Mendicant Preachers

At the end of the fall semester, I received this e-mail from a student in my MSC 1003 class who had recently earned a D grade:

i am on academic probation. if my G.P.A. doesnt reach 2.0 by the end of next semester, im kicked out of baruch. i mathematically cant make 2.0 if i have a D on top of a F. please, im begging u. i need to retake music or i will end up in community college.

This was just one of several e-mails from this fellow who begged for me to reward him for his D-work with an F. His agony was based on the shame of having to tell his parents that he’d be transferring to Kingsborough Community College because a mere music class beat him down. I told him that community college is no shame and reported on two close friends who started at QCC (one now a CPA who works for the AICPA and the other the chair of an art department at a Maryland college), and I sent him the Wikipedia link to former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona who started at BxCC. I spared him my usual spiel about how I’d bet music was not the only subject giving him trouble.

I find these requests more troubling than the can-you-raise-my-grade ones. Maybe it’s because the student should have had a good sense that he was running a D with 80% of the grade completed by early December, and he easily could have bailed on the last quiz, had he done the math; so this bespoke a kind of detachment from his own academic progress. Maybe because he failed the course once, in ostensibly an easier version of the course, only to stumble into my CIC version with all its extra writing-based requirements. Maybe it’s because, if he had attended only seven of the hour-long workshops that accompany the course, he would have received extra credit enough to raise his D to a C. Maybe because it is ultimately educationally sound for a D-student to re-take a course when he finally has become mature enough to pass it. Anyway you slice it, he could have either gotten his F or his C with very little effort. Yet the flurry of e-mails that his D engendered showed that he was eager work the art of the deal with me, to spend time arguing in favor of his F, and, of course, to preach to me about what it is really like to be a student.

Is it better–educationally sound–to give D students the retroactive F, if requested? Is it fair to others? Is it even legal?

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8 Responses to Mendicant Preachers

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    Why are students who fail a course given a reward (the right to retake it) that students who pass the course are not? I think this imbalance is at the root of the problem.

  2. Tomasello says:

    And it’s all so arbitrary whether it’s the same course taught by different instructors or by one individual. I’ve heard of a colleague who in that music intro course gives any student who earns 40%-70% a C. Whereas I actually make 50% a passing grade in my version of the course, I also give a D to 49.6%. But 48.8% gets an F. Go figure!

  3. Dennis Slavin says:

    Andrew asks:

    “Is it better–educationally sound–to give D students the retroactive F, if requested? Is it fair to others? Is it even legal?”

    In very rare instances it might be educationally sound, but only if one had the sense that the student had the maturity to take advantage of the second chance. In this case there seems to have been clear evidence that the student was not — after all, he had already taken the course before.

    Is it fair to others? Of course not.

    Is it even legal? No — if by “legal” you mean according to the college’s regulations. I can’t quote chapter and verse, but I suspect that we are enjoined to give students the grades they have earned. I don’t like to throw around words like “integrity,” but the practice of giving students an F when they have earned a D seems to me to be a violation of academic integrity.

  4. Arthur Lewin says:

    But again the question, “Why are students who fail a course given a reward (the right to retake it) that students who pass the course are not?” Why should a student who puts out less than their best effort be better off than a student who doesn’t?

  5. Tomasello says:

    I’ve always believed “In academia, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). This is the cornerstone of my academic faith.

    Did you ever sign off on an ad hoc major? Have you ever served as a CUNY BA mentor? Have you ever considered how lateness and enthusiastic class participation effect your perception of concrete examples of student performance? I’ve often pondered the effect of student handwriting on my grading. Furthermore (for those instructors who use different color exam papers), there are studies that even consider the effect of paper color on cognitive processing.

    O, we academics live in such a phantasmagorical and miraculous world!

  6. Dennis Slavin says:

    Arthur asks:

    “Why are students who fail a course given a reward (the right to retake it) that students who pass the course are not? Why should a student who puts out less than their best effort be better off than a student who doesn’t?”

    This can be approached from many directions (how do we know who has put out his/her best effort? is the “reward” another chance to learn the material or merely the opportunity to have the F removed from the GPA? etc.), but in the end I have to agree that in the overwhelming majority of cases the F-replacement policy exacerbates more problems than it solves and that its use should be more restricted. Two years ago the curriculum committees were asked to consider ways of revising the policy. So far, they have not.

  7. Dennis Slavin says:

    Andrew: Thank you for citing chapter and verse. I like the parallel you imply, although I hope you’ll permit me to believe in the infallibility of neither.

  8. glennpetersen says:

    You know, I’ve never thought of myself as an adrenalin junkie, but something about this blog hints that I actually enjoy skating on thin ice. About this matter of Fs: I’m not suggesting that anyone deal with the dilemma the way I do, but nevertheless, here’s my approach.

    I give only essay exams—take-home essays. Their weight increases progressively through the term, so that if someone does poorly on the early ones and better on the later ones, the better grades carry more weight. I tell my students that it is next to impossible to fail my course, because I’m going to teach them what they need to learn to pass. When students do poorly early on, I spend extra time with them; I send them to the writing center; and I have them work individually with our department’s writing fellows. If students want to pass the course, all of us pulling together provide them with what they need to make it. I certainly have students who drop out or disappear, but any student who wants to pass and is willing to rework the exams is going to learn enough of what I want them to learn for me to pass them.

    And I suppose I should abandon the euphemism. I say “pass,” but I usually keep them at it till they’re doing C work. This is, of course, why I shudder at the thought of being required to use the infamous “hard curve.” If I were required to assign a quota of Fs and Ds, what would the point of trying to improve my students’ work? Why would they be motivated to improve if they could be reasonably sure that they’d still wind up with a D or F? All this arcs back, of course, to my earlier observation about the relationship I perceive between students’ grades and the quality of my teaching. Hubris? Maybe. Maybe not.

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