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+.