Earlier this week I discussed a conversation I had with a student. I wasn’t sure if I should write about it publicly, but I thought as long as I didn’t mention any names, it would be okay. I do not know if the student has read it, but I hope that if he does he focuses on my final message for him about being open-minded in his pursuit of knowledge. I shared it here because I think it’s useful for students to see what their professors go through sometimes. Professors have all been students, so we have some idea of things from their side of the classroom, but students rarely know the kinds of things their professors go through during the course of a semester. I had another unique situation about a year ago that I thought I would share.
A student e-mailed me on a Saturday evening before the coming Tuesday’s midterm exam (the first of two that semester). She informed me that she had just been informed that a good friend of hers had passed away the day before. She was having a very hard time dealing with it and did not think she would be able to take the midterm exam and wanted to know what her options were. She thought there might be a chance she could pull through, but wanted to know what to do in case she just couldn’t make it.
Now, if you’ve been in one of my classes, you know I really dislike letting students take exams late and have an almost iron-clad policy against it. I do not like the idea of one student having access to the brains of many other students who have already taken the exam, any one of which can tell her what was on the exam. In large principles classes, I write two versions of the exam with different questions, and I alternate them when I place them on students’ desks so that no two adjacent students have the same exam. It cuts down on the incentive to try to cheat. After grading, I weigh the exams differently if the averages are different — I can’t guarantee that the two exams will be of the same difficulty when I write them since I don’t use multiple choice questions and require explanations for all answers, and sometimes one exam is just a little harder than the others. For the second midterm, I use performance on the first midterm as an explanatory variable and run a least-squares regression to isolate the different effects of the two exams, giving me a pretty good idea of whether they were of equal difficulty or not. So having already created two exams, I really don’t want to write a third exam and I can’t guarantee it’s the same level of difficulty since there is not a whole classroom taking it to give me an overall average. When a student knows they will not be able to take the exam on the scheduled day, I let them take it early. But when a student misses an exam because of a valid emergency (i.e. they were just hit by a car), that option is not available. In those cases, I think the fairest thing to do is to weigh their other exams more.
This is also what I do when a student adds a class late and has missed an online assignment. I can’t just excuse them from that assignment because they added late. I can’t give them a zero — that is not fair to the student. And I can’t just give them 100% either — that’s unfair to the students who took it and did not do well on it. So I give them the average of all the other online assignments. There’s no perfect solution, but that’s what I think is the most fair thing I can do.
Back to the story. I tried to come up with the best possible solution to her situation and e-mailed her that night. (I really wish I had the e-mail I sent her because I re-wrote it several times to make sure I struck a good, compassionate tone, and I was actually very happy with the result. But my computer at work was wiped clean a few months ago, so I lost it.) I told her that I was sorry for her loss and I understood how she might not be able to study for the exam given the circumstances. I told her that if she could not take the exam, I would just weigh her other exams more, basically giving her the average grade of her other two exams as her grade for this exam. I gave her another option as well. I told her that if she could manage to study and take the exam on Tuesday as scheduled, I would let her make a choice at that time: if she didn’t think she did well on it, I wouldn’t even grade it and I would just go with the original solution. This way she had nothing to lose by taking the exam, and hopefully she might give it a shot. I finished the e-mail by saying that this was what I came up with, but if she could come up with another solution, she should let me know and we could discuss it.
My e-mail went unanswered and the midterm came and went. Two weeks later, she came into my office, asked if we could talk, and shut the door behind her. I got up out of my chair, went to the door and opened it a crack. There’s no official school policy on this, but I dislike having the door closed when I have a student alone with me in my office, just to avoid any possible appearance of impropriety.
She told me that she did not like my solution to her situation and needed to bring that fact to my attention. She said that it ultimately wasn’t a huge problem for her because she was a senior, she didn’t really need the class, and she could always just drop it. But she wanted to talk to me on behalf of other students I might have in the future who have a situation similar to hers. She said that it was very unfair that I do not let students take a late exam. I explained what I have outlined four paragraphs above. She said that I wouldn’t have had to worry about her finding out what was on the exam because she didn’t know anyone in the class and, even if she did, she wouldn’t ask them what was on the exam. I have no way of knowing if either of those statements is in fact true, so it’s not something I can rely upon when making a decision like this. She said that if I was not going to allow students to take late exams, I should come up with something else.
I posed a hypothetical situation to her: the morning of the next midterm exam, a student is hit by a car and cannot take the exam either that day or for the next few weeks — what should I do for the student in that situation? She suggested I have the student write a paper. I’m not sure how I would have a student write a paper on so many different topics covered on the exam (PPF, supply and demand, price controls, taxes, elasticity, and measurement of macroeconomic variables), but that’s beside the point. I told her I did not like that solution because exams and papers are completely different: taking an exam requires you to know information and be able to communicate it from memory; writing a paper requires you to know where to find information in a book, which is not even close to the same thing.
She ran out of possible solutions at that point, and I thought perhaps she would see things from my perspective. I was hoping she’d say, “You know, there really aren’t many good options in a situation like this, so I guess I understand your solution better now.”
Not so much. She went to plan B. She said that it wasn’t so much my proposed solution she had a problem with really. What bothered her even more was that I just wasn’t being sympathetic. She said that my e-mail to her was “cold.”
That’s where I got offended. As I have described already, I thought I was very sympathetic in my e-mail, and I actually pulled it up on my computer and read it aloud to her in my office. It said that I was sorry for her loss and I understood how she would probably not be able to take the exam. “That is ‘cold’ to you?” I asked her. And then as I was reading it verbatim to her, I realized something I had forgotten at the time: that I had actually ended my e-mail by telling her that if she could come up with another solution, she should let me know. But she never responded to me.
So I asked her what I was supposed to do in that situation. What was I supposed to do when I told a student I would be willing to entertain a different solution if she could come up with one, but that student never even responded to me? I’m not a mind-reader, a fact to which every woman I have ever been in a relationship with can attest. All she could say was that she thought I should have handled it differently.
I was done. I told her that I thought it would be best if she left my office immediately. I’ve never told a student they should leave my office before and I never thought I would. I love students — that’s why I’m a teacher. But at that point, I thought she was completely disrespecting me and my anger at being disrespected was escalating. I had made an effort to be sympathetic and work something out with her, and she accuses me of being cold and unsympathetic to her situation? I was not having any of it. Thankfully for both of us, she took my advice and left before I had to raise my voice.
I was so infuriated that I called my mother — I’m a momma’s boy, I know, so go ahead and make fun, I don’t care. She wasn’t home, but I talked to my stepfather who works for a hospice. He’s seen his share of people going through grief and he was able to put things in perspective for me. He explained that she had just lost a friend and didn’t really know how to deal with it. She was grieving and I just happened to be in the way. He told me not to take it personally, and at that point it was easier to detach myself from the situation and let it go.
After cooling down, I sent her an e-mail apologizing for losing my composure with her. I told her that I wasn’t sure what more I could have done for her about the exam, and that I was sorry she did not feel my solution was fair. But again, I asked her what I was supposed to do when I had asked her to propose another solution and she never responded to me. I told her that I hoped we could put this behind us and just let it go. She did not respond to that e-mail either, but she was in class the next day and most every day after that. We never discussed it and we never had another problem.
So why do I share this story? Hopefully students will learn something from it. This student did not understood things from my perspective at all. She did not appreciate the concerns I had with giving late exams or papers. She was not willing to look at things from my side at all. Hopefully the next time you have a situation that requires special attention from a professor of yours, you’ll take a step back and try to look at the situation objectively before becoming upset at your professor for not providing you the remedy of your choice.
This situation was a learning experience for me also. I learned that people sometimes act out of character when they are grieving or going through a difficult situation, and that sometimes no level of compassion will be ever enough to ease their pain. I’d like to think that knowing what I know now, I might have handled that situation a little bit differently and would not have been so upset; that I would have realized her grief and not taken her comments personally. If a situation like that happens in the future, I’ll know better how to handle it. People, like animals, sometimes lash out when they are wounded and defenseless. But that doesn’t mean you stop reaching out.