The Old Man and the C

This article first appeared under the pseudonym Earnest Hummingway in Teaching Perspectives (St. Thomas University), Spring, 2004, pp.

Story attributed to Earnest Hummingway
Any references to any actual person living or dead are entirely coincidental and bear no resemblance to the truth

The young man sits in the old man’s office and explains: “There’s this student. He has a C+, not quite good enough for a B-, and he needs a B- to continue. Well, I explain the marking system to him and he sits there, tells me his mother is seriously ill and he doesn't want to disappoint her; so he bursts into tears. Now I feel very bad about giving him the C+. What should I do?”

The old man ponders the eternal problem of how to address the marginal grade and suggests that there are several possible ways to resolve the situation.

Extra work: Ask for an extra paper, give a small quiz, even give a brief oral interview. If the answers are made in a satisfactory fashion, move the student up to the desired grade, especially if the student’s attendance has been good and the mark differential between B- and C+ is not enormous.

Review the grade: Just check through the marks and reassure yourself and the student that the grade is a good assessment. During the review process, there may be grounds for changing the mark and revising it upwards. Be aware, and make the student aware, that the reverse may also apply and the student may have his mark down-graded.

Do not play favorites: If you offer this service for one person, then you can be accused of favoritism. Your choice is to review all the marks in the class (tedious, especially if the class is large), or to review all the marginal grades at the same level. The second option is more reasonable as there may be other students in the same or a similar position. If a couple of students stand out as being closest to the grade desired, then adjusting one or two grades might be a reasonable course of action.

Recommend that the student take the course again to improve the grade: This is a perfectly normal course of action, especially if the student has not grasped the material well and really does wish to continue. In fact, this may be of great benefit to the student, long term, although it will seem like a punishment at present.

Probation: In a small section, where you can follow the student’s progress, place the student on probation and raise his mark appropriately only if he does well on the next set of assignments. This may work well in the second half of a 6 hour credit course, especially if later work is more difficult and is handled in an improved fashion. However, it may not work so well if the course does not continue into a second half or if the teaching unit is large and teacher and student can lose contact far too easily.

Grow a thick skin: The problem with leniency is that word of mouth soon confirms that you are a soft touch and the next thing you know, everybody wants their mark marks raised. This is clearly not good. If you wish to avoid debate about your grades, put your foot down. No arguments. Tell your student that if he wishes to appeal his grade there are guidelines in the calendar under student academic grievance and that he must follow them. Remind him that such action will eventually take the matter out of your hands and place it in the hands of a committee that will be no respecter of personalities.

One of the problems with a small university where teachers nd taught are all known quantities is that professors are faced with these choices on a regular basis. The route that an individual takes to resolve these problems must be the one with which that individual is most comfortable. Some teachers are not happy changing grades when they are set. Others are not happy with the emotional weight of allegedly “ruining” a young person’s career hanging around their necks. Some faculty do not like to be bullied. Other faculty members enjoy debating and discussing the grades with their students.

In the old man’s case, he has a tendency to let the heart rule the head in these circumstances. This means that he will usually choose an option that benefits the student, even if it means more work for himself. He does not think a professor loses face when moved by generosity or genuine care for the students. But genuine care, in certain circumstances, might mean tough love; and tough love might mean requesting that the grade of C+ stand or the course be retaken.

After all, at the extreme edge of hypothesis and example, the old man, blinking in the bright lights of the operating room and about to slide under the anaesthetic, is not comforted by being aware that the surgeon wielding the scalpel above the old man's washed, shaved, and disinfected abdomen only got the B- necessary to continue in his chosen career in surgery because, when his mother was seriously ill, the apprentice surgeon burst into tears in his old professor’s office and the professor was so moved that the grade in the surgical course was raised from a C+ (change career) to a B- (carry on cutting)!

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