But There’s a Limit, Isn’t There?

Last week, I wrote about how we don’t know what students are going through, suggesting we should approach situations with empathy and humility.  I definitely don’t want to go back on what I said, as I absolutely mean it.  However, I also want to say that such an approach doesn’t mean we should let go of standards and accountability.

It’s that time of year when students come to talk to me or email me about their grades, as they have realized that they’re not going to end up with the grade they hoped for (usually an A, but often just enough to keep a scholarship or pass a class).  They sometimes cry or try to compliment me or my class or even try a bit of bribery with cookies.  Of course, I don’t change grades unless they can show me there’s something factually wrong with their grade.

I do try to empathize with them.  I almost lost my scholarship after the first semester of my sophomore year, and it probably would have meant that I would have had to transfer to a school I really didn’t want to go to (and that didn’t even have my major, actually).  I also should have lost the Good Student Discount on my car insurance, though the Registrar signed off on the form, anyway, saying that she had faith I would pull my grades back up.

Also, years of teaching have taught me that almost no crisis (in the students’ minds) is really one.  I have had students tell me almost every year that they will not be able to come back to school if they don’t make a certain grade in class.  Inevitably, they do make that grade, and I see them around campus.  They seem to find a way to make it work.  While I hate to see them taking out student loans, I also want to give scholarships only to the students who are actually earning them.

I thought about titling this post “Being the Bad Guy,” as that’s how I feel in these situations.  However, I also feel like professors need to be the “bad guy (or gal)” at times.  We need to give students the grades they have earned, while trying to be understanding of their situations.  There needs to be a balance, no matter how difficult that balance is.

A few years ago, I had a student talk to me as the end of the semester approached.  We talked about what she could do to end up passing the class.  I got the impression that her interest in the class shifted, and she started working harder, which was good to see.  She ended up just short of the grade to pass, and I was considering whether or not I should bump her grade up (not even a point, I think) to give her credit for her solid work at the end.  However, when I looked closer at her grades when I was making that decision, I saw that she had not turned in a few minor assignments even after talking with me, assignments that would have made the difference for her.  She didn’t pass the class.

I gave her a chance to do the work, and she worked harder, but didn’t do all of the work, so she didn’t pass.  I tried to care about her situation and help her, but students have to do the work required to pass classes.  Some professors are shaking their heads at this point, wondering why I worry about students in this way; they would simply look at numbers and give a grade.  My comments last week, though, should remind us that students aren’t just numbers; they’re real people with real lives.

However, grades are numbers and letters, and students aren’t grades.  We can care about students separately from their grades; we can help them in every way we can, but still put down a letter or number that they wish were higher.  We won’t always get the balance right, but it’s what we should strive for.


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