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Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Failing a Student

This is a true story. I change several identifying details in order to preserve the student's anonymity, without changing the substance of this account.

I sent out a warning email to "Jo," a failing student, early on in the semester. Here's the text:

"You are receiving this notification because your work has been insufficient and your final grade is in jeopardy. Please address this matter immediately. I encourage you to contact me during my office hours, after class, or via email.  The syllabus outlines weekly assignments and the impact of late arrivals and lack of attendance on grades.  The majority of students have handed in their work, arrived on time, and attended regularly. Grades are assigned on a comparison basis, with better-performing students receiving higher grades. If you are having trouble and need help, there are many campus offices, including tutors and counselors, that can help. Please ask for help if you need help. At the same time, remember that any help you receive should contribute to your being able to meet scholarly requirements. In terms of your final grade, nothing can compensate for a failure to meet the academic requirements of a class."


The syllabus explicitly outlines course requirements. Example here.

Expectations for written assignments are similarly explicit. The syllabus asks for the following:

A page will constitute 8 ½ by 11 inch paper, one side. White paper. Black ink.   
Student name will appear in the upper right-hand corner.     
Text will be double-spaced.      
Text will appear in # 12 Times New Roman font.     
 There will be a one-inch margin on all sides.
 There will be no skipped spaces between paragraphs.

There are a couple of reasons I ask for simple things like white paper and black ink and a one-inch margin.

I want to ask students to do things that are easy to do. If they don't do them – if they hand in assignments on colored paper, as some do, with blue or green or even pink ink, as some do, with two inch margins, as some do – I get it that the problem is not a question of IQ. The problem is, rather, an unwillingness to put in the effort to meet expected standards. That barrier must be overcome before intellectual performance can be addressed.

Most often, when students fail, it isn't because they weren't smart enough. It's because they lack a concept of performance, of effort, of work ethic. "I didn't come to class yesterday because it rained" and "I didn't think that you really expected me to do what you told me to do and what I agreed to do," rather than, "I found the assignment too intellectually demanding to comprehend."

"Jo," was failing. I sent Jo an email.

Jo wrote back. "Please cut me some slack," Jo wrote. "I am dealing with a serious illness in a loved one. I am very sad."

I was impatient. I was impatient because I had recently been diagnosed with the same illness that this student's loved one has. On top of that, someone I care about very much also received this diagnosis.

In spite of my own illness, in spite of losing health care when Obamacare came in, in spite of my loved one's illness, I was showing up for work every day.

I replied to Jo with a very terse note. I said, "Look, I have that exact same illness, and so does my loved one, and I am showing up for work every day."

I expected anger, resentment, possibly even a complaint to my boss.

Instead Jo waited for me after class.

Jo said, "I never would have guessed you have this illness. You come to class and smile and you don't show it at all."

Uh oh. This student was being nice to me. That's a challenge. I want to grade fairly. If a student flatters me, I fear that that will interfere with grading.

Jo's academic performance did not improve after this. Jo's performance went downhill. Jo entered and left class randomly. Normally I jump down a student's throat if he gets up and leaves class during the class period. I did not do that with Jo, because I knew Jo was dealing with so much … at the same time, these entrances and departures did disrupt class.

I hoped that Jo's performance would improve. I didn't want to be faced with the challenge of failing Jo.

Jo and I spent more time talking about illness and mortality. Sometimes Jo cried. I did my best to be comforting. I didn't want to create false hope, though. Jo simply wasn't doing very well in class. I wanted to keep up the message that unless Jo improved academically, Jo would not pass.

Toward the end of the semester, Jo brought me a present and a handwritten note. Jo said that no other teacher had ever been so kind.

When, after all the students had gone home, I sat with piles of student papers and my roll book recording a semester's worth of absences and quiz grades, it was clear. Jo had failed the class.

Jo hadn't failed the class because of a lack of intellectual brilliance. Students can and do achieve A and B grades in my classes just by attending regularly, handing in work that meets the minimum formatting guidelines of one inch margin and black ink on white paper. Jo had failed because of a lack of a work ethic, a lack of an idea that you plod through, every day – you just show up.

Yes, a beloved relative was ill. But people can and do perform when beloved relatives are ill. My brother Phil was killed in a car accident on my seventeenth birthday. I was an A-B student that year as I was every year. My father died a slow death from disease my first year in a PhD program; I received all A grades.

One of my students, a German woman, was a mother. Her son almost died in a car crash while she was pursuing a degree. She was one of the very best students I've ever had, and I said so, in the letter of rec I wrote for her.

As a child, I had attended St. Francis, a Catholic, eight-room schoolhouse in a working class town. We didn't even have a real library; a floppy, generic ball was our one piece of sports equipment. There were no excuses. There was much hard work. My PhD program did not teach me as much as St. Francis.

Jo is a minority student, a member of a group that has truly been raped by the American Dream.

This is the perfect storm of ingredients that might cause me to alter a grade: Jo had flattered my teaching, flattered my compassion, cried on my shoulder; Jo's family member had the same illness I had, and my loved one had.

If I failed Jo, I might hurt Jo's feelings. If I failed Jo, Jo, who had come to like and value me, might come to hate me. If I failed Jo, Jo might be wounded and traumatized and might not overcome the barriers Jo faces as a minority.

If I failed Jo, maybe I was racist dirtbag. Sure, the numbers – Jo's absences, Jo's test scores, the number of assignments Jo handed in – sure, all that added up to a failing grade. But wouldn't someone else record a passing grade out of sympathy for the suffering of Jo's people?

My pen hovered nervously over the little box in my roll book where I record final grades.


A Facebook friend recently posted a message about how the poor in America are hungry for food. I'm not close to this woman and I normally don't respond to her posts, except to praise her haiku.

I posted a quick and emphatic response. No, I said. No. No. No. Hunger for food is NOT the problem of the poor in America.

America is rich, compared to other nations, and food is relatively easily gotten. You could eat from dumpsters, from food banks, from begging on the street, and still get more calories per day than millions of people around the world.

There is a problem for the poor in America, and part of it is that our souls have been crushed.

Look at my fate under Obamacare. I lost healthcare coverage in November. I've been trying to get it back ever since. I need healthcare coverage. I qualify for healthcare coverage. The big, anonymous state-run machine keeps denying it to me, for reasons no one can understand. I've been begging, emailing, phoning, going to offices, writing letters, amassing and photocopying paystubs and tax forms … no healthcare coverage.

It's a soul-destroying experience. That is not a metaphor. It's a soul-destroying experience.

Poor people in America DO need something. We need dignity. We need a world where A means A and B means B and effort counts for something, where, if you put two plus two into the machine, and crank the machine, the expeller nozzle expresses a four, not a letter saying, "You have been denied; we won't tell you why; we won't tell you how to rectify this."


I recorded a failing grade for Jo.

Jo wrote to me. Could I do something to change the grade?

I wrote back. I talked about Jo's performance in relation to other students in the class. Jo's performance was simply not as good. I promised to work with Jo in the future on improving Jo's performance, so that Jo could get better grades in the future.  

I didn't give Jo what Jo wanted. I recorded a grade that accurately reflected Jo's performance. I am a meanie. I did not pity Jo for having a loved one who was gravely ill. I'm just another white oppressor.

I didn't do that because I thought a failing grade would be to Jo's benefit. I did it because it was the honest thing to do.

But maybe a failing grade would be to Jo's benefit.

If I had communicated to Jo, "Yes, I, the powerful white person, feel sorry for you, and I will use my pity to lift you up, however temporarily,"

Jo would learn from this: "Aha. The road to what feels like success for me is to flatter powerful white people and make them feel sorry for me and receive desirable things that way."

What I may have communicated to Jo is "Yes, there are such things as standards of performance, and I can and should meet them, and when I meet them, I will receive the things I want. And I will be able to thank myself for my performance, and I won't be in debt to anyone."

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