Here’s the scene: I met with my Tuesday class. We talked a little bit about the final, I handed back a huge pile of papers, I asked the students to write me the end-of-the-semester letters, then I called each of them up individually to show them their grades from my roster. One student – we’ll call her Lisa – received an 83.5 or, in the language of TCC, a pretty solid B-. This is not a bad grade, though I suspect that Lisa could have done much better; she seemed to have been slipping these last few weeks, and her last speech was less than what I expected from her. I even told her as much in the evaluation I wrote for her.
I let the class go early and hung out in the room for a bit, chatting with a couple of young men about their plans for the summer. Lisa was still in her usual seat in the very back corner of the room, writing with a fair bit of focus. Before I left, I asked her if she was alright, and the answer she gave me was less than convincing. I told her I didn’t believe her, and she assured me that she was “fine” and that she didn’t need anything from me.
I really didn’t believe her, but I couldn’t shake the boys and I suspected that she wouldn’t talk to me at all with them around. I left her alone in the room and ditched the young men at the teachers’ lounge. I hid out there for a little bit, just to be sure that I could make it back upstairs without notice, and poked my head back into the room. By this time, though, Lisa was crying. I asked her if she was upset by her grade and she told me that was “part of it,” but there were “a bunch of other things going on” and there was really nothing I could do. I told her to come and find me if she needed to talk, and left her alone like she asked me to do.
Back in the teachers’ lounge, I met up with a colleague – we’ll call her Beth – having trouble with the photocopier. As I cleared a few paper jams, she asked me how I was and I told her that I was fine, but that I was concerned about the student that I’d left crying upstairs. She asked me the student’s name and it turns out that she knows Lisa, so she decided to go upstairs to see if she could get to what was bothering her.
Beth came back about five minutes later and explained to me that Lisa was upset because her father is in the hospital in Lisa’s midwestern hometown, that no one is certain what’s wrong with him, and he may die. Lisa is terrified, and this is only compounding her feelings of not fitting in here in New England. Add to that the fact that I “gave” her a B- for the course – she needs to maintain at least a B average to keep her scholarships – and Lisa’s a basket case.
Here’s where I get to the point of my story; Beth came right out and asked me if there was anything I could do to help Lisa solve this problem. While she didn’t TELL me to fix the grade, the implication, since Beth is senior to me and gives off an attitude of being the de facto matriarch of the college, was that I should do this. I told her that I would have a conversation with Lisa and see what might be done, but by that point I was profoundly uncomfortable.
I went back upstairs (I was getting a pretty good workout this point) and back to the room. Lisa was good and red and wet by then, and I went to her and put my hands on her shoulders. I assured her that, had she come to me before she gave her rotten speech and told me about the situation with her dad, I’d have been willing to work out some arrangement with her. I wasn’t gentle in admonishing her that I’d given the class no reason to think that I was either unapproachable or unreasonable, and having one’s father deathly ill hundreds of miles away certainly qualified as one of the “extenuating circumstances” that I mentioned on the syllabus are the prerequisite for policy exceptions.
I told her that, while I’m not willing to “fudge” her grade – she’s not close enough to a B to adjust up a few tenths of a point – I was willing to look at ways that we can ethically get her to where she needs to be. I went back to my grade book and noticed that she didn’t have grades listed for a couple of assignments; I told her that she could either find those assignments and let me know what the grades on them were (it’s entirely possible that I failed to record those grades) or, if she didn’t do them, she could get them done before grades close and I’d give her the credit. I also didn’t receive the last page of her final, so she got a zero for one of the five questions; those 20 points will help to bring the grade up – I told her to get that to me as soon as she can.
I’m struggling with this. Her grade is an honest and fair assessment of the work she did. That the work was influenced by factors in her outside life is really beside the point; my job is to grade what the students give me, and Lisa gave me B- work. If she had come to me when all of this started going south, I would have been more than willing to work with her every step of the way. She didn’t – and I wouldn’t have found out about any of this had Beth not intervened – and that tells me that Lisa agrees that the grade she received was fair.
Which brings me to Beth. I’m profoundly bothered by the fact that she essentially told me – without using the verb – to fix Lisa’s grade. “She’s a good kid and needs the scholarship” may be true, but there’s nothing ethical about changing a grade like that, and the fact that she even brought it up gives me serious cause for concern. Beth isn’t my boss – Joe is, and I’m certain that he would never ask such a thing of me – but there’s still a hefty amount of unspoken pressure brought to bear, given Beth’s tenure at TCC.
I am comfortable with the arrangement I made with Lisa. If she does the work – and does it before I leave for vacation – I will adjust her grade to reflect that work and hope like mad that it brings her to the B she so desperately needs. I don’t have any ethical qualms about this because, under different circumstances, I truly believe that Lisa could easily have been one of my A students; I recognize that outside forces are wreaking havok on her life right now and I’m willing to make certain allowances for that. I’m not going to just “fix” the grade out of a sense of mercy, though, and the implication that it is something I should do is insulting to me.