home university and are submitted to the appropriate professors typically around mid-semester of the following term. Sure, it’s too late now to really implement any changes or recommendations stated within the evaluations, but at least the students’ responses are kept anonymous, grades for that class have already been reported, and the professor likely won’t remember a specific student’s handwriting any more.

Although many professors wish this is where the evaluations might end, on their own desks to be used at their own discretion, this is typically not the evaluations’ final resting place. In many instances, particularly when it comes to junior colleagues and graduate students, student evaluations are normally requested to appear in a teaching portfolio for an annual review. (I believe this is also true for many jobs on the academic market. Potential employers would like to see the evaluations from previous students in order to glean an idea of the caliber teacher they might hire.) And this, my friends, is where I struggle with the usefulness of student evaluations.

Take calendar year 2010, for instance. I had three back-to-back-to-back tricky semesters. I had students who were highly combative, accusatory, and presumptive. I often felt nervous, panicked, and unconfident. I spent office hours dreading the footsteps echoing down the hallway, silently willing those footsteps not to be for me. This came to a head last semester when my office hours were after dark and a couple of my more combative students had spent the majority of the course shooting daggers at me. What had I done? Well, given them a quiz on a day they hadn’t read, of course. Or returned a paper with a lower grade than the student believed s/he deserved. Certainly worthy of a threatening glare. Because it’s entirely my fault a student did not achieve to his or her ability. Absolutely. Bad Mrs. H.

Because 2010 was so terrible, I refused to read my evaluations. Normally, I read my evaluations once the following semester has ended. Because we receive our evaluations in the middle of a semester, I never find it appropriate to read horrible comments and destroy my otherwise unwitting confidence. Normally, I read evaluations from Spring after Summer semester had ended. This way, I don’t waste my time midway through a semester with languishing energy and enthusiasm. 2010 was so truly awful that there has been little reason for me to read the evaluations from that year. And last Monday, during my annual review, my assumptions were confirmed. My students claimed that I was enthusiastic (a comment I always receive on evaluations), but they were unhappy with the blogs and quizzes. They believed the blogs were a waste of time and did not actually help their grade in the first place. So, students had little incentive to complete the blogs. This was a large portion of my annual review–and I just sat there, frozen into stunned silence, unable or unwilling to defend myself. I realize now what I should have said, but what’s the point?

Student evaluations have been infused with this sort of ethos that implies immediate expertise. Because Student A took Mrs. H’s World Lit. II class, Student A is an expert and is capable of evaluating his teacher.

It seems to me that in other professions where evaluations are considered during annual reviews, those evaluations are conducted by other professional peers/colleagues or (even better yet) by administrators. To be evaluated by someone who has absolutely no training in this field and little consideration for the relevance of the course, is laughable. Absurd. Of course my students didn’t want to do extra work. They would prefer to do no work. They would prefer to watch movies based on the books we’re reading. They would prefer not to have to read these books. They would prefer not to come to class at all. (I realize I’m generalizing–there are a few literature students out there who see the value in these courses, but rest assured that those students are few and far between. And their voices do not get heard nearly as well as the others’.) Judging from the recommendations of my annual review (and, mind, I still have not read the evaluations–why would I? my semester is going really well so far), I would guess that my students had absolutely no understanding for the concept of teaching and writing pedagogies as they apply to a literature classroom. When I discuss my methods with others, entirely devoid of student evaluations, I am met with encouragement and often words of support. When I discussed my methods with my reviewer, I was met with phrases like “I’m not sure this accomplishes your pedagogy as well as you think it does.” Really? Did my students who wrote the evaluations read every single student’s paper like I did? How could they properly assess just how well these methods have worked in my classroom? From my perspective, they were a stroke of genius (one likely never to be repeated–I have a feeling we’re all given one stroke of genius in our lifetimes…well, the normal people…the geniuses of course are granted more). But what do my untrained, 20-year-old students know about my methods? Those who care to ask me know a great deal more than those who do not care.

And, from my perspective at least, the number of students who do not care far outweigh the students who do. Yet both categories are encouraged to evaluate and assess me. I find it stunning that their assessments are taken seriously in the first place.

My conclusion is this: student evaluations should be kept to the absolute most basic of functions, and that should be to evaluate the course curriculum. Let the teaching professionals evaluate their junior colleagues. Leave the real evaluations and assessments to the professionals.

Protected: From the Other Side of the Desk: alienating your reader

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From the Other Side of the Desk: I want you to succeed. No, really!

February 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

Part of what makes me question my career path is just to what extent I am invested in my students’ personal successes. I know we all want our students to do well. We teach them how to write a great thesis statement, how to compose a cogent, thought-out and argumentative paper, how to edit so that a rough draft transforms into a final draft worthy of our pride. We wouldn’t teach them these things if we didn’t want them to learn these things, if we didn’t want them to succeed at these things. If we truly wanted our students to fail, we would refuse to meet with them, refuse to look at any version of the paper at any stage, refuse to elaborate on an assignment past handing out the assignment sheet.

I have never known a single professor like that in my decade-long career as a student nor in my six-year-long career as a teacher. Even the hardest, most frightening professors held office hours and would be willing to meet with a weepy student to discuss her paper or report or exam. I know students who have exaggerated when recounting horror stories of stony-faced professors who engaged them in silent staring contests. And I don’t buy those stories for a second.

As a teacher, I want my students to succeed. I want to look back at the semester and discover with glee that my students all earned A’s in the class. Is this wishful thinking? Obviously. Is this dangerous thinking? Sadly, yes.

The danger in my desire to see every one of my students succeed lies in my capacity to care more for their personal success than they themselves care. Although theoretically it sounds like it ought to be the standard for all teachers, in reality it’s a detrimental practice. It leads teachers to spend their free time (what little of it they actually have) fretting over their students’ work–have they e-mailed me? are they going to meet the deadline? should I stop leading this particular student with questions and just give her the thesis statement I’m thinking about? (Obviously this last question stays in my head–I don’t ever give my students the answers.) This can lead the over-attentive teacher to feel stress on her students’ behalf regardless if they themselves are stressed. As an over-attentive teacher myself, this is extraordinarily distracting and detracting. I spend too much time helping them formulate their thoughts and then worrying about how well they will pull it off, and next thing I know my day has been spent answering e-mails rather than accomplishing my own goals.

Take one student I’ve been helping as an example.

She has come to my office twice with a rough introduction and thesis statement. Both times, I had to try to help parse meaning out of her jumbled thoughts. To say her word choice is imprecise is an understatement. Most of the time, I have no idea what she’s talking about. And then I discover that she got the words mixed up. (For instance, she used the word “inception” when she meant to use “deception.” This happens a lot.) In our meetings, I was mostly concerned with attempting to understand her opinionated argument for her thesis statement. She is an eloquent enough girl. In fact, I had no trouble understanding her meaning when she spoke about her paper. And then she left my office, after she took notes on our discussion, and set to work. And then e-mailed me. And I have no idea what she’s talking about. So, I said so…in kinder, more educational terms. Then she e-mailed me again. And I responded that I still had no idea what she was talking about. And then she e-mailed me again. And I could tell that she was getting frustrated, but her meaning was surprisingly still muddled. I finally helped her along (“delete this sentence, reword this portion, delete that entire section”) until she came up with a thesis statement just a few minutes ago that I think we’re both happy with. However, I encouraged her to see someone in the Writing Center so that she can have further assistance with her obvious word choice problems. (Again, I said this in a nicer, more educational way.) She assured me that she has been seeing the tutors of the Writing Center for the entirety of last week…and will see them again tomorrow.

I refrained, but I desperately wanted to respond, “You’ve had appointments for the past five days, and this is what you’ve come up with???”

I am worrying about this student. I am spending my evening thinking about her argument and imprecise word choice, wondering what on Earth she’ll present me on Thursday when she turns in her paper.

The worst part? I’m doing this twenty-eight times over.

I have colleagues, hell…I have a husband, who do not go through what I’m going through. And they all have more students to worry about than I have. Maybe it’s because they have more students than I have that they are somehow magically freed from the concern? Except, even when I have more students (like 60), I still do this. This is who I am. This is what I am like as a teacher, and it is torture.

But at the end of the day, I am tortured because I really really want to see my students do well.

From the Other Side of the Desk: Obtaining textbooks

January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

“Mrs. H!” a student hollered over the general din as students packed up after dismissal. “What about our Pushkin reading for Tuesday?”

“What about it?” I responded, my voice not quite as loud as hers because it carried greater authority and made students quiet down.

“Well,” she said, embarrassed by the sudden quiet, “I can’t find the book. Do you think you’ll upload it to Blackboard for us?”

I sighed, annoyed. Yes, I allowed my students to see that I was annoyed, but it was clear that I was not annoyed at her…just the simple situation. I ultimately decided that, yes, I would upload the Tuesday Pushkin poems.

After I did the job, my fourth uploaded reading assignment at this point, by the way, I made a decision. Strange as it might be, considering they are still struggling to obtain the required book and will need it for Thursday as well, I decided that the upload for Tuesday’s reading will be the last one I do. I sent my students an e-mail letting them know it was available…and that it was the last one they can expect from me. I reminded them that it is their responsibility to obtain all of their textbooks on their own. If the bookstore does not have it in stock, then they must themselves make arrangements–borrow the text from a classmate, order it through the bookstore, order it online, check the library’s holdings. It dawned on me that what was originally a gesture of good will had so quickly devolved into coddling.

I’m not a coddler when it comes to my students. I want them to take responsibility for themselves; I want them to struggle to find sources, and then feel triumphant when they finally do. I want them to fret over delivery deadlines versus homework deadlines. These are part of growing up. My book list has been available to view from the university bookstore website since November. The snow did not incapacitate the southeast (and, incidentally, our main delivery hub) until January. My students had plenty of time to acquire the books on their own without my assistance.

This is why I was so hesitant in the beginning to upload the first reading. I worried that I would succumb to their pouty little faces and their needs…and be drawn to upload absolutely everything. But our delivery hub has thawed out, and the snow has melted. I am no longer interested in helping them figure this one out.

So, what do you all think? Am I being too hard on them? How would you handle (or have you handled) a similar situation?

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