Sunday, May 4, 2008

Making the Grade II

I once taught a student who got a four-year accounting degree from our well-accredited university in two years. She said she could only afford two years of school. Besides being a student, she was a mom with two kids.

She tested out of every course that she could and took 21 hours per semester. She may have taken some summer courses, as well.

Accounting is a rigidly structured discipline and the department head did not want to make an exception or two along the way so that she could take courses in an order in which he did not advise taking them. The dean reasoned with the department head on those points. Naturally, she made an "A" in my course. She had to give up everything except for school and kids.

Some students do what is necessary and some make excuses. I interviewed at a private university in Alabama. One of the professors told me the story of his "no excuses" policy. He assigns a paper that is due three months into the semester--no excuses. If you were in the hospital the week before the paper was due, then you should have done the paper before that. But he allows students to turn in the paper until midnight, slipped under the door of his home.

One year he got home and looked in his mailbox, finding a paper submitted by Jim with a note attached. "I apologize for delivering my paper like this. My mother died yesterday so I was not able to submit it in class or at your office."

The professor winced. "Jim's mother died. I might have made an exception for that."

Then the day after, Bob came by his office and said, "I'm sorry I am handing in my paper a day late. See, Jim's mother died . . ."

Sometimes students have tragedies that are so large that they cannot complete their coursework. I have found that universities always make exceptions, allowing students leeway to withdraw or take incomplete, "I," grades. But some students hope to ignore the tragedy and continue.

Once a student told me that his wife had given birth to premature twins. They were taken by helicopter to a hospital 3 hours away. They would be there all semester and his wife would be there with them. He would travel back and forth. Since the student's major was one for which few students did well in the course anyway, he was marginal to begin with.

I advised him, "You should withdraw. You will not have time to work enough to pass the course. And even if you find the time to put into the course, you will be so distracted that you will not be able to pass."

He said, "I can't drop the course. I need to graduate and take the job that I have lined up."

I said, "You will almost certainly fail. Then you will have to re-take the course. So save yourself the bother--think about your wife and kids for now. Don't put energy into school. When you break your leg, it's not your fault, but it's best not to try to run the race on it."

He stayed in. He failed badly. He complained to the dean. The dean usually did not have much of a spine in dealing with students, but this time, after speaking with me, told him, "You were strongly advised to drop." And he had to retake the course.

My heart goes out to students who experience these terrible events. I have experienced my share of them. But I cannot bring myself to pass a student who, for reasons beyond his control, earned a 30%, while failing another student who earned a 52%--who might have had a tragedy that I knew nothing about.

I cannot calculate the appropriate curve for tragedy. I make allowance for tragedy by working hard as I can to help the student make a painless break and a clean start.

And I can pray for the student.

No comments: