Tuesday, June 2, 2015

I am not immune

I get my share of students asking for extensions. Standard policy is to send them to the Office of Student Appeasement and Retention. The earnest people in the OSAR will tell me if there's going to be a make-up exercise, and I'll deliver -- this happens seldom enough that I don't mind it, because OSAR tracks excuses and, typically, all the grandparents have "died" by the time their descendants reach my courses.

And so in the blissful absence of other shit of which I soon speak, I lapsed into complacency and even harbored the conceit that program policies and my syllabi had finally rendered me immune. Such measures as dropping the two lowest quizzes and giving 40 points for a take-home project but not including it in the denominator (a perfect score is thus 440/400) had for several years eliminated requests for extra credit. And then this Totally Real Fucking Email infests my inbox:

Dear Proctor Hep,

Ever since the final on Thursday I have been panicking about my grade in your class. I need to pass because I am about to transfer to the Motorcycle Administration program at Marvydale. I did the math and figured I only needed a 74 on the final to pass the class but now I'm so not sure I did it. I have been talking about the exam with friends, and there's a whole bunch of questions that I can't remember what I answered which has me worried that I zoned out. I feel that I learned a lot in your class, and might not have shown it on the test. I don't really know what I'm asking but I guess it is is there anymore I could do to bring my grade up so I could pass if I didn't get a 74 on the final. But if I passed then please ignore this..... ha ha ha!

Have a great weekend!

Stephuhnee Schneauphleighque

I haven't responded yet. I looked at the first output from the Scantron reader, and even if we catch a few grading errors that net the class a few points, Stephuhnee will be well below the 74 she needs. Naturally, my first reaction is probably the best: despite any sorrow for the predicament, zero flexibility on the bald facts. So my response to the questionmarkless question would be simply:

#1 No.

In any other direction lies madness. But then the pendulum swings as I recall a colleague's advocacy for remediation -- albeit within a different program -- and I wonder if there's an opportunity for such a thing here. So an idea emerges:

#2 You can retake the final exam to try to meet or beat a 74, but the highest course grade you can get is a 70%.

But then the pendulum swings back:

#3 Anybody else who will fail because of poor performance on the final exam should be offered the same option.

#4 What about students who passed but could bump up a letter grade by retaking the final? Shouldn't they get the same chance as the bottom-scrapers?

Like I said earlier -- madness. So we're back to #1, but as a teaching moment:

#5 Sorry, there's nothing we can offer you. Hopefully, you'll take this lesson to heart that if you aim for mediocrity, you risk falling short of even that goal. As you see, it's the same with studying "just enough" to pass a course. Always shoot for the top and you won't have this problem.

But now the pendulum swings again with my colleague's posthumous proposal:

#6 What say we relist the course for the summer, but as an independent study? The students bone up and take new tests, and we use the higher of their original or retest scores to compute final grades. The F from the first time through stays on the transcript (that was never in question), but at least they don't have to wait a whole year to retake the course (which we only offer in the spring) to show a pass on their transcript.

And this is where the door in my tiny brain opens and hypothetical responses emerge like clowns from a car to run in all directions:

#7 You're transferring to Marvydale? Not this year.

#8 Well, it occurs to me that my house hasn't been painted in over a decade, so . . .

#9 Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You used "anymore" as a noun. Prepare to die.

#10 Here's what we'll do, Stephuhnee. For the sum of one dollar, you'll sell me your plans to an operational time machine. I and my industry contacts will build this machine, but there's a twist -- you'll see why we need that later. We'll use the machine to go back a few weeks to just after the last midterm. We won't remember anything that's transpired between then and now, because it wouldn't have happened yet, right? And if we just start the clock from there again, we would just get the same result as we have now, right? So we'd need to change something, and here's why we need the twist: this second time through, everybody on the planet will sense that the time ahead is a gift that they should not squander. The whole class will retake the final, and maybe they've studied harder because of that feeling they had, and maybe they'll do better. If we do this, you'll pass the course, but I'll also have to relive several things from these last few weeks that in retrospect, I really wish I could spare myself. Yet I'll do it all again for you, but also because there are some things I'd have done better if I'd had a better attitude about time myelf. And here's the other part of the twist: in our alternative future, this conversation never took place, and the time machine -- even its plans -- never existed. (You understand the problem if such a device were to fall into the wrong hands.) Which brings us to now, Stephuhnee. This is the part where I reach into my pocket for a dollar, and you open your bag and get out those plans . . .



  1. Do we get to vote? 1,7, and 9.

  2. I agree with PG. 3, 4, and 5 render 1, 7, and 9 the only possible answers. Although there's a certain poignancy about 10. . . .

  3. #1 is obviously the correct choice and you know it. #6 has possibilities if (1) you are paid for the independent study, (2) other students in the class are made aware of this opportunity, and (3) if you are paid for the independent study per student.

    Do not use #10 because I'm stealing that. It's beautiful and would likely so confuse the student that he or she would never bother to contact me again.

    1. The students would definitely pay for #6, and it would be available to all who wanted to pay. Now, as for the faculty involved in running it getting a bump, it would likely fall under the "other duties as assigned" part of our standard 12-month contract. Thus they'd object to the loss of research time, and/or demand to be relieved of committee duty. I get to plead conference time in the middle and thus could not possibly do it; so sorry.

      And then someone would bring up that we already tried stuff like this. The outcome was not so good: students who went through such remediation just ended up failing courses later in the program, and then we'd have to crank up the remediation machine again. So then we stopped doing it altogether and just made them wait till the course was offered again. If this meant that in the meantime, they couldn't take certain other courses because they didn't have all the prereqs, tough shit. The outcome of this "tougher love" was fewer failures later on, perhaps because spending a semester at home enabled some "come to Jesus" moments.

      But we never remediated someone for the sole purpose of letting them transfer into another program and getting them out of out hair, so it is very intriguing to consider it. Here's what would probably happen if tried it with our dear Schneauphlaque: she'd fail during her first term at Marvydale, and the good folks there would henceforth regard our transcripts as toilet paper, but less absorbent.

      Back to #1. Or #11.

    2. This: "the good folks there would henceforth regard our transcripts as toilet paper, but less absorbent."

  4. #10 sounds intriguing, but raises the possibility of real chaos/disaster (that "wrong hands" thing worries me; I just don't trust the "industry contacts" to set up the "never existed" part). So, yes, #1 it is, because nothing else is really reasonable (as Ben points out, #6 sounds promising, until you start thinking about practicalities, and precedents, and the extreme unlikelihood that there's any budget for compensating you, or anyone else who might be asked/expected to do this in the future -- and so back to #1).

    Also, I think you get the prize for the most inventive re-spelling yet of "snowflake." At the very least, you've managed to use the most letters (so much so that I'm a bit worried that you've depleted supplies for the continuing vowels to Bosnia humanitarian effort).

    1. I love the voting, the bowels to Vosnia, etc.

      Damn right about the precedent of #6. Do it once, and you'll be stuck doing it for every course forever. Uh, no. Plus, variations on that theme never really worked for us before, a fact that had slipped my mind till I read the responses. (How could I have forgotten writing new test questions while on vacation? It was about a decade ago, that's how.) I appreciate that everybody here has brought out the nuances so that if we get pressure from any front to try anything but #1, we'll already have the rebuttal.

      I incorporated the industry contacts because it's always fun to say or imply "I know some people...", but I agree, they're a problem. A working time machine? That only needs a minor suspension of disbelief. But humans who would put aside self-interest in the way I described? Inconceivable!

    2. If Schneauphleighque isn't a type of cheese, it should be.

      I now see that I misspelled it (if that's possible) in one of my comments.

  5. #0: Check Ms. Schneauphleighque's math first: is she right that she will pass with a 74, and that it's the threshold? Because honestly, I haven't had a student come to me in long time with a "I need to get" that was based on a correct calculation of the weighted grades.

    1. JD has a great point. Ms. Schneauphleighque may need something improbable to actually get credit.

      My favourite option is #11: don't respond (but I'm not nice).

    2. You are quite right. I don't even bother trying to understand their math anymore.

      I was oversimplistic in my description, which is so routine I can do it drunk. When I say "I looked at the first output from the Scantron reader", what I mean is that I pasted that output into my spreadsheet and looked at the result. Dear Stephuhnee's overall course grade is so far below passing that a few "giveback" points on the final exam will not reverse her fortune. I didn't even look at her final exam grade itself or back-calculate if indeed 74 is the correct tipping point.

    3. Well, geez, if it was that easy to explain, why'd I bother trying to simplify? On the plus side, it brought out the crucial point about never trusting any student math, so I'm going to claim my lack of precision was "planned".

  6. I like ducks., oh wait, wrong answer.

    I vote for number 5. When a student asks me what grade they should shoot for on their final I tell them to always shoot for an A or not to bother...

    1. When they ask me that, I give them The Stare and deadpan, "what grade do you THINK I'm going to tell you to aim for?"

    2. Ooh, ooh, I want to steal that!

    3. Steal away. MAaM's version works as well.

      The Question comes in variants:

      * what grade should I shoot for on the final?

      * what's the lowest grade I can get on the final and still get a [A B pass etc.] in the course?

      * what grade do I need on the final in order to pass the course?

      I don't get the question too often, and my response is as stated above, except in cases of the third variant when I sense the student is thinking about withdrawing and/or is currently failing the course, and to pass would require performance on the final exam in excess of what has been demonstrated to date. In such cases, I explain the challenges and make sure the student understands the withdrawal policies. I then give them a pep talk about owning their decision to cut bait or keep fishing, and to plan for the consequenses, whatever they are.

  7. Shit. I had allowed for an option #11. Guess what that is: someone higher up changes the grade. Now guess what happened to the Schneauphleighque.


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