Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why do they give up so easily?

Marginal Mary is a student in my accelerated Literature of Ancient Hamsters and Other Rodentia class. Mary is a capable student intellectually but missed several writing assignments and a couple of quizzes. Thus, when midterm averages came out over the weekend, she held a low C. She is capable of earning at least a solid B in the course; all she has to do is not miss assignments and follow directions.

When I send students their averages, I explain to them in detail that the midterm average represents only 1/3 of their total grade in the course, most students do improve over the second half, and any missing assignments disproportionately affect their averages now but will be much less jarring after the other 2/3 of the points come in provided they don't consistently miss assignments. This is all done in a nice, easy-to-read list form.

Mary immediately emailed me in a panic. OMG, I have a C- in your class! I'm thinking about dropping! How is this even possible? I want to meet with you immediately to go over every single grade in the class so you can explain this to me! Every grade is available in the LMS immediately after I post it or a quiz's availability ends. Then there's also the not-so-small problem that I'm not in at all this week since I have caught hamster fungus or some such disease that's been making the rounds at my college for the past month. I emailed the students and told them I would not be coming in but would be available online for appointments through chat. But that was good enough for Mary. I had to drag my sorry butt out of bed and meet with her in person. That was Not. Going. to. Happen. Her demand that I come to campus to meet with her came 30 minutes after I emailed the class to say my doc told me to stay in bed for the week, so I know she got my message before she tried to make me come in.

I explained to Mary that her biggest problem was missing assignments and that she could still make a B if she turned everything in. I also pointed out that she'd missed some quizzes. She informed me that she had in fact completed the quizzes and didn't understand why she had zeroes on them. These were quizzes due weeks ago. Now, at the last minute, she tells me something was wrong and it's my fault for not knowing that she did the quizzes. I should've just guessed, based on her stellar work ethic on the writing assignments, that of course she took those quizzes and the system messed up. She'd also had some problems with the research assignment, but it's done in a series of steps on purpose so there is time to fix problems. I told her what she did wrong in Step 1 so she could correct it for Step 2. Step 1 was a low-point assignment. Each subsequent step is worth more so they can learn as they go.

I manually adjusted the quizzes, which brought her average up by 2 points: still a C but at least a solid one. But this morning I woke up to an email telling me that because I refused to meet with her, I was being "uncooperative" and she had "lost the will" to finish the class. So now she's dropping, and guess who's going to be held accountable? I almost wish I had met with her and given her hamster fungus. The average run time of this illness has been about two weeks. Then we'd see how she felt about trying to finish the class with a fever, light-headedness, chills, and a cough that would bring up hairballs along with lungs.

I still don't understand how this happened. I explained everything clearly. I made myself as available as I can given my condition. Mathematically, it's very likely she would have made the B. But here I sit with yet another drop, another black mark on my record, and another impending conversation with an administrator about "What else could you have done to retain this student?" Why did she give up? Why is it my responsibility that she made that choice? When did education become about giving students everything they want and anticipating those wants? Why is it so unreasonable to expect them to understand what an average is and how it changes over time?


  1. "'Lost the will' to finish the class" <-- amazing.

    I've almost lost the will to finish mine, too, but I sure as hell don't tell them so.

  2. I can see where you went wrong. You didn't love her enough. You didn't look into her true soul and see the golden hue of positive feedback she's used to getting.

    You've been grading her on the value of her work.

    It's a simple error.

  3. Darla's right. I'll go one more step.

    Your problem is that you are not Christ - a mind-reading, all-forgiving, self-sacrificing, heart-door knocking, song-inspiring, omnipresent Father. The only thing Christ-like about you is that the key to understanding you is locked inside an undecipherable text that is much too long and complicated to ever really read - not unlike the e-mails you send her which no-doubt read like parables too oblique and ancient to comprehend. Oh, and your vengeful wrath, which you unleashed on this poor great-granddaughter of Job for the simple pleasure of watching someone survive a trial. After all, if she missed the quizzes, she gets the test.

    So what you need to do to become a good teacher is become God Himself, a deity in a more complete, well-rounded way, perfect from the star on your crown to the tip of your sandal. As omnipotent God, you would accept your complete responsibility for this student's entire life and your bafflement could be cast into outer darkness...

  4. Darla and Slave nailed it, I think (and Lex, I've done the same, occasionally even during the first week of class, but yeah, one doesn't tell the students that, and the feeling usually waxes and wanes over the course of the semester anyway).

    The other key factor: it sounds like she realizes that she can use dropping as a threat to try to cow you into submission (and/or unwise trips to campus). Using student evals as the main method of evaluating instructor performance is bad enough; if we're now going to go to a system where dropping is another threat they can hold over our heads, the system is completely messed up, the inmates are fully in charge of the asylum, and we might as well all quit now.

    Who comes up with these cockamamie ideas, anyway? And do they anticipate needing to hire, be treated by, or otherwise rely on a recent college graduate at some point in their lives? Also, what's going on in your engineering school, health sciences department, etc., etc.? Are drops and/or failures in those classes counted against the instructor, too?

  5. Yes, we are now in a world where "student success" = completion of the course with a C or better. The powers that be keep telling us that they don't want us to lower our standards; they just want us to be able to teach better so we can reach more students. I think I've mentioned here before that the magic number being held over our heads is 70%. When folks at our local medical schools and engineering upper-division schools hear this, they pound their heads against the wall. Our administration keeps telling us certain courses will probably never attain that rate, but we should still "try" to get there as best we can.

    I see English as one of those courses that makes or breaks a college student's career. It's a discipline upon which many other disciplines base parts of their skill sets, so part of my job is to ensure anyone who gets out of my classes will be able to perform at college level. I don't think C is a shameful grade to earn in an English course, but Mary had a shiny B dangling right in front of her if she just reached a tiny bit.

    At least she hasn't yet threatened to go to my chairperson to complain, but I'd be willing to bet a gerbil and two capybaras that she's already on RMP talking about how unreasonable I am and don't care about my students. I know my chair would back me up because she's reasonable. It's the system that sucks. I guess I'm just not the right kind of god. I melt snowflakes instead of basking in their shiny hues and nurturing them into building crystalline palaces.

  6. Surely all you need to do is show your chair the emails (including the one where you're ordered to stay in bed for a week)? Mary is an entitled little twerp who badly needs a wake-up call.

    And no, there is nothing more you could possibly have done, and this is not your fault.

  7. I just wanna know the real name of the hamster fungus and what treatment you got, because I think I've had it for a month and the antibiotics aren't working.

  8. Are you guys living my life? Wow!

    I have the same snowflakes. One told me the other day that _I_ was keeping her our of advanced underwater hamster ball rolling as I took points away on technique (for something very technique dependant- like underwater hamster wheel oiling- very pertinent to the test she is taking now). Not that she needed to just DO BETTER.

    Also, recently the students threatened me with taking an exam to the dean as it was too hard. Ae you kidding me? I would hope that would result in being laughed out of his office, but probably I would get called in. *sigh*

  9. Prof B-C, et al.,

    Feeling your pain!
    Just got an EMail from a student who got a barely average grade for her barely average paper.

    "I did everything you told me ... but am left with the impression no matter what I did, I couldn't get more than a C."

    Hmm ... "did everything"?
    Like basing your paper on two articles on WOMBAT fungus instead of HAMSTER fungus as instructed?

    Or, that she couldn't POSSIBLY be expected to utilize the Writing Center because of her, oh, so busy life. They have limited hours, yanno. Except, this is an online class and the online writing center is a click away 24/7.

    Honestly, it took all my super-professorial strength to not simply respond: "Want a better grade? Stop submitting crappy work!"

  10. Gak! I apologize for my typos. I read this on iPad and the font is tiny. I didn't see it until now (and also know this wasn't my first typo).

  11. I got an email (sent to our whole department) yesterday from our student services director about a precious flake who'd been expecting to graduate in the spring, only to discover that a C- in HAM 102 from 3 terms ago was going to prevent that. SS Director related that she'd asked Flakey what she could have done, and Flakey replied "I could have worked harder, but it would have been helpful to hear the 'C or Better' message more frequently" as she had heard the message at registration, but didn't take it seriously.

    I was hard-pressed not to email SS Director with an "Are You Fucking Kidding Me?" message. I ranted to a colleague instead, then just let it go. However, I did post a reminder message on the our course sites, and I fully expect to return on Monday to a flurry of panicked emails from flakes who are checking their grades (which have been available all semester) for the first time, to discover that their non-participation in the online portion of the work (worth 70 points so far) is going to prevent them from passing with a C. Oh, and I'm going to kind of enjoy telling them that those points can't be made up.

  12. I love how she wanted to "go over" each grade with you. Of course if you cannot explicitly explain why she "lost" points, she will expect them back. (This is part of the mentality that they have 100% and lose points for mistakes. But that is for another rant.)
    I get the same BS. If I have a high drop rate, I am too hard or a bad teacher. Even when I have a pass/fail course that students can pass out of at any time. A couple semesters ago, they were on me for a high drop rate, when I pointed out that almost all of those had passed the class, they said it somewhat mitigated against it. The problem was that the way the system was set up, they didn't get credit for the course, so it could affect the numberzzzzzz...
    This time of year is one of my least favorites as an instructor (but favorite as a human being). Students want to talk to you about grades and how they are doing. I am usually scrambling to get grades done and entered and they expect a continuous update to their grades. Instead of focusing on learning the material, the want points. When I would rather be baking or decorating or sipping Christmas tea, I am constantly running numbers. (Not really of course).


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