Sunday, November 3, 2013

Le French Professeur Wonders, "How far do professional ethics go?"

My school has a Foreign Language requirement, and every other semester I teach the French section that completes the requirement.

Every year I find students who, objectively, don't have a chance in heck to pass the class:

  • Riding Rita fell from a horse not wearing a hat.
  • Dyslexic Diana is a fantastic Arts major but can barely read English, never mind French.
  • Dumbass David is just dumb.
  • Veteran Vincent got shellshocked in Iraq.
  • Pregnant Peggy just has too much on her plate.
  • Flabbergasted Felipe is a star in the chemistry department, but the language barrier is too much for him.

All of them are good, if not bright, kids. They are often close to graduation, with majors that have nothing to do with French, but they'll never make it there unless they pass my class. And/or, even worse, if they fail I'll meet them there next year, like old leftovers at the back of the refrigerator, hopelessly struggling to pass my class.

So I offer them a deal. They'll attend class and do their very best, I will tutor them for one-two hours a week in my own time -- sometimes Sundays, in a cafe -- and, even if I don't say it in so many words, they'll get at least a C-, regardless of their final performance.

I feel basically good about this. Yet, on the other hand, there are in my classes some morons (hi Tonto Tim) who will not pass the class because they are too lazy to crack the book open. I don't offer them any kind of deal, but rather enjoy giving them a well-deserved F.

They are not likely to learn about the special treatment I am giving to the others but, if they did, they could accuse me of unfairness.

So, question, where do you draw the line between fairness and common human decency when it comes to grades?

Le French Professeur


  1. OTOH, at my school the foreign language requirement *only* holds for those getting BAs (so not for BS or BFA or BSEd or whatever), and despite the uni's putative enthusiasm for "globalism" and such, to evade this requirement they keep inventing ridiculous things like "Bachelor of Science in Philosophy" and Anthropology and Religious Studies and such, so we have a ridiculously small number of BAs graduating and a bunch of people with "BS, Dance", terrified to take Spanish.

  2. Your approach sounds reasonable to me given what you teach and the college's requirement. Would that work for all courses? No. But if this is one of those courses keeping you employed and has no relevance to student overall learning, I'm not sure I would be a stickler with the students who are earnest and can demonstrate that they're trying hard but just have no aptitude for language.

    That said, I am infuriated by colleagues who do this in essential courses. And by essential, I mean foundational ones that are necessary for a student to function in a later course.

  3. I am very uncomfortable with your approach. Giving students extra tutoring is very commendable, although you should advertise your assistance to all students. Students who are not attending or don't do the basic work won't bother to attend extra tutoring sessions so being more fair won't make your life any more difficult.

    However, it is unfair to let students get by without them performing the required work. Grades are the way we separate students wo perform the work from those who can't or won't. We should not grade on effort but on performance. Students wo are graduating soon should be able to complete the work for an introductory class in any subject.

    1. Oh, fuck. Yes, Le Professeur Français is failing to do hir job, failing to be a colander, failing to separate the wheat from the chaff. But that's often what happens when a proffie is being fucked by administrators and society. Giving an undeserved grade is wrong, but it's understandable. College is fucked up. If Monsieur Professeur didn't give away grades like that, then the students' psychiatrists would no doubt conjure up disabilities requiring the college to let the students have 24 hours to do a one-minute French quiz.

  4. I like this approach because it allows for the personalization of education, but I also think that you are ultimately creating a situation with privilege.

    My suggestion would be to create an online module for any student to complete, with lots of basic handouts, vocabulary projects, short answer translations, etc. Any student may complete this packet, and if they do, they are guaranteed a C-. But the students must also come to every single class, and if they earn more than a C-, then they get whatever higher grade they have earned. Furthermore, if someone feels confident in the A or B, they don't have to do this packet. Just turn up to class and do the normal homework / tests / presentations.

    plus, this approach will return you Sunday afternoons to your garden, movie theatre, local museum, or trip to the country. (whatever lifts your luggage!)

    1. I've heard of programs like this that span the entire semester. Students must attend tutoring, always attend class, participate and do lots of homework. If they do all the work, they get a C. They can take exams but it doesn't matter. Students can agree to this or take their chances with the normal exams. If a student agrees but subsequently skips a class or an assignment, their grade is based on exams. Basically, students substitute lots of minor assignments for a few big exams.

      It's an interesting way to help students while keeping them accountable. I like this way of "officially" giving students a C instead of any inflated grades.

    2. This sounds like a great idea, more fair and easier on Le French, and well suited for language learning to boot.

  5. There is no decency.

    Siberia for them all.

  6. This sounds like a case where "Ds earn degrees" would have been a very good motto... too bad you have to inflate it to a C-.

  7. Does your institution have a language lab with tutors? At my college, the language lab was staffed with student tutors (usually juniors or seniors in the Foreign Language department chosen by FL professors for the job). It also had an Academic Resource Center with student tutors as well if the Language Lab was not an option. If these are not viable options, maybe asking one of your advanced French students to volunteer to tutor them?

    The students you describe sound like they would benefit going to one or more Academic Support Centers (ex. Student Disability Services, Veteran Services, etc.). They should try going through those services before requiring you to go the extra mile. My goodness, even the University of the Mythological Repeatedly Burning Bird has Disability Services. Even if your institution is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, they HAVE to have some form of Academic Support.

    I'm not a prof, but I would make your tutoring times open for all for fairness and CYA sakes. As a former student tutor, I do warn you that the lazy ones will come because they think just going to tutoring (like going to class) will somehow magically make them pass. I guess they think that going will grant them knowledge and skills via osmosis as opposed to actual work? Those students will break your heart if they haven't broken it already.

  8. I know that learning isn't via osmosis (i.e., attendance at tutoring equals instant higher grade!) but there is something to be said for regularly engaging in the subject matter. As long as the flakies aren't utterly passive, there should be SOME increase in proficiency.

    The problem that I've found with students who can manage to pass the course without cracking the text or fully completing the assignments is that they ultimately don't really know much of what we covered in class. I've taught survey courses and upper level seminars, and perhaps the single greatest predictor of a flake's grade is attendance. Of course it's not causal (can't say that it is MERELY attendance related) but it is a decent measure of a flake's engagement with the subject.

    I have no problem with an engaged student who scores low earning a C-. Of course, the cutoff for a class "counting" for my major is a straight C, but this isn't a major course so it is likely that a C- earns the student credit toward the requirement.

  9. It depends on the level. If it's a lower-division gen-ed course (Calculus for engineers) I hold them to minimal standards of performance. Show me (on the final, at least) you've learned some of this stuff, or take the course again. After all, the engineers count on to us keep the terminally innumerate out of their upper-div classes.

    In upper-div courses for majors, it's case by case. The way our major is structured there are no "gateway" courses, it goes from "basic" to senior-level. And it's a fact that many people pick math as a major without any particular talent for it, by an exclusion process (some of them will teach high school). If they come to every class, turn in the homework and don't bomb all the tests, I cut them some slack if "this is the last class they need to graduate". On the other hand, I don't offer anyone private deals: if somebody gets a chance to do something to improve their grade, that possibility is given to the entire class.

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  11. Thank you for all the good advice. Academic Monkey's is a great plan, and luckily our evil book publisher (McGreed-Hawk) has lots of online modules that can be used for this.
    The situation is, however, the perverse result of an administration that, pressured by state divestment, raises the admissions bar to the point where anyone able to breath may get in. And of a even more perverse decades-long colleges public opinion campaign that sets an unreasonable degree of existential fulfillment in getting a degree, and at the same time makes it a condition from low-skill jobs.
    We are not robbing the bank. We just sit in the runaway car while the administration robs the bank. Or, to use a more florid image, we hold the students down while the administration has their way with them.
    This cannot last. The end is nigh. I just hope tenure works for me as a fall-out shelter

  12. Veteran Vincent is still likely to get a sweetened deal. Anyone who goes out to get shoot at so I am not is entitled to lots of asymmetrical justice. Same for Not-totally-there Natalie, who got assaulted by her "band of brothers" and kicked out of the National Guard to boot. Or for Bombing Bert, off in a month to dissemble bombs if Afghanistan.

  13. I try to think, if I were teaching them how to build a bridge, would I feel comfortable someday crossing one that they've built? There is a reason why the requirement is there. People need basic communication skills no matter what they do in life. There is a reason why this is my job. Lowering the bar would make me feel like a vulture that's taking advantage of some academic loophole in the graduation requirements. Ryan will need writing skills, Gary will need grammar, Cynthia wont go far without syntax. Sandy needs to be sensitized to world cultures as well as her own culture.