Thursday, March 7, 2013

Art Of The Deal. Another Big Thirsty.

It’s that time of the semester. They start coming to my office, and not for help with the homework.

First, the athlete. I’ve had him in another class. Professor, I’ve been going to the Center for Athlete Success, and they “help me with the homework” (it’s always perfect.) I took this class last year, and failed. I’m graduating in the spring, and this is the last class I need to graduate!

I ask him what his plans are. He is going back to his home village, to take up a full-time position at a business where he’s been working in the summer.

Professor, do we have a deal?

A few days later, Brenda Blondie walks in.  Professor, I’ve been trying really hard, I want to succeed in this class. All of us (the other people in her major who are in my class) took the prerequisite course in the summer, and it was…kind of rushed. We’re all graduating in the spring and this is the last class we need to graduate!

Her plans? To enroll in a graduate program at Expensive Private U, in an area she expects will lead to one-percenter income. She needs the minor to burnish her smartypants credentials.

Professor, do we have a deal?

Children. Please. Of course you have a deal. Just keep coming to class and turning in homework, and you’ll be all right. Sadly for you, there are three students in the class who are honors majors, completely on top of the material. So it will likely be a C.

Now, I don’t actually tell them that, I just try to “look understanding” and deflect the conversation to the material (“any questions on what we did today?”) Maybe I should be more open about it. Maybe my colleagues come right out and say  “sure, you’re on track to pass with a B”.  Somehow their deal-making (we all do it) gets them an “evaluation bump”, and I am never so rewarded.  They’re not keeping their side of the bargain.


Q: So, how do you handle these plaintive (and so obvious) deal requests? Are you rewarded?

36 comments:

  1. I make no deals. I tell students that they earn what they earn. Requirements are listed in the syllabus.

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    1. Man, you're tough! I prefer to make no proclamations one way or the other. My reputation speaks for itself (and it's not pretty).

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    2. I loudly proclaimed the same in class after the midterm, after one student asked if I was "going to bell the grades". Sheesh.
      I was met with stony silence. The silence dragged on and on. And then I moved on to a new lecture topic.

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  2. I, too, am a meanie, I'm afraid. I also teach a course that is often the last one a student needs to pass to graduate (even though they're supposed to take it end of sophomore/beginning of junior year). Because it's required of everyone, with few options for transfer credit, it's also offered every term (including the 3 variously-configured summer ones) in multiple formats (traditional classroom, online, usually hybrid as well). My standard answer to such conversations (which start quite early when one is teaching an online version of the course in the spring semester) is to mention that registration for the summer term is beginning soon, that the student can, if necessary, take/retake the course then, and that doing so will only delay hir graduation by a few months. This tends to be met with varying combinations of astonishment and acquiescence in the idea that this is, indeed, a viable option.

    Maybe it's because I teach the course described above so often (almost exclusively, in fact), but I'm under the impression that "this is the last class I need to graduate" is becoming one of those lines, like "I'm an A student/I have a 4.0 and you're ruining it," which should arouse almost-instant skepticism. Such declarations often turn out to involve some wishful thinking and/or the existence of unacknowledged, supposedly anomalous, but quite numerous exceptions to the stated pattern. As pointed out a post or two below, many of our students aren't very good mathematicians (and probably aren't very good at reading degree requirements, either, even when they're presented, as the often are, on a handy worksheet).

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    1. P.S. I just noticed that Tennessee State is advertising for a Vice President of Academic Affairs in the righthand column. "Tennessee State is looking for you!" it says; "apply now!"

      Am I the only one that thinks they might be advertising in the wrong place. Well, unless they actually *want* someone who will hold out for high standards, acting in the students' best interests, etc., etc. (Suzy, are you looking for a job?) But somehow I doubt they need a big fancy ad to find someone who fits that description (in fact, I suspect that, if they looked around their own faculty, they could find an appropriate inside candidate or two).

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    2. CC, it's the same kind of course--people should take it in their junior year, although it's not technically required, just one from a list. These students are listed as seniors on my course roll, so their story is credible. They're also reasonably on target for a C, so they probably see what they're doing as getting an "insurance policy". I'm under considerable pressure at the moment, so the last thing I want is for credible students to drop the class. There will be enough well-earned Fs as it is.

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    3. I'm lucky, in that my institution has not (yet?) embraced the idea that I can somehow prevent drops, disappearances, and/or failures (there's a bit of concern about retention, but so far they seem to be sticking to actually trying to help the students pass the old-fashioned way, rather than changing the standards). The kind of pressure you describe might well be the last straw for me.

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  3. Why not just tell them what their grade is at this point in the course, and (if it's a passing grade) indicate that similar or better work will lead to a passing final grade?

    I shudder to think of what the "deals" might be. Anything an undergrad is willing to give me for an A, I don't want.

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    1. The student's mother, on the other hand... <wink, wink, nudge, nudge>

      A story I've heard from a colleague: a female student came to a professor and tried to exchange sex for a grade; the professor turned her down flat and suggested that she study. The next day the student's mother was in the professor's office, trying the same deal. They'd decided that the student was too young to appeal to him.

      This was definitely not a case of Yellow Sundress.

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    2. Sundress was the best thing I ever read at RYS. The only piece that I think is in the same league was Len's post on Fear.

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    3. Thanks to both for you for the tips, it was good reading. Funny thing is, no yellow sundress in 20+ years of teaching (boys or girls). I always keep the door open. Maybe I give off that hmm, "incorruptible priest" vibe.

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. IP: I heard the same story, but with the addition that after the prof turned down Mom, the next day Brother showed up, thinking maybe the prof swung that way.

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  4. I was going to say what F&T posted already. Tell them where they are in the class. If a student is getting a D, I tell him to set a goal for a C but don't slack off, otherwise he'll get an F. Likewise for students with C's and B's (the A students don't need me to explain what they need to do). It's a positive message that reassures the student where he stands in the class. They think it's helpful. I think that I'm being mildly insulting to them because I presume that they can't calculate their own grade. (Turns out, that's an accurate presumption.)

    The only problem is with students getting an F, especially a solid F that probably won't change. In that case, I allow the student's own imagination to guide them. At some point in our conversation, the student asks, "What if I get an A on the final?" or some such cockamamie idea. I tell them that they can figure out on their own what grade that would yield. (Note: they can't figure this out. That's why they are failing.) I don't imply that I'll pass them. I just don't tell them that an A on the final raises their grade from a 40% (an F) to a 52% (an F). By not squashing their little dreams of graduation, I allow them to leave my office happy.

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    1. BB (and F&T): I tell them where they are if they ask, but usually they know. (But I'll think about being proactive in some cases.) I never get direct requests about this or that grade or "how far from the cutoff"; they can sense I wouldn't take those seriously. Most students I'm talking about are on the C/D borderline, and as said above I don't want them to drop. So late in the semester I sometimes find myself saying things like "with a strong final, you could still get a C". And it does happen. If what they want to hear is "you might get a B", I may even say it; but it rarely happens.

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  5. I find it useful to remind students explicitly who want to make "deals" that "this isn't negotiable," and that, "I know I may be the first teacher they've ever met who gives a firm, 'No.'" Another line that works is, "In the name of fairness, all grades will be assigned by what's written the class syllabus." Being able to say, "it's IN THE SYLLABUS" is remarkably effective in ending arguments. The syllabus is now 16 pages of complex legalese and counting.

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    1. I've also said to more than one student that the only way they can pass my class is to come to class, do the homework, and score high enough on the exams. More than a few have tried anything but.

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    2. Frod, they know better than to ask a direct question, so I never really get explicit requests for a "deal". It's more like preemptively asking for leniency. Come to class, do the homework...same here, no magic bullets. My syllabus is short and sweet, two pages.

      Many years ago I walked in on one of our long-term instructors, who was late finishing his class and openly haggling with a student about a grade, in the presence of other students. I was shocked (shocked!) that this happens, and felt a little sad for someone who apparently had to submit to this.

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  6. I just told four students that they can't make up the exam they flaked out on because they didn't READ THE SYLLABUS for how to handle missing an exam like an adult. All of these students should withdraw as it is unlikely any of them can pass at this point. No deals.

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  7. I had a bit of this last semester. My way of dealing it was to post the total number of points available, then break down what the percentages were. A student needed 459.375 points to earn a C. S/he then had to look up hir total points and then attempt an extrapolation (what do I have to get on this last paper to get a C?). What's hilarious is that students who might have passed with a C had they done the revision project (optional), instead have to pay to take the class again, because a C- does not count for graduation.

    No extra credit, no deals. And weirdly, I'm one of the popular profs...I suspect they're secretly glad I'm a sadist.

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    1. That's interesting, BurntChrome. There's more than a touch of sadism in expecting students to extrapolate to three decimal places. And I'm sure it takes a special person to be both sadistic and popular. Or setting. (And yeah, the C minus thing--tell me about it.)

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  8. "Sadly for you, there are three students in the class who are honors majors, completely on top of the material. So it will likely be a C."

    Huh? Why should the presence of three capable students affect the results of some who are bobbing along with acceptable competence? Or is the class curved? (which seems kind of mean to me, but then, I've always worked in a criterion-referenced framework for grading)

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    1. Grumpy, a class in which everybody is missing something tells me something; usually they're not well-organized enough to collude that way, so I can adjust grades to account for something they're not getting, if I think it's legit.

      But if I've got a student who's pulling 95 out of 100 on exams and acing the homework, I know it's doable. So the lower-performing students aren't gonna get an adjustment.

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    2. What Introvert said. My classes are not curved. But if I have three or four students (out of 11) who have no problem following the class at the level it was intended, I am not going to make big adjustments; there has to be something meaty for the good students. I do try to bring as many as possible up from the lower to the middle range.

      It is a vexing problem: in most UG classes I teach, the "bobbing along with acceptable competence" group is seriously underpopulated. People either seem to "get it" easily or to struggle. The reason is that everything depends on what came before, so the "intellectual debt" comes due. If the course is called "Foundations of Cavia Anatomy and Physiology", I am not going to teach it as "General Rodents I".

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    3. Still unclear - if those three WEREN'T there, just because of sampling effects in a small group, the others might do better?

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    4. Not necessarily. What I do is review questions on which a significant number of students did poorly, then decide whether or not they should have been able to do them based on readings, course activities and the questions they did get right. If I think the material was adequately covered in work they were expected to do outside of class, I won't cut any slack.

      Part of the decision on "whether or not they should have been able to do them" is based on how many students actually were able to do them. But only part of the decision.

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    5. I don't see how not having those three students there would lead to the rest of the class doing better. On the contrary, the fact that there are people in class who can answer questions in real time (sometimes incorrectly, but no matter) encourages others to do the same, and the general classroom interaction improves. In class it can be hard to tell the difference (there are others who participate well), but there is a huge gap in the written work.

      If those three weren't there, I would be in the nightmarish situation (which has happened) of having no one able/willing to take the course at the intended level (hence no As, one or two Bs). I can adjust downwards up to a point, but I draw the line at violating the stated goals of the course as a component of an academic program. The fact that others may have no qualms about turning it into "general rodents" to have more students pass contributes to the systemic problem.

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  9. "Sadly for you, there are three students in the class who are honors majors, completely on top of the material. So it will likely be a C."

    Huh? Why should the presence of three capable students affect the results of some who are bobbing along with acceptable competence? Or is the class curved? (which seems kind of mean to me, but then, I've always worked in a criterion-referenced framework for grading)

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  10. "Sadly for you, there are three students in the class who are honors majors, completely on top of the material. So it will likely be a C."

    Huh? Why should the presence of three capable students affect the results of some who are bobbing along with acceptable competence? Or is the class curved? (which seems kind of mean to me, but then, I've always worked in a criterion-referenced framework for grading)

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  11. Generally I don't negotiate, but pressure from higher-ups has ushered me down one path to a "deal" that doesn't keep me up nights.

    It always plays out the same way. The student is repeating my course for the nth time. Flakey needs it to graduate/move on to the next requirement. Flakey has totally botched it with missed classes, blown deadlines, etc, but within 48 hours of the withdrawal deadline (i.e. the last day of class) s/he shows up with puppy dog eyes at my office door. Sometimes they plead their case to the chair first, and he calls me about it (I should probably count myself lucky that he always directs them to me instead of making promises himself).

    What I do in these cases is offer to waive the late penalties on assignments. No, Flakey, you cannot do any extra work. The syllabus clearly says NO BONUS. What you need to do is go back and do EXACTLY what you should have been doing all along, do it like you mean it, then submit it for grading. I will assess the work qualitatively and determine if your work merits passing. Prove to me that it would be unnecessary for you to retake the class (again), that you've learned what you need to move on, and I'll cut just enough of those late penalties to reach that coveted C minus.

    Now I think this is a pretty generous and not unreasonable offer, but what's shocking is how many times these flakes have heard this and assumed that they could just toss some ink on a paper -- half the required length, not even spell-checked, entirely off-topic -- and turn it in for full credit and complete grade absolution. I have failed people who violate the "deal" in this way (with the support of my chair, thankfully). But every once in a while, a true repentant manages to scrape hirself off hir ass and show me enough hustle to pull through in the eleventh hour. It's extremely rare, but kind of rewarding to finally see them make good under pressure.

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    1. That's a very good solution. I remember proposing something like that once--do all the homework for the course so far, and turn it in late--but the student didn't take it. These days if somebody is not showing up for class or turning in homework, a few days before the withdrawal deadline I send them an email stating their options are a W or an F. In most cases they go ahead and drop the class. (Also, if I ever propose such a deal to someone again, I will draw up a sort of "contract" stating the terms, and have the student sign it, in addition to offering a similar deal to all students.)

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    2. Any solution that can be boiled down to "give them enough rope" always works.

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  12. My first semester as a teaching assistant, I had a crier. She had a scholarship. It was only her second semester and she hadn't managed her time well and hadn't realized how hard college would be and REALLY REALLY wanted to get back on track but if she lost her scholarship it was all over and...

    I buckled. I caved. I folded like a lawnchair. I didn't tell her I'd give her whatever grade she needed to get by, but we both knew that was the deal. I gave her final paper, which was probably worth a D, a solid B, just so she come out of our class in good enough shape to stay afloat.

    I felt terrible. Awful. A few days after final grades, I used our LMS to pull up her grades: she flunked everything. EVERYTHING. Except, of course, the Hamsterology class I was grading for.

    The worst part is, I didn't even feel deceived, because I knew already. I didn't want to admit it, but I knew. I just sighed and rebuked myself for a fool and promised "never again."

    No deals. Any requests for such get a relentless cross examination until they admit that they are asking for a grade they haven't earned. Then I ask them to put it in writing and sign it so I can take it to the academic integrity people. Or, if they don't want to do that, they can get out of my office and take whatever grade they earn.

    No deals.

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  13. The first time I was asked to make a deal, I didn't get it. The (young, handsome, fit male) student kept coming to office hours for help, and I kept encouraging him to read the book, make flashcards, and try to anticipate exam questions by reviewing his notes. Close to finals he was still flunking and started saying he'd do anything to pass, and what else could he do? I naively kept repeating, read the book, make flashcards, make a schedule and stick to it, yada yada. Finally he said, "It's always so cut and dried when I come in here to see you. I wish you would take an interest in me personally." I went home wondering what I was missing. My husband clued me in.

    No one else (to my knowledge) has ever tried to make me THAT kind of deal -- and I'm sure those days are over -- but I've found that playing dumb is a great out for all the other kinds of deals the Little Dears have tried.

    "I'm in my last semester here and need this class to graduate."
    "Then you've been a student long enough to know that it takes a lot of time and work. Your family will be so proud to know that you rose to the challenge of college."

    "I always get As, but your class is pulling down my GPA."
    "Ah. Is this your first college-level Hamster class? I thought so. This discipline requires remembering hamster facts and explaining why they support Hamster Theory. The Tutoring Center can help you learn how to memorize."

    "I'm a special, busy member of the 99% and we've had all these protests and Occupations and even though I've missed class a lot and some quizzes and most of the assignments, I can't be here next week because there's a call to blockade the shipping docks. Also, I saw you in the parking lot and really like your bumper stickers and agree with you about your lefty bleeding heart causes."
    "Unfortunately my heart doesn't bleed for students who choose to skip class."

    No, actually I said: "Will your political action be more effective if you earn a degree? Are your long-term goals more important than shutting down the port?"

    In other words, no deal.

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    1. But I did make a deal once for student who didn't ask for it. "Chris" was a young, serious musician who had started receiving invitations to elite-level workshops and guest performances that took him out of state. One conflicted with an exam, but the student told me ahead of time and took the exam early. He bombed it, but he was mature about that and took the blame, saying he had been too focused on his music.

      The work Chris handed in was correct and careful, but he was so busy with rehearsals that he kept missing deadlines and quizzes, and my syllabus says "no makeups." Capable of an A, he was barely pulling a C. Then he gave me an invitation to his solo recital.

      I brought my young son, who played the same instrument. The recital hall was SRO, transfixed by the most adept and soulful performance of a Mozart concerto I've ever heard. At the intermission, a former student told me that Chris had a full scholarship to Extremely Competitive and Famous Conservatory and that he practiced 8 hours a day.

      Afterwards, I enthusiastically thanked Chris for inviting me and congratulated him. He led me to meet his family, who were of course very proud: his grandmother, aunt, sister, and cousins. And then his pastor. And his high school teacher. And a couple of neighbors. He said they had all pushed him and kept him on track, and he couldn't thank them enough. No one mentioned why his parents weren't there.

      That week I offered Chris a deal like one mentioned above: finish all your assignments and take the quizzes, and there will be no late penalties. He -- get this -- said he didn't deserve any special favors since the syllabus applied to everyone. I replied by asking whether he would have to forfeit his scholarship if he didn't graduate on time.

      He took my deal, did the work, and passed, of course.

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