Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2001
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Sick of It
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Bruno Paciulli

Recently I had one of the things I like least about my job, an LLW event. These happen when a student, in explaining an "F," fails to inform his or her parents that the course required showing up, turning in assignments, and not plagiarizing. Lacking that knowledge, the parents contact me and I have to tell them that little Johnny--the delight of their lives upon whom they've lavished so much love, support, and tuition--is (sorry for the technical term) a Lying Little Weasel. Stunned by the revelation, their usual response is to insist that I behave like a true professional, take full responsibility for giving the kind of course little Johnny would fail, and pass him anyway. When I reject that--unreasonably and arbitrarily in their view--the compromise position is to suggest that I give little Johnny a special version of the course, just for him and in a way he could fit into his busy schedule. These conversations do not end well.

LLW events aren't going to go away unless I pass everybody or quit my day job. There may, nonetheless, be a way to turn failing an irresponsible student into a positive experience. That thought came to me a few days ago when I was once again looking at the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), also known in our household as the "Family Bible." The genius of DSM-IV is to take behavior that we lay people, in our ignorance, would call something like "rotten" and give it a label and a code. For example, a person you or I might just consider a self-centered jerk is, instead, 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The virtues of this approach are several. It is more fashionable in this society to have a Disorder or Syndrome than simply to be a jerk. Having disorders also entitles one to bill medical insurers and to appear on daytime television. Sounds good to me.

I am willing to give up "Lying Little Weasel" in favor of Disorders and Syndromes if that's what it takes to get angry parents off my back. In that positive spirit, I am working on more pleasant and acceptable diagnostic terminology. Here are a few excerpts from the draft of my Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Student Disorders (DSMSD-I):

101.1 Truth Deficit Disorder (TDD): The essential feature of TDD is failure to convey essential information to one or more authority figures, including but not limited to one's parents, peers, and teachers. When confronted with their own behavior, students suffering from TDD commonly tell grandiose and fanciful stories, including but not limited to "the dog ate my computer" and "I forgot to write my senior thesis."

101.2 Attendance Aversion Syndrome (AAS): The essential feature of AAS is failure to show up for classes, or to do so belatedly, and in a disruptive fashion. Students with AAS commonly designate another member of their living group to hand in assignments (assuming they do not suffer from 101.4, below). When confronted with their disorder, victims have difficulty remembering who taught the course.

101.3 Classroom Attention Deficit Disorder (CADD): The essential feature of CADD is a begrudging willingness to attend class (cf. 101.2, above). Students suffering from CADD commonly display one or more of the following symptoms in class: reading a newspaper, talking, listening to personal music devices, and sleeping. Victims of CADD routinely declare that the course "sucks."

101.4 Prose Aversion Disorder (PAD): The essential feature of PAD is an unwillingness or inability to do written assignments. Students with PAD frequently compensate by purchasing, downloading, or "borrowing" other people's prose.

101.5 Responsibility Displacement Disorder (RDD): The essential feature of RDD is an eagerness to assert other people's responsibility for one's own negative actions. Students with RDD often go on to successful careers in politics.

101.6 Office Hour Aversion Syndrome (OHAS): The essential feature of OHAS is an inability to show up during posted faculty office hours, preferring instead to seek out faculty at all other times. Students suffering from OAHS commonly feel a deep sense of betrayal when faculty members are not in their offices at night or on Sunday afternoons. All undergraduates suffer from OHAS.

Although I have a certain fondness for my Lying Little Weasel designation, I am perfectly willing to accept this diagnostic system if it means no more LLW conferences. The only problem I see with the new approach is that I can't figure out whom I--as the professional making the diagnosis--can bill.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.