Never Say Fail

 The recent discussion on failure reminded me of one of those weirdly unpleasant-but-interesting teaching events, one which was outdone only by the curiousness of my reaction.

I had an on-line student, Tempest I’ll call her, that I allowed into a full class late because she was a public school teacher who needed the course to round out a certificate of some sort. She lived on the other side of the state and hit the right (for me) tone of politeness-without-begging. And at this point, I am reminded of what a poor judge of a person’s rationality I am.
Her first writing assignment was graded by the instructor I team-teach the course with, an adjunct who is talented at judging writing and giving helpful feedback: she is an art historian. Tempest’s paper was all wrong, though. It was hundreds of words over the max length, only tangentially in the same ZIP code as the assigned topic, rife with personal and unsupported opinion, and choked with downloaded images that often weren’t relevant to the text. It was a mess, and my partner detailed the mess and — sunny as ever — urged a revision in the kindest of tones. (That tone, which falls just short of condescension, barely misses self-deprecating, and has just the faint aroma of authority to it is one I cannot manage, and I think I’ve avoided a lot of trouble by it.)

Since Tempest couldn’t reach my partner by phone but she could reach me, she did. She was enraged, so much so she almost couldn’t speak — and yet I heard other people talking in the background and since this was during regular school hours and the chatter had that familiar break-room sound, I had the peculiar feeling she was calling from a teacher’s lounge. She berated me for her failing grade, “You never fail a student, never, never, never, never!” and the phone did that little electronic sizzle that indicates it’s being overwhelmed by volume. “To get an F! An F! I am a teacher and I know what that does to a child. You never fail a student!”

I had fleeting thoughts of giving a rationale for a failing grade, particularly when the option for revision looms large, but this was clearly not a time for reasonable remarks. This, I thought, is a time to ride out the storm and see what happens, the telephone gave me a detachment I wouldn’t normally have.

“An F – I know what that stands for! An F stands for Fuck, an F stands for Fuck!” I expected violence next, though I wasn’t sure how she would assault me over a land line, but she had climaxed and began to spiral down toward sanity. “Of course I know I should be talking to T**** but I couldn’t reach her, and you’re my teacher too. And I don’t even know if you read my paper, because it was T****’s assignment and I understand T**** gave me this grade…”

By this time, other than “hello” I had only responded with a few innocuous “yes” or “oh, I see” remarks, and I was preparing to formulate a sentence when the word “grade” set off a fresh rocket.

“But to turn in a paper and receive an F! An F! I know it wasn’t perfect, but an F!” and the phone sizzled again. Suddenly her voice dropped to the level one would use to threaten cockroaches with – “You never give a student an F! Never, never give a student an F.”

Well, the ride was about over and I don’t exactly remember how it ended. She spiraled back down a bit and threatened to drop the course and I suggested that might be a good idea. So she did.

If I’d known what was going to happen ahead of time, I would have predicted that I would get angry, but that wasn’t at all what I felt. Her words echoed around in me for the rest of the day and more than anything I wondered what kind of world she lived in, who she thought we were that would pass every student paper no matter what. Perhaps she teaches elementary school, where every Crayola alphabet drawing is the best she’s ever seen…..yet she has her Bachelors and is working on a Masters. Has she never encountered….. But I gave up that line of thinking. Who is crazier, afterall: the person who raises high the flag of her madness, or the observer who tries to make sense of it?

Yet that’s what I found interesting (as opposed to infuriating or astonishing or humorous) about this encounter. Every student lives in a different world from mine, and we need some bridge, some common ground, some (I’m lacking the right metaphor) shared language before I can teach. I had assumed some similarity with Tempest because we shared (remotely it appears) the same profession, and yet that was exactly where we had our greatest disconnect. 

So with my students, who apparently are startlingly different from me in so many ways, how am I to know what common language we speak?







19 Responses to Never Say Fail

  1. The_Myth says:

    And the thing to remember about this: Tempest came from the K-12 world that freshmen are, well, fresh from. This is the place where a student Never, Never, Never! fails an assignment. Even if said assignment doesn’t even meet the most minimal criteria. Even if the assignment is so out of the ball park that an F is a grace. Even if the work might not have been her own…

    And then there’s the College Instructor blog myth that education majors tend to be the most incompetent students, who then go on to become incompetent teachers.

    I think we have yet another anecdote to add to the case file there.

  2. Ira Socol says:

    And there are people who think interactions within the classroom are not culturally determined! Because you have described a perfect example of this failure to have either common language or common expectations – and this divide is often so great (here between people with far more in common superficially than most student/teacher pairings) – that it becomes impossible to bridge with the “read my syllabus, listen to my first day speech” attempt at bringing people ‘on board.”

    I’ll give the flip side. After grading a group of assignments early in a semester by giving out random New York City Subway line designations (“You got an A, sure, but she got a 7!”) along with long comments/suggestions on every one, I was told by about a quarter of the students that they had no idea of how they had done or what to do on the next assignment.

    Just like you, I had one language and expectation set, and these students could not possibly translate.

    I suppose I could discuss the “whether to give an F, whether to say, “try again”‘ divide because it might seem like that is the question here, but I don’t think it is. It is the question of what school is perceived to be for, and you have the key clue right at the top.

    She “needed the course to round out a certificate of some sort.” And this is how schools have created her attitude through both their marketing and their stranglehold on the credentials market. She has no interest in your course. She has no reason to take your course. Odds are she is already fully “capable” (in that general sense) of doingwhatever the certification will allow her to do. So your course is nothing more than a fraternity hazing ritual. That you put her through the pain is bad enough, that you then blackball her seems completely unfair.

    And this is the way almost all schools in the US are now seen by their students. It is (despite what The_Myth suggests) an absolutely dominant view at the university level where the credential is presented daily as “all that matters.”

    So the common language you seek is impossible, because there is no common purpose to discuss. You have a course you want to teach. Tempest wants a piece of paper which allows her to do something she could do without your course. It’s like standing at a hot dog stand demanding an ice cream bar. Even if you understood the words, nothing would be accomplished.

  3. Dale says:

    “So the common language you seek is impossible.” Ira, I can’t tell you how much I hate that, but in this situation it’s obvious you are correct. Faculty hope — it’s stronger than that: we trust, we have faith that — our courses genuinely enable our students to eventually act-think-behave-perform in ways that they aspire to. We believe we are contributing to our students’ efforts to become or attain some goal they have.
    In return, we expect our students to put trust in us, that our World History or Finite Math course will somehow actually help them to become the elementary school teacher or stock broker or engineer that they want to be and to enter the intellectual/social circle that accompanies the sort of life they wish.
    We don’t have a lot of evidence that this happens for most students; rather most of us get random anecdotes from a handful of returning students who tell us the good life is happening and our courses paved the way, and we get random news, like Tempest’s, that the process has not worked. For the most part we just don’t know, so we press on with a mostly blind faith in the value of education and our own good intentions, as will that next wave of students come August.

  4. Ira Socol says:

    Dale – It is damn depressing. We could easily cast blame on every university admissions office which recruits students the way they do, on every parent and teacher who says, “you need this degree” (rather than, “an educated human is valued by our society”), on the “credentials” business (why would universities insist on controlling access to so many professions?).

    None of that will change. So, as you say, we press on. We take the small victories. If we are doing well we ignore the losses without admitting defeat. So it is hard to realize that it would make not one real bit of difference to Tempest’s life or state of education if we passed her or failed her. But realizing that might allow us to stop worrying about it and to teach as if learning mattered to those who understand that it does. Perhaps that modelling will bring others in. I don’t know. But I believe.

  5. Miss Kitty says:

    Oh, my. The student from hell times 50…she’s an “educator” and therefore incapable of a failing grade. Oh, my word.

    I was directed here by The_Myth and am very glad to have read this post. It reminds me of when I first began teaching and assigned a bad grade (D-) to a student’s paper, and the student promptly cursed me out in front of the class. How I reacted back then was not the way I’d react today…maybe it’s worth a blog post of my own.

  6. Dale says:

    Hello Miss Kitty,
    A colleague of mine says that her greatest debates with students over grades — the kind where letters are written, parents phone administrators, and deans drop by to ask, “Hey, what’s going on?” — have all been over Cs and Ds. You should hear her remarks on the “pity pass.”
    Thnaks for dropping by.

  7. Carl says:

    I have a friend who reports that until a little while ago, he reserved the D+ as the “dipshit” grade, as in “You dipshit, if you’d worked just slightly harder you’d have gotten a C-.” He explained this carefully to his students. So recently a student earned herself a D+ and went to the department chair, complaining that her professor had called her a dipshit. Ah-yup.

    Who says we don’t have a common language. We just have to teach it.

  8. Dale says:

    That captures something about the way our world works, doesn’t it? But you know, though I couldn’t have predicted exactly that this would happen, my radar would have stopped me before I told students any of my pet names for grades — or anything else, for that matter. I can see where your friend was coming from, and that the intention was to rev the students’ engines up to that “slightly harder” level, but we have to realize there’s a rudeness there, too, and my rudenesses usually come back at me, with teeth.

  9. The_Myth says:

    Dale said, “we have to realize there’s a rudeness there, too, and my rudenesses usually come back at me, with teeth.”

    Here’s my [slightly off-topic but related beef]:

    Instructors now truly do have to worry about rudeness coming back to haunt us, yet so few students realize it works both ways. In fact, depending on the school, it DOESN’T work both ways. I’ve worked at places where a student’s rudeness is dismissed by admin/colleagues just as easily as my appraisal of his/her failing work.

    I keep thinking back to how you handled Tempest’s tantrum. I shudder to think how things might have worked out differently had you yelled at the little snip.

    There is a sharp trend in higher ed for instructors to become emotionless-yet-nurturing robots parroting the administration party-line while simultaneously acting the part of cheerleading pep squad to adult students.

    When did professors lose their humanity? Who made this decision, and why aren’t more people noticing this trend?

  10. Carl says:

    Yes, my friend is rude, but also a dedicated teacher. He’s creative, engaged, and will bend over backward for students who show even minimal interest in learning. In the days before word processing I once saw him patiently cut a student’s paper into sentences and sit with him rearranging them until the kid saw what a difference editing could make over arbitrary spouting. He’s the kind of professor who students who want to learn seek out.

    It’s because he cares so much about the development of his students as thinkers and human beings that he’s so crusty. He has high standards; he shows his kids fascinating stuff; he prods and encourages and confronts them to knock them out of their limp complacency. Refusing to accept students’ self-definition as disinterested, incapacitated credential seekers is indeed rude; it hurts delicate feelings; it’s also teaching at its best.

    I’m not as senior or crusty as this guy, but I do all sorts of things to knock students out of their comfort zones and get them engaged more mindfully in their learning. I think it’s important to support some of them emotionally through this scary process, and to kick some of their asses through this unwelcome demand on their precious attention. It’s hard to do both at once, and the latter group have often learned to pretend to be the former as a lazy defense, which makes it even more challenging to calibrate the interactions.

    But I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of the draw, but I think it’s because I do explain, in great detail, exactly what I’m looking for in their work, why I’m looking for it, what’s in it for them, how to do it, and what consequences to expect if they don’t do it (including ‘failure’). All of that is explicitly open to negotiation by mindful students who can explain the equivalent value of a different set of tasks or criteria. If they learn nothing else from my classes, they learn how to connect desirable skills and knowledge to standards and standards to performances.

    I guess what I’m getting at here is that for many of my colleagues the strategy seems to be to present themselves as authorities pronouncing mysterious olympian judgments, which is not very ‘human’ either; and students with even a smidge of critical thinking do well to question this authority. If we teach standards as reasons, not just rules or arbitrary commands, we get much farther into recruiting the students into the kind of thinking that we know how to do and wish they could too, by enabling them to make their own principled judgments.

  11. Dale says:

    I like that sense you create of the instructor determining when it’s right to support a student and when to knock the supports of a compacent student out from under him. And sometimes we’re doing both at the same time. This is part of the art of teaching, nearly impossible to assess and often mistaken poor teaching by students. Rudeness, haughtiness, wheedling, distance, shock: I know all these and more can be used to wake and motivate the dead, though they haven’t proven that successful in my hands.
    I’ve been wondering lately just how much good teaching is good theater. We pose as the distant olympian one moment, as the befuddled reader another, as the confident seer the next. No wonder students go into shock when they see us in the Piggly Wiggly bread aisle, trying to decide between cracked wheat and seedless rye.

  12. Carl says:

    You’re right Dale, there are various styles and strategies that work or don’t work depending on a variety of factors. And theater is definitely in there. We call it an ‘art’ because the variables don’t settle down easily into rules.

    It’s very easy to get that wrong; indeed, to turn it into the ideology for a whole teaching career gone wrong. Sometimes the students are right about poor teaching (but never in our cases). We’re going through accreditation assessments at our joint right now, and I’m struck by how much of that has to do with cleaning the art out of teaching. Of course, while shaving the bad outcomes off the bottom it’s difficult not to shave the good ones off the top.

    Your story about the Piggly Wiggly (awesome) taps into another dimension of our little world here, the exhaustion of judgment. After I get done with a day, a week, a semester, a year of making judgment after judgment, A-, B+, C, B, F, D, A, F, yadayada, I’m pretty much cleaned out. Which bread to get, what restaurant to go to, what I plan to do this summer become unfathomable conundra. I don’t think this is a hard job, all in all, but this particular kind of depletion is very difficult to communicate to people who don’t do what we do.

  13. WT says:

    The notion that education students are weak students isn’t a myth. There are more than a few studies that show them as having among the lowest standardized test scores of any major on campus. That’s why the vast majority of M.Ed. programs don’t have a GRE requirement. If they had the requirement of a middling score, say, 1200 or so, the ed. schools would have no graduate students.

  14. […] to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City: I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of […]

  15. How much do I miss my campus

  16. […] At Now-Times Alexei has opened an interesting discussion by firing a shot across the bow of grading: he’s not sure it serves any good purpose, he sees that it’s prone to ideology, and he’s concerned that pedagogically useful failures will be discouraged by failing grades. In short, he thinks grades aren’t good for much. I mostly agree, but only because I think we tend to do it wrong. I’ve begun to comment there and I’ve also said a lot of relevant stuff here, here, here, here and here. But I’ve also had this conversation in other venues and wanted to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City: […]

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