Sunday, July 29, 2007

The fairness doctrine goes to school

By definition

The disgruntled student had made an appointment with the dean. She had a complaint.

“I have a complaint about Dr. Z.”

Handling student complaints was one of the dean's regular duties, but she hadn't heard too many grievances against Dr. Z. She asked the young woman to take a seat.

“Please describe your complaint to me.”

“He's unfair. I'm not getting the grade I should get and it's because of him.”

The complaint was still a bit vague. The dean probed for more information.

“Can you show me any examples where you think Dr. Z treated you unfairly?”

The student was ready. She fished around in her backpack and pulled out a recent exam.

“I got the right answer on Problem 2, but he did not give me full credit.”

The dean was working her way through a standard checklist for student complaints. She moved to the next item.

“Did you show that to Dr. Z and share your concern with him?”

If the student could come to terms with the instructor, the dean would not need to worry about any further intervention.

“Oh, yes, I tried to talk to him, but he refused to listen to me. He left the grade just the way it was!”

“Did he give you an explanation for his decision?”

“Oh, yeah. He admitted that my answer was right, but he said that wasn't enough.”

The student handed the exam to the dean. The dean examined the problem in question. The instructor had put a check mark next to the answer, acknowledging its correctness, but he had nevertheless docked the student several points and written a note in the margin. The note said, “Your work does not support this answer.” The dean regretted that she did not know how to read the steps of the calculus solution for herself, but she suspected that the work must be gibberish and the correct answer a mere coincidence—or worse, a case of good eyesight examining a neighbor's paper.

“Your teacher says in his note that your work doesn't support your answer. Did you check to see that the steps are correct?”

“I think he's just being picky. I have the right answer. He's just unfair. It's unfair to pick on every little thing. He just doesn't like me!”

“He did this just to you?”

“Oh, no! He does it to everyone. If he doesn't like your solution, he'll take off points. Like I said: He's unfair!”

“Actually, that's the definition of fairness—treating everybody the same. You might not be happy that Dr. Z has demanding standards for your solutions, but you just told me he's grading all of you consistently.”

The student glared at the dean in exasperation.

“You just don't understand! I am a straight-A student and I know what I'm doing. Thanks to Dr. Z and his unfair grading, I can't get more than a B! He should give me more credit!”

“I will be discussing your complaint with Dr. Z at my earliest opportunity. I won't be accusing him of unfairness, especially since it says right here on his exam that you must show your steps if you want full credit. He's within his rights to require that. However, I want to thank you for pointing out how good a student you are. That could be a significant factor if you've demonstrated a uniformly high level of academic achievement. Perhaps he should look at your work again and consider whether it's better than he gave you credit for. Do you have a transcript showing your 4.0 grade point average? No? That's okay. I can request one from the records office.”

The dean reached for the phone, but the student yelped before she could pick up the handset.

“Well, I'm not exactly a 4.0 student. I do have a couple of B's.”

The dean smiled brightly at the student.

“No matter. I will confer with Dr. Z and you may wish to speak with him again yourself.”

“Are you going to make him change my grade?”

“I'm sorry. I thought perhaps you understood. In the first place, I don't have the power to overrule an instructor's grading decisions. In the second place, his grading appears to be consistent and fair. I see no basis for further pursuit of a grievance, although that is up to you. I will encourage Dr. Z to continue to make his grading standards as clear as possible to his students and I would encourage you to provide him with adequate supporting work for each of your exam answers.”

The student snatched her exam back from the dean's desk, picked up her backpack, and stalked from the dean's office. The dean picked up her phone and dialed my office number. She left me a voice mail: “Hi, Zeno. Come see me in the dean's office when you get a chance. One of your students just left after asking me to change her grade in calculus. I'll tell you all about it. I'm looking forward to hearing if you have any good stories about her. I'll bet you do.”

As it turned out, I did.


Anonymous said...

I love stories like this. But then I feel kinda bad because the student still probably does not get it. They probably won't for a long time either and that's really sad.

I tell my students time and time again that half of getting thru life and getting the grade you, etc., is just plain following directions.


Karen said...

More stories about Ms. Clueless? Share them!

jonathan said...

At the high school level, that would have been in some ways wonderful. It is possible that the kid could have learned more during that exchange than she did in most class periods. In college, sad. Ouch.