Friday, January 5, 2007

Where Profs Continue to Shoot Themselves In the Foot

This semester, I was a teaching assistant for a class with about fifty students. The final exam was on a Friday afternoon from 2:00-3:00 PM. Two students did not show up for the exam; we’ll call them X and Y. With a stack of fifty exams, though, I didn’t have time to go through and double-check that every student was present.

Student X e-mailed the professor around 5:00 PM in a panic. She had overslept, she said, and she missed the exam. Could she make it up? Though I was dubious of how one could “oversleep” until 5:00 PM, the professor allowed this student to make up the exam on Monday.

Then, while X is taking the exam on Monday, in walks Y. I know very little of Y except what I’ve gleaned from her Facebook thumbnail, which is that she’s quite the partier.

Y approaches the professor and claims one of the most far-fetched things I’ve ever heard of: A week prior to the exam, Y e-mailed the professor and asked, “Do I have to take the exam on Friday?” (Bear in mind that there was no reason for Y to legitimately think she may not have to take this test—everyone else in the class was taking it. It was a ridiculous question.) Since she did not receive an individual response from the professor, she assumed that she was indeed special and did not have to take the exam. What a relief!

The professor looked back through her e-mail history, and sure enough, Y had sent the e-mail—but the professor was too busy at the time and barely read it. (This professor had been busy administering exams to her other class, a class of 350 students, not to mention dealing with a brand-new baby.) So the professor told Y that she should have taken the exam with her classmates instead of waiting for a special invitation.

Y would have none of this. She stamped her foot and pulled out what she thought was her ace-in-the-hole: She looked the professor in the eye and said, “The exam wasn’t on the syllabus,” accenting the word “syllabus” the way some young women accent the word “whatever.” Y really believed this omission excused her absence from the exam. And it’s worse: The exam was actually quite prominently listed on the syllabus.

What I couldn’t believe, when the professor passed this story on to me, was that the student was then allowed—despite her complete lack of valid rationale—to not only take the exam, but to have an additional 24 hours to study because the professor was busy proctoring X’s exam.

I told this professor my opinion—that X probably should have failed the exam, and Y definitely should have failed the exam—and she agreed. But, she said, when similar cases arose in years past, the scorned students always went to the Department Chair and complained, and he always sided with them. So it wasn’t worth the agony.

Both students passed the class.


And a comment:

The prof didn't shoot herself in the foot. She was stabbed in the back by the Chair. I've had a chair suggest a "Double Zero" for plagiarism case before she breezed past me and made for the non-dairy creamers and stirring spoons. "Double Zero"? Is that like "Double Secret Probation"? Is it suddenly acceptable to pull policy out of my ass? Things I pull out of my ass seldom make the syllabus; though they may surface in a lecture or two.

Most Chairs I've dealt with have actually taught in classroom and understand what I'm going through. Some even lick their chops at the chance to swat these tuition-payers back to Earth. One showed me a file cabinet full of complaints, shut the cabinet door with a laugh and asked how the rest of my semester was going. His final words were, "Don't worry. Let me call her." One Chair had taught so long she would finish my stories, then top them. "Ill see your pissed-off plagiarizing Chancellor-dialer and raise you a mid-term missing malingerer who claims more dead relatives than the Kennedys."

Students fish for loopholes in the syllabus or go tattling to the chair because it's worked in the past. It won't work forever. This is what keeps me sane. That and a cold beer.