Sunday, July 17, 2005

Tales From The Assistant Department Head's Office

Reading these posts by Mobius Stripper reminded me of some of my most fun experiences with students. I promise I will limit myself to only three, although I could tell stories for ages...

I had a student who failed calculus. It came as no surprise to him; he passed at first, but his scores got worse and worse and by the middle of the course he wasn't passing anything. He knew he was failing, but he still kept coming to class, sitting in the front row, and trying to learn stuff, even if he couldn't actually do the problems. I admired his pluck and his attitude, but I still gave him the grade he had earned.

When, after the class was over, he e-mailed me that he wanted to talk about his grade, I knew exactly what that meant: he wanted me to change it. Nobody has ever wanted to contact me to reminisce fondly about their grade. I called him up anyway, though, and he asked if there was any way I could change his F, and I said no, there wasn't, he wasn't even close to the cutoff so I couldn't even drop the cutoff a few points just for him. He pointed out what a nice guy he was, and I told him that even nice guys can earn F's. He pointed out how he had come to class every day, and I told him that it was admirable but that his grade would be based on what I had written in the syllabus the grade would be based on, not on how winningly he smiled or how warm his chair was. Then he got to the "meat" of his argument: he told me he had a scholarship that would be taken away because of my grade, and that it was an Air Force ROTC scholarship. He knew my husband had been in the Air Force, and I've got a soft spot in my heart for other Zoomies. But I still told him that was too bad; I'd love to see him succeed, but instead I'd seen him fail.

I do this sort of thing routinely; after every semester, there's always somebody who thinks the syllogism "I have a scholarship which I need; I will lose my scholarship if you don't give me my desired grade; therefore you should give me the desired grade" is a valid argument. Usually you tell them "no" and they go away, very sad, with a puppy face in hopes that you will suddenly turn around and give in to the power of the sad puppy face as they walk away. However, this guy didn't know when to quit. He told me he was going to take it up with the higher-ups, and I told him that was his prerogative, but I didn't think it would help much. I gave him the name and number of the assistant department head, and told him he was the one to talk to. I also shot off an e-mail to the assistant department head, giving him the full information on the guy's test scores so that he would have the information he needed to patiently explain to the guy why I'd flunked him.

Unfortunately, this guy didn't stop at the assistant department head. He took it all the way up to the dean. Thankfully, the dean and the assistant department head both backed me up. But it wasn't always this way...

A few years earlier, I'd taught a summer course in remedial algebra. I had one student whose performance had been shaky, but hovered around the C- level all summer. When she took her final exam, she scored just below my usual C- cutoff and averaged a D in the class. I have the option of dropping the cutoff score, but I usually only do that if I have reviewed the test questions and the answers of those close to passing, and decided that they constitute passing work. I reviewed all this and decided that I just couldn't say with confidence that this girl's work constituted passing material. So I didn't drop the cutoff, and gave her the D. It was my professional opinion that I didn't have enough evidence that she could perform passing work; therefore I didn't pass her.

Naturally, she e-mailed me saying that she wanted to see me about her grade. I was on vacation at the time, and I gave her my number and the day I was to return from vacation, and told her to call me and make an appointment then. What I had in mind was to ask her to take the placement exam to get into the next course, and if she passed it I'd change her grade to a C-. But I never heard from her again.

When I got my grade sheets back and checked them with my records, I noticed that she had a C- instead of a D. I called my assistant department head and asked him if he'd changed her grade, since he was the only other person with the authority to do so, and he said yes. He had never yet done this without contacting me first to get the whole story, so I told him what had happened and why I'd given her the D and what I'd planned to do to get her the C-. And then he told me what had happened on his end.

Evidently, having to wait a whole week to discuss the grade with me was not fast enough for this girl... or her father. He came into the assistant department head's office demanding the grade be changed and threatening a lawsuit. The assistant head had caved in and just changed the grade, without asking for further testing, without contacting me first to see what had transpired, and without contacting me to tell me he'd changed the grade. To this day I do not know what possessed the assistant head to do this. He is (by law) not even supposed to discuss grades with parents (even parents with lawyers) without permission from the student, and he has never before or since changed a grade without even contacting me, either before or after the fact. I cannot begin to imagine what sort of lawsuit he could possibly have been threatened with that was so horrible to contemplate that he would change a grade rather than face it. I cannot believe that any judge would take seriously the argument that damages were due because of a non-passing grade in a math class which had been earned in strict accordance with the grading policy laid out in the syllabus-- or that the assistant head would think that any judge might take it seriously.

I've had my share of student athletes in my classes, but one in particular sticks out in my mind. He was a football player. He struck me as the sort of person who had gotten through his life on his own personal charisma, and he was indeed very charming. However, he was not very good at math, and being gone all the time from class for football duties didn't help that much. He missed every Friday for games, and it wasn't long before he was missing every Wednesday and every Monday as well.

Because we usually had quizzes on Fridays, we had a standing arrangement that he would come take the quizzes on Thursdays during office hours. The quizzes consisted entirely of problems lifted directly from the homework assignments, and the students all knew this. It was also my policy, stated in the syllabus, that if you knew you were going to miss a quiz, you had to take it early; you would only be allowed to take it after the fact if you'd had an emergency or were willing to take a percentage penalty. I enforced this policy regardless of the students' reasons for not being in class. If you planned a trip to the mountains or if you had a mandatory meeting at work, it didn't matter; what mattered was that you knew in advance that you weren't going to be there and were requesting the privilege of being allowed to take the quiz on a different day. In exchange for the privilege, you took the trade-off of not having an extra day to study.

Before every Thursday quiz, then, I asked this guy and his teammate (who was also in the class) if they had any questions about the homework, because I did the same in class on Fridays before giving the quiz. Inevitably he would say he had no questions about the homework. So I would give him the quiz, and he would take it. When he started not showing up for class, his grades (already dangerously low) slipped even further, and before long he was flunking.

One day, however, he decided he deserved more credit than he was getting. I had given him one point out of five on the final question on the quiz, and he decided he had a cogent argument why he deserved five points on that question and could be sufficiently charming to make me accept the logic of his argument. On that Friday, when I had asked the class if they had any questions on the homework, somebody had asked me about that very problem, and I had worked the problem on the board (erasing it, of course, before the quiz). He claimed this had influenced the scores of the other students, therefore he deserved full credit because he had been denied this advantage.

I pointed out to him that every Thursday when he came to office hours I had asked him if he had questions about the homework, and he'd said no. If he hadn't known how to work that problem, he could easily have said "Yes, Problem # whatever" and I would have worked the problem with him right then and there, before the quiz, just like I had for the rest of the class. I also pointed out to him that both he and I knew he could never have worked this problem to a five-point standard, even if he had been shown the solution beforehand and remembered the answer, because I grade work. Even if he had copied down the correct answer, he would not have gotten credit because there would be no corresponding work.

The logic of this evidently pissed him off, and he turned from sugar to vinegar in a matter of seconds. He got very confrontational and started going on about how I was trying to oppress him or something (he was a member of a minority racial group). Evidently he thought that would cow me, probably because he thought I was entirely Caucasian and would roll over at the very suggestion of racism, but he reckoned without the righteous outrage that fills me whenever I hear that sort of argument. We got into a bit of a yelling match, which I shouldn't have done, and he stormed out of the class and never came back (not that that made much of a change, since he had already been ditching three days a week in a four-day-a-week class).

I thought it was over, until I got a call from the assistant department head. It seems the student had gone to his coach and told him that I was discriminating against him and was not letting him take make-up quizzes because he was an athlete. The coach had passed this on to the athletic director, and the athletic director had called the assistant head to pressure him to make me change my make-up policy to be more accommodating to athletes. Thankfully, my assistant head had the cojones to defend my policies to the athletic director, although he did call me and suggest very strongly that I reconsider making my make-up policy more lenient for athletes. I explained to him, for the benefit of the athletic director and anyone else who wanted to press him on it, that I already had a very generous make-up policy, gave first priority to academics, was treating student athletes exactly the same as I would treat students who had a work-study job, and would not make special accommodations for athletes that I did not make for the student population at large.