Lessons learned from the case of the lawsuit over a C+ (essay)
The Curious Case of Megan Thode
There were two major education stories in the news last week: one was the President’s State-of-the-Union call for a new rankings-and-accreditation program for colleges and universities. The other -- which seems almost humorous but which is just as serious -- involved a former graduate student suing Lehigh University over a grade. The story of Megan Thode and her court case, in which she asked for $1.3 million in damages stemming from a grade of C+, took America (and other parts of the world, including Australia and Great Britain) by storm; at the peak of the civil trial, the number of hits on Google reached over 95,000, including a sizable number from local news sources, which provided extensive coverage of the trial.
After four days of hearing testimony, Judge Emil Giordano reached a verdict on Thursday, finding that there was neither a breach of contract nor sexual discrimination, the claims made by the plaintiff . And so for Megan Thode there would be no $1.3 million award -- nor a change in grade.
There are a number of reasons why Megan Thode became an Internet sensation. First, there’s the sinking, nightmarish response of anyone who has ever had a student or a student’s parent complain about a grade: there, but for the grace of the god of grades, go I. In fact, I have been haunted, over the last few days, by the vision of a former student who argued that his A- should have been an A gathering his accusations and preparing for a renewed assault.
And what about that student who needed a B for her education program but whose writing skills and her failure to improve had resulted in a C? Will she be inspired by Megan Thode’s asking for $1.3 million, the amount that Thode claims her C+ in a fieldwork class cost her?
There’s another reason for this “Grade Me Maybe” story going viral, and that is the reality TV/You Tube aspect: one person’s whining psychodrama is another person’s entertainment. Here was a welcome moment of comic relief, with a Sarah-Palin-like figure complaining that her teacher and school played a game of “gotcha.”
This wasn’t the first court case of its kind, in which a student attempted to sue over a grade. This one, however, had enough rich elements to rival not only reality TV but "Downton Abbey," offering a generational family drama, with the patriarchal figure of the plantiff’s father -- Stephen Thode, an associate professor of business at Lehigh -- willing to sacrifice his own reputation for the sake of justice for his daughter. Megan Thode’s infant daughter was also a supporting player, appearing in photographs accompanying the story in various news venues.
Then there was the depiction of Thode as gay rights proponent, publicly shamed for her activism -- the victim of a woman instructor whose own sister is a lesbian. There was the equally spurious class aspect: Thode, a beneficiary of the institution’s generous benefits system, was taking on the private university, the object of Republican politicians’ ire. There was something for everyone here -- except, in the end, for Megan Thode. As the above-the-fold front-page headline of The Morning Call announced on Friday: “C+ in Classroom, F in Court.”
What was really on trial here was the fraught subject of standards. While there are exceptions, it is a fact universally acknowledged that, most often, the student who complains about a grade deserves that grade. Thode apparently regularly attended class, but did not participate in class discussions, despite the fact that the instructor stipulated early in the semester -- and in print -- that participation was required.
Silent attendance isn’t sufficient, as I explained to a student when I was a teaching assistant at Lehigh. As I pointed out to the protesting student, two pigeons had regularly appeared on the window ledge for every class meeting; they did not, however, receive credit, and the student, whose contributions had matched theirs, would not either. (Is that student, even now, cheered by this spectacle of his fellow alum? Is he feverishly -- and silently -- preparing his case? And what will the statute of limitations be for such cases? One year -- as is the norm at many schools? Three years, as in Thode’s case? Twenty years?)
Thode’s argument is that she needed a higher grade. Well, yes, she did -- but that did not mean that she was entitled to it. Almost anyone who teaches education classes has heard Thode’s refrain. What she needed to do was earn it. Program requirements exist for a reason -- they certify that that the student in question demonstrated competency in the course area. Her instructor sent her a letter at the mid-semester point, outlining what Thode need to do; Thode ignored it. And when her grade reflected the consequences of her failure to meet the standards for a B, she might have investigated the option of repeating the course.
Instead, she took her complaint to two internal committees and when those did not find adequate proof to reverse the instructor’s decision, Thode and her lawyer launched a barely legal scattershot argument of equal parts personal vendetta on the part of the instructor and the then-director of the program and an unfair change in internship rules.
The result has been a courtroom scene reminiscent of the trials in Catch-22, with the instructor being asked such questions as whether she practices vertical or horizontal religion and Thode’s lawyer attempting to negotiate in the final moments of the trial, claiming that “it was never about the money” and asking the judge just to go ahead and change that pesky grade.
And so Thode’s case has disrupted the educational world, just as she herself apparently disrupted the class in question. For she wasn’t completely silent in class. Her behavior -- long before her case came to court -- smacks of the desperate student’s line of secondary defenses and attacks: announcing a headache and calling for aspirin; crying; swearing, insulting the instructor -- doing everything, in effect, except what she needed to do to demonstrate her readiness for her professed career: to contribute in a meaningful way to discussions.
Her disruptive behavior in the classroom was unprofessional and uncivil. It’s also increasingly the norm in classes everywhere. Maybe that’s what we need to take away from this whole debacle -- a reminder that the classroom isn’t a soundstage for students desperately seeking unearned credit. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Thode -- tragically -- didn’t learn anything at all from her classroom experience, and as for that dream of someday being a licensed counselor, she pretty much destroyed that all by herself.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emeritus of English at Cedar Crest College. She currently teaches at Muhlenberg College.