A Time to Fail

This spring semester was my first experience teaching graduating seniors at community college. Two of my amazing colleagues and I taught a Liberal Arts Capstone class called:  The Social Construction of an Apocalypse, Infectious Disease, & Literary Dystopias: The Rise of (Zombie) Terror in the 21st Century and it was awesome.

Well, it was awesome up until the end.

The way this course was set up was unique. During our 12-week semester, the students moved every four weeks between three modules of the course, each module taught by a professor in that area. I taught the Literary Dystopias module, a biologist taught Infectious Disease, and a sociologist, taught the Social Construction component. The course was a lot of work and collaboration for us (in addition to the fact that each section of students had 27 students in it, which meant 27 new students every 4 weeks). We set up an online gradebook for collaborative grading that the students had access to throughout the semester, we met weekly after class, and we emailed no less than a million times throughout the planning, teaching, and conclusion of the course.

Our entire ePortfolio is public, so feel free to access it here: https://guttman-cuny.digication.com/zombie-apocalypse/Welcome/

When the final grades were in, about 1/3 of the students failed the course. Keep in mind that there was a large programming snafu and about 1/4 to 1/3 of the students placed into the course were not on track to graduate until December 2014 or February 2015 of the coming academic year, therefore they should not have been registered for the Capstone course that semester. In a lot of ways, the large fail number made sense to us. But it did not make sense to the students.

Grades were submitted midnight on a Monday, and it took about an hour before the emails started rolling in. Emails filled with accusation, rudeness, pain, begging, excuses…One student even (mis)quoted the syllabus, trying to use it against us.

**Excuse me while I interrupt this blog post to give the biggest props of props to one student, who, disappointed with his C grade, emailed us all to ask politely for suggestions on what he might do better in his future studies because he did not want to be a C student. We all emailed him with our take on his academic performance. If you had taught this kid when he started community college two years ago like I did, you would understand how amazing it was to receive such an email from him. Kudos to you, honey.**

And so began about a week of emails that politely reminded each and every frustrated student that there had been an online gradebook, but in case you had chosen not to check in on your grade for 12 weeks let us enumerate the number of assignments you missed: Oh, look–you missed 10-14 assignments. That is why you failed. No, you did not turn that in. Or, yes, you did turn that in, but 6 weeks after it was due therefore you did not receive credit. You got a 1 out of 3 points on that assignment because you wrote one sentence answers instead of paragraph answers. This was a Capstone class and you did not perform at Capstone level.

Thankfully, we were meticulous about our grade-keeping (always important), so there was only one incident of a grading mistake on our part and one clerical error made while entering the grades into the CUNY First system.

But one begging email really got to me.

This student wrote in her third desperate email to me, “Well, I came to class and I gave it my best. Shouldn’t that count for something?”

And the real answer to this is: NO.

Effort does count–of course it does–but there are standards, too, and even if you did all the assignments (not this girl’s case, but whatever), you can STILL fail the course.

This is a big switch-a-roo from high school for many of these young adults. In high school, if you had perfect attendance and did not do much, you might still pass. I know this because I passed students who had good attendance but did NO work. And I’m not talking a little bit of work, I am talking not-a-single-piece-of-paper-was-ever-handed-in-and-I-don’t-even-know-what-your-handwriting-looks-like work. A coworker showed me of a way to rig our school’s online gradebook so that even the worst students’ averages would hover around 65%, the last passing grade.

At first I refused to do this. But then I had one student in particular who came to school every day. Every single day. Every single day high as a kite. Whee! English class was a riot for him. Thankfully, he wasn’t aggressive when high, just silly. The Crucible? Hil-fucking-larious! When the protagonist’s grandmother dies in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the rest of the class was crying and one kid even had to leave the room? He cackled at his desk, fell out of his chair, and after picking his lanky 6″ tall body up and sitting back down, he put his head down to take a little nap. Oh, how I loved those little naps. I called his home. His parents were professionals, but split up, so I called two homes. He was rising in the gang culture–wearing red all the time and allegedly selling weed in school and becoming a captain–and despite my calls and concerns nothing ever improved in terms of his behavior in class or his lack of engagement. Later in the academic year he just stopped coming to class.

With this in mind, I failed him.

When I turned in my grades to my beloved Assistant Principal, she asked why he failed. I reported he did no work. Well, he comes to class, she said. Yes, I said, but he’s stoned out of his mind. Have you reported this to guidance/deans/security? Yes/yes/yes. Have you called home? Yes. How many times? About once a week for six weeks. What else have you done? I have given him make up packets of work and he has signed forms saying he received them (which I had) but he has turned nothing in. He has nothing in his writing portfolio. Nothing in his notebook. He does nothing.

Well, she said, if you fail him the principal is going to ask to see all that evidence.

And although I had all that evidence, this new principal had threatened me with U (unsatisfactory) ratings, had yelled at me for writing up a masturbating student in my classroom, and had assigned our school’s Aussie consultant to work with me under the accusation that I didn’t “connect” with my students. To say we had started off on the wrong foot was a hyperbolic understatement. She was making me a nervous wreck. There was no way I was doing anything that would force a meeting with her. I was trying to get off her radar. I would have done anything to be off that woman’s radar.

So I passed him.

And I learned to rig my online gradebook.

And I passed more failing kids who came to class but did nothing.

That last year of teaching, I passed so many kids with a 65 that it’s honestly shameful. A 65 is a bad grade (it’s a D-!)and it’s not like they’re going  onto Harvard with that on their transcript, but they left my class without having demonstrated minimal proficiency in certain reading and writing skills. That’s on me, and I do feel badly about it, but when it came to saving my own professional life versus the students’ progress, I chose me.

However, karma’s a tricky gal because now I have those students in community college.

And now they want to graduate without having done the work, without having demonstrated proficiency in certain areas. They want to graduate because they tried and shouldn’t that count for something? And now I fail them.

But the difference in this story is that my college is behind me. Nobody has ever even asked for a gradebook (which I have), for justification as to why a student failed (which I have), for evidence that I did my job (which I have–old habits die hard). It is assumed by my supervisors that I did my job and that I am competent. It is assumed that if I failed a student it was not due to a deficiency on my part, but because they did not complete the course requirements. I have never once been questioned.

After years of being interrogated, of juking the stats (had to quote “The Wire”), of setting my moral code as an educator aside for the sake of self-preservation, I am still not used to this. I am not used to failing students when they deserve fail. But it’s time. It’s time for them to fail.

Sadly, the students aren’t used to it either.

But we both will learn.

fail copy