The Way We Fail Students

The much discussed Atlantic article, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” got me thinking about how failing a student affects the faculty, and Prone to Laughter’s recent reflection re-ignited the concern a few days ago.

Failing students comes with the job of teaching, but for some faculty it’s almost as strenuous an act as sanctioning a student for plagiarism. Some faculty go to great lengths to avoid either one, and I know of one community college faculty member who has left the classroom because the decision to fail a student is just too weighty. For the most part, I think these are instances where the faculty considers failure to be a heavier burden than the student does, and I wonder if this is the case with Professor X from the Atlantic article.

I fail students, a lot of students, probably too many students, and it doesn’t much bother me. I doubt that this makes me a better teacher than faculty who bleed over every F or perform extra-credit gymnastics to get every student to pass, but I do know I’m different, probably more by nature than by pedagogy. So this strikes me as an opportunity for one of those classification/division lists that fuels blogs of every ilk. My list follows, then, of the kinds of internal clockwork I see functioning in the clammy hearts of faculty as they fail a student, in no particular order.

  • My failure is your failure. I think of this as the high school model, where the instructor holds himself responsible for the failure of the student, and the F then is rare and comes drenched in guilt. “He hardly ever came to class,” she says. “What could I have done to get through to him?” And I callously respond, “You could have failed him in the first three weeks of the semester and either gotten his attention or been done with it.”  
  • I’m sorry but you’ve failed – how can I ever make it up to you?  This failure is expressed with an apology, and I have seen students turn from thinking “Oh what the hey, I’ll just re-take the course” to “I am slain Horatio, slain!” as the remorseful teacher convinces them that an F grade is a sucker punch they didn’t deserve.
  • The secret is, you’ve failed. Here the faculty has a grading system that is either never explained or is complicated enough that no student realizes the grade she is getting until the semester has ended, at which point the faculty can’t be reached for an explanation. It avoids the messiness of confrontation for the faculty member, but I think it breeds wild rumors as students invent magical explanations for their failure. “Man, don’t take courses from him. You miss a single class and you’re toast.” I have a colleague who, according to student wisdom for several years only passed women over 30 years old. Then a few years later the same colleague supposedly only passed men under 20. Well, at least it’s an objective measure.
  • You have failed because I can’t stand your guts. As far as I can tell, this is the Loch Ness Professor: despite the many reported student sightings of this basis for a failing grade, it doesn’t exist. How sad to think that students believe we’re that hostile toward them.
  • You have failed and because of that I can’t stand your guts. This one is real. Every semester I encounter somebody who is steamed at a student because the student just didn’t do x, even though he was capable. Sometimes this steam comes from an igneous layer of pride — “How dare he fail my course when he could have passed!” Sometimes it comes from a need to turn the failing student into an enemy, since it seems too mean to fail anyone else.  Some students encounter this sort of failure enough to expect it from all their faculty. They come apologetically to me after they have failed a class, checking to see if they might, please, take my course again because they really are good people. They promise not to screw up again, really… I need to convince them I hold no grudge against students I’ve failed. It’s a clean slate every semester, and I encourage them to use everything they learned the last time through and build on it. “Some people just take two semesters to get through the course work,” I might say, and I believe more often than not, that’s the case.
  • How did you manage to fail, given all your talent?  This response comes from a real desire to see the student legitmately succeed: “There’s nothing you had to do that you couldn’t do!” I’ve seen that response be an encouragement to the student to try again, largely because the faculty member believes in the student’s capability that strongly.
  • You earned an F probably describes my own attitude most closely. Over 15 weeks, with this work to do, given your unique abilities and pressures and handicaps, this is how your work stacked up against the course standard. It’s not a character flaw, not a critique of your intelligence, not even a predictor of how well you will do next time with different motivations, more or less time and energy devoted to the course, better or worse jokes in my delivery, higher or lower self esteem — whatever.

I do often wonder if my students would somehow be lifted to greater achievement if I was more psychically invested in their success. What if I hounded them, agonized over their absences and pleaded them into perfect attendance? What if I sought them out when papers were late and IMed them over deadlines? Would they be brilliant if my world depended upon it?

Nah, I’m not about to find out. And I’m not about to put more energy into their success than they do, because when they do succeed they will own 100% of that success, even if it’s a C+.



11 Responses to The Way We Fail Students

  1. The_Myth says:

    Brilliant post! I especially agreed with [and enjoyed] your typology of professors who award Fs!

    I’ve encountered too many “colleagues” who are overly invested in their students success to even so much as allow their failure. It always struck me as enabling and coddling when the student did little to earn whatever grade was awarded.

    On a personal note, I saw myself amongst the last 3 types. Although I really only seem to evoke the “I hate your guts” attitude when a student or 15 try to blame me for their poor performance while simultaneously ignoring their own hand in the grade [like missing deadlines, chronic absenteeism, ignoring written instructions, not reading the textbook, et cetera ad nauseum].

  2. Dale says:

    Thanks, Myth. I’m reminded that there’s a certain amount of theatrics in how we deal with students, and sometimes we adopt a role to best manage a situation. For myself, I have been each one of these types at some point in my career, briefly at least.

  3. Ira Socol says:

    I guess it is hard to define how you perceive student failure without knowing how you understand your role in society – that is, why you are paid to work with students.

    The two classic perceptions of education in the United States, the industrial model and the missionary model, produce two radically different responses. The industrial model – which is the operating assumption behind all K-12 education and most “non-liberal-arts” education at the higher ed level logically indicates that student failure is faculty failure. After all, it sounds ridiculous for GM to blame the steel for their inability to sell cars. The missionary model – “that we will transform you” belief which dominates the liberal arts and much of higher education (my own university’s “slogan” is “transforming lives”) puts the blame for failure purely on the student – whether they are “possessed by the devil of internet distraction” or simply “fail to find Brit Lit in their hearts.”

    So a professor like “The_Myth” thinks I am an apologist (he has used that specific word) for the “refuse to be saved” because in his mind failure is the result of not believing enough – not scrapping all else to be at church enough, not praying enough, not singing the hymns loudly enough. It would never occur to him that the failure might be a mismatch between say, Christian guilt and a very healthy Hawaiian culture or antique forms of pedagogy and students whose brains vary from his own.

    And your typical high school teacher can only accept failure by indeed “blaming the steel” – that is, complaining about the raw materials being brought to ‘the factory’ in kindergarten. Which sounds inhumane to their liberal sensitivities. If it is not the failure of the raw material, it is the failure of the industrial process – and they are the essential tool of that industrial process.

    Of course I’m defining either/or and in reality the people who comprise our faculties mix these self-concepts in various ways, producing the list of types you have created.

    But what is generally missing in the “third way.” The self-perception of the faculty as enabler of student-directed and student-controlled learning. In this model (which does exist, it is simply rare) the parameters of “success” and “failure” are not created by the faculty member, but by the student (ideally as negotiated with/advised by that faculty mentor). In this model “failure” is not something “done by” or “labelled as such” by the faculty, but becomes something self-evident. When I have observed this model at work, students are almost always harder on themselves than the faculty are, largely because – without sufficient prior knowledge of the knowledge base they will need to work with – they predict far greater accomplishment than is logically possible for themselves within a given period of time.

    But in this model faculty are no longer “instructors” or “teachers” or “preachers.” And that requires one massive reconception of self.

    – Ira Socol

  4. Carl says:

    This is great stuff.

    Ira, I’d frame your models in terms of reproduction, transformation, and education.

    Industrial training, what Freire called the ‘banking model’, functions to reproduce society in all its dimensions. (Bourdieu is another point of reference.) Rich kids learn rich kid skills and knowledge, poor kids learn poor kid skills and knowledge, and the system cranks over one more time. According to this model there’s no problem with kids failing; they’re just getting sorted into the class/status pyramid. The world needs more janitors than CEOs. Of course rich kids don’t fail, as G.W. demonstrated. He just needs ten or seventeen chances to find his vocation among the elite. Politically speaking this model is ‘conservative’.

    Transformative pedagogy takes some sort of humanist/egalitarian moral imperative and applies it to the school. Education is a weapon to smash social injustice. Failure is not an option because we’re working on saving the world here, one poor underprivileged kid at a time. Although when G.W. fails that’s a nice confirmation of the fundamental corruption of elites and encouragement of romantic faith in the great untapped potential of the masses. Politically this model is ‘radical’ or ‘activist’.

    Education as you describe it in your ‘third way’ is, in our historical configuration (although it’s in Confucianism too), a liberal project. Individuals with varying skills and knowledge, some relevant and some not, meet in communities of inquiry with an opportunity to teach each other some things and learn some things. Responsibility is shared. Standards of competence are pragmatically established in terms of what needs doing. As you say, failure is self-evident, but is never a ‘final’ judgment, as Dale points out. There is no political project; reproduction, transformation, or both may result. Education is not useful, it’s enlightening.

    In the United States, teachers, students, administrators, parents and politicians are in the odd bind that although our school system is functionally reproductive, it is ideologically transformative. It’s part of the hegemonic system, in that in the first instance social inequalities can be justified and normalized in terms of the ‘equal opportunity’ to education. But since education is packaged as the great equalizer, every teacher needs to feel she’s failed and every student needs to feel they’ve been failed when the promised equalization does not occur. Surprise! No matter how much school we pay for, there are still janitors. Who, fortunately, have not been left behind.

  5. Ira Socol says:


    I do always appreciate when others can structure my thoughts into more “academic-speak” – where are you when I’m being bashed for “writing like [I’m] writing for a newspaper?

    But I would ask this, in the Freirian/Bourdieu scheme, isn’t it essentially impossible for GWB to fail? Isn’t it essentially impossible for most to succeed (without the apparent conversion to proper form – Clarence Thomasification, so to speak?

    And isn’t the difference (in concept) between “transformative” liberalism and that Confucian form, who gets to choose how social injustice is smashed? I ask because I suspect (and have repeatedly said) that the reason people such as Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton would have supported a law like No Child Left Behind is that they believe – inherently – that the best way to achieve the goal of smashing social injustice is to make everyone as much ‘the same’ as possible. This is “liberal” (in the European sense of “liberal”) philosophy at its ‘best.’ The ‘enlightenment’ of the world. To which I tend to want to respond as Peter Hoeg does in Borderliners by saying, “there isn’t enough light in the world.”

    While that “third way” is less enlightenment enlightenment, and more individual aspiration (not anti-social, but individual).

    Anyway, your last paragraph sums it up perfectly. Thanks again. And thanks Dale for another great chance to wander through philosophy…

    – Ira Socol

  6. Ira Socol says:

    I hate the smileys. I didn’t put in smileys, I was trying to put in parentheses.

  7. Carl says:

    Lol, Ira, where are you when I’m being bashed for writing like an egghead? It’s the toolbelt, as you know. I do like a thread where we can work out some things in a variety of effective idioms. Dale is an exceptional provocateur that way.

    You’re right – in the Freire/Bourdieu scheme (or rather, their functional diagnosis of the educational system as a system of reproduction) GW and his ilk cannot fail, no matter how hard they try. In some sense, the more vulgar activist notions of entitlement to education just seek to extend this fundamental unaccountability to the whole population. The logical and correct response is something about the soft racism/sexism/ablism etc. of lowered expectations, but its delivery by this particular President with his painfully feckless scholastic history is a matter of some irony.

    I’m a bit torn on the question of diversity and sameness. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” hits really hard for me – what happens when the ideal of leveling the playing field gets pushed all the way. No Child and in general the current assessments fad seem to work like that.

    There are of course cosmetic differences of the ‘cultural’ sort that need have no consequences and to which bigotry arbitrarily assigns them. Then there’s doing; and of course there are different ways to do things and different things to get done. But if stuff really needs doing there must always be standards of incompetence, competence and excellence about it. This is a more substantive diversity; how much and what kinds of incompetence we are willing and able to pay for is not infinitely elastic.

    Which brings us back to failure, at various scales of individual and collective life.

  8. Joe Bigliogo says:

    Maybe YOU are just a lousy teacher, ever thought of that? Maybe THEY didn’t fail as students more than you FAILED as a teacher. You sound like a teacher that does as little as possible to motivate or help students who have difficulty. And since you feel NO empathy for students who fail (in fact you seem to enjoy it) that makes you a rotten teacher as well as a real ASSHOLE.

  9. Dale says:

    Well Joe, that’s always a possibility and probably something worth remembering.

  10. Carl says:

    There there, who needs a hug?

    Dale, Joe has done me the favor of recalling my attention to your wonderful work, from which I’ve learned so much. I hope you’ll revive this subtle and humane blog!

  11. Dale says:

    Thank you, Carl. On Joe’s comment: I think it’s healthy for a prof to encounter, now & then, a little academic memento mori.
    On the blog: I will. I’ve an idea that just needs a little defribrillation (CLEAR!)

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