Student portraits

Student 1: He sits in the front row every day, and misses only one class all term. His writing needs some work, especially in transitioning between ideas and avoiding repetition, because he's not a native speaker. He comes to meet with me two or three times for every assignment in the course, both before and after it's graded, to go over my comments and learn about what I'm trying to teach him. He's taking several advanced level literature courses (something that is challenging for most of our native speakers, never mind someone who only came here four years ago) and we also spend time working on his close reading skills. In the schooling he received in his country of origin, students were not expected to write essays based on their own arguments or opinions; they were only supposed to learn the teacher's words by rote memory. It is a huge paradigm shift for him to try and succeed in this educational culture which prizes logical argument and clarity of expression. He learns to recognize the differences in what is expected of him here, so that even if he is not always successful in crafting his written arguments, he can analyze and learn from his mistakes. When I suggest that he read a book on improving his syntax & style, he actually does, and I can see the results as his writing improves. He brings in ideas from his philosophy class and tries to relate them to the literary texts we're reading. He is engaged with the material and actively trying to improve his writing. He was not an A-level student when he entered my class, but his commitment to fulfilling all assignments, to benefit from the opportunity to get comments on drafts, and his A+ final exam brought his final grade up to A-. A grade I was happy to give him.

Student 2: Her attendence was extremely erratic, so much so that for a while I thought she had dropped the course. (With our student population at my U, you can usually expect to lose a few students along the way, and they often don't let you know. They just stop showing up.) But then she showed up again, briefly. When she was in class, she never participated in discussion, but sat with a sneering sulky look on her face. As I totalled up the attendance records, I realized she had only been there one-third of the course days. She turned in only two of the weekly assignments. But her writing is very strong and I think she's smart. Her first paper was good enough that I checked it several times for plagiarism. Her oral presentation was also very good. Her lack of involvement in the course was all the more frustrating to me because I sensed that she was naturally a strong student. She never turned in her final paper, not when it was due nor during the grace period I allow for late work (specified very clearly in my syllabus). Her final exam was at the C level, but because she'd missed so much work, her final grade was an F. Two days after turning in my final grades, she emails me her final paper, saying "I know it's probably too late to be graded." I glanced at it, even though I'm not accepting it for a grade, and sadly, it's a very strong paper. If she'd turned it in on time, she'd have passed the course. (just barely, but she probably would have passed). If she had a medical or personal situation that required accomodation, I would have been more than happy to help her. But never once did she contact me with an explanation about her absences or her missing work. I don't know what her story really is.

One of the qualities I try to cultivate in myself as a teacher is an attitude of generosity. I gladly spent long hours working with Student 1, because that's part of my work as a teacher. I make myself available to students during regular office hours and via email. I make accomodations for students with special needs, with medical conditions, or with family situations that cause them to miss class or fall behind in their work. My courses require regular assignments to be turned in -- some of which are graded simply on a particpation basis, so that if you do them, you get full credit. So putting forth serious effort actually does improve your course grade. I don't penalize students for missing class, but point out to them that if they miss too many classes, their assignments will necessarily suffer.

I don't think, however, that it would be generous to simply grade Student 2's four-week-late paper and give her a passing grade. I've thought a lot about this over the past two days. If she had contacted me at any time during the semester with a reasonable explanation -- a medical condition, for instance -- I would have worked with her either to establish due dates for her written work and a plan to improve her attendance, or to give her the passing-Withdrawal grade. But from everything I've seen of Student 2's behavior, she's smart enough that she thinks she can get by without doing the things that are required of everyone else. She's got an issue with authority, maybe some sort of issue with being in school at all. In a small-section (30) lecture-discussion course, you can't just act the way you might in a large lecture format course. You can't just read the books and still ace the exam. Part of the work of the course happens during the class. Otherwise I could just proctor study hall every day instead of actually teaching.

I feel frustrated with Student 2 -- and I felt frustrated with her during the semester, too. I'll always feel that I could have somehow tried harder to reach her. But her performance in my class is not only my responsibility -- it's also hers.