Monday, April 27, 2015

Failure fail


In my last semester as an undergraduate, I took a required media law course for the third time (I had made a D the first two times at the hands of a particularly tough professor, despite rigorous studying and liking the guy, and I needed a C or better for it to count). This time, I took it with a different instructor — an adjunct who was a practicing attorney in New Orleans and a had been a teacher at Harvard. 

He insisted on calling everyone by a title and last name (so I was "Mr. McGibboney") and also encouraged us to address each other this way. (This led to a weird and funny finals cramming session where nobody knew anyone else's first names.) His M.O. was to start class with a random question — "Mr. McGibboney, what is a precedent?" — and pepper his lectures with similar questions throughout the session. I sat in the middle of the front row, paid attention, enjoyed the class, made good grades on assignments and tests and was called on almost daily.

That last part wound up saving my skin.

Shortly after the semester ended (with B firmly in hand), I randomly met the mother of one of my classmates. That classmate was a friend and I knew she had worked diligently to earn a good grade. But the instructor had failed her (or had given her a D, with identical implications). When the girl asked why, he allegedly had sent her a terse email saying he didn't remember her. The mom also told me that this exchange apparently happened with many of the students.

That's when I realized how lucky I'd been — the instructor, who drove nearly all of the discussion and input, generally favored a handful of students when soliciting answers, and I was one of them. And I had suspected that he chose people for his questions based on, among other things, memorable last names. (There were few opportunities for open discussion.)

But I shouldn't have needed to be lucky. I shouldn't have been at risk of staying in school an extra semester over one class because the teacher passed or flunked based on some arbitrary factor. I hope everyone who got cheated appealed; I don't know how that went down. (I do know the instructor died just three months later after a freak illness.)

College grading can involve lots of politics. Because every class is different, and because people prove their mastery in different ways, there has to be a certain degree of leeway in determining who deserves a passing grade. The downside to this is that some instructors flunk students who should pass just because they can.

A lot of people are cheering the professor mentioned in the linked article because he really stuck it to the entitled generation or whatever. But if even one student he failed didn't have it coming (the professor said "a few" hadn't), then he deserves no praise. What lesson are the good students learning, exactly? That working hard and following the rules mean nothing if there are bad apples? That's some Full Metal Jacket stuff right there, minus the camaraderie.

Many college students do grovel for good grades, appeal to their parents, etc., seeking an out after not doing the course material. That is genuinely insulting to good students and deserves all the resistance.  Sticking it to them despite pressures is admirable. Punishing diligent students is not.

I wouldn't call this professor "psycho" as Gawker does, but neither is he a hero.

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