• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


Should a Student Have to Try to Fail?

It's easy to fail a course, but it's also quite hard.

June 27, 2013

When Arden Key, a defensive end for Lithonia (GA) High School, committed to attend the University of South Carolina and play for the Gamecocks starting with the 2014 season, he reportedly remarked that he liked the coaching staff and when it comes to school, "The academic part, it's like you have to try to fail." 

This caused a brief spasm of outrage and counter-outrage in my home state where football is a passion to the point that marriages of Clemson and USC graduates are considered mixed.

The implication of Key’s statement is that for athletes, USC makes the academic road bump free, apparently in contrast to Key’s second choice, the University of Georgia.

To be fair, the full context of Key’s remarks is not clear. He could easily be referring to the tutoring and academic support USC provides, rather than commenting on the rigor of his studies.

We could take Key’s attitude as an indictment of the current system of student-athletes that seems to privilege the latter over the former, and lord knows I have many issues with the influence of athletics on academics, but the more I thought about Key’s remarks, the more I realized that I already believe or at least behave in a way that indicates that students pretty much should have to try to fail.

Much of my perspective is rooted in what and who I teach. Writing is a skill, and provided students enter a freshman academic writing course with sufficient background and preparation (essentially not in need of remediation), they really should get at least a “C” grade. If they cannot progress to proficiency by the end, they probably are trying to fail. Failing someone in a creative writing class who turns in their work and doesn’t plagiarize just sounds sort of cruel.

If a student attends class and turns assignments in on time that make a good faith effort at the stated objectives, and didn’t engage in some form of academic dishonesty, if they are failing, then they probably did not belong in that class.

There’s been times in my career where things were different. As a teaching assistant in graduate school, I worked the developmental English courses, and the expectation was that many, if not most, of the students would fail or drop out. In this case, the course was more of a sorting mechanism to determine who was prepared for college-level instruction.

And I can envision other, non-developmental, courses that need to perform a similar function - a BioChem class that will separate the future med schoolers out of the pack for example - but I see those as being different from my role.

At the selective to very selective institutions where I’ve taught, I enter every class believing that each student is capable of “success.” This does not necessarily mean that everyone gets A’s (they are not as rare as F’s, but much rarer than B’s or C’s), but in looking back at my records, over 13 years, teaching 3-4 courses per semester, I see that I’ve never failed anyone who turned in all the assignments on time.

I believe that my practices have been as fair, accurate, and equitable as I’m able to make them within the bounds of human fallibility. Things like class participation or peer critiques or other activities are part (though by no means the majority) of the overall grade, and sometimes those are enough to push a substandard writer up to a passing  mark.

This got me thinking. Should I be failing more students? A “D” in a freshman composition course usually indicates some significant deficiencies in terms of a student’s writing abilities. The grade says as much. They may have a base level competency, but there’s issues for sure.

A “D” in a creative writing course usually results from a failure to engage with the work of peer commentary and class discussion, elements that I hold as important as the writing of a student’s original stories themselves. A grade that low and they’ve likely missed out on the benefits of a significant chunk of the curriculum.

Is it possible that I’d be doing these students a service by failing them, forcing them to retake the course in an effort to improve those skills?

But I have to wonder if failing a freshman writing student might end their college career altogether. At the very least I’m imposing an additional financial burden on them by either delaying graduation or forcing them into summer school. I try my best to never give a student a grade they don’t deserve, but in actual practice, turning in the work almost takes failing off the table entirely.

It’s an easy call to fail a student who don’t do the work. Presuming they’re in the right spot, should it be just as “easy” to at least pass those who do do the work?

I’m eager for other perspectives.


There is such a thing as a Twitter fail.



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