Teacher Whisperers

Student Underperforms. Student Fails. Administration Informs. Student Prevails.

July 31, 2017

Student Underperforms. Student Fails. Administration Informs. Student Prevails.

June has always been my favorite month in the academic calendar. I get to see my students graduate and move on in the perennial cycle of endings and beginnings. It is a time to reflect on the past year and plan for the next one. As a “lifer” in higher education, I have developed an annual circadian rhythm during which I experience June as a time of release and renewal.

This year felt different. June arrived and I was still being haunted by events that occurred in May.  

One of my advisees, a graduating senior whom I will refer to as Johnny, earned a failing grade in a course he needed in order to graduate.  At the beginning of May I received a phone call from a dean letting me know that Johnny would be coming in to discuss possible paths to graduating with his cohort. I met with him to discuss his options, and after a collaborative exhausting of the possibilities during which multiple deans were having conversations with multiple faculty and family members in what can only be described as a goat rodeo, I was nominated to inform Johnny that he would have to take a summer course. In other words, he would not be graduating with his cohort. I had a gnawing feeling in my gut that this would not go over well, but someone needed to woman up and speak truth to a failing student.

Johnny subsequently exploded into a diatribe of electronic threats, including a promise to sue and a personal threat to me. The threats, although scary in today’s gun toting society and a little creepy besides, are not what haunt me. What haunts me still is what happened afterward. My department chair shielded me from the fallout, so I heard the solution after the fact.  Spoiler alert: Johnny graduated along with his cohort, just as he had demanded to do.

As educators, we are all familiar with lawn-mower parents and their coddled children. Why don’t educational institutions feel obligated to disabuse families of the notion that this is helpful for students? The above incident should have stopped after the first event , to wit A graduating senior earned a failing grade in a course he needed in order to graduate. His instructor deemed his work insufficient. He failed. Even if he is a graduating senior, he fails.

When does it become necessary to accommodate lawn-mower parents and teacher-whispering administrators?  When did it even become possible for parents and administrators to influence course outcomes? Are educators not hired to teach and assess students? When students and their families demand to speak to a supervisor, how is it feasible that they would be given the impression that deans and other administrators have any role at all in course outcomes? Shouldn’t deans and administrators redirect said ‘customers’ to the department chairs – our real supervisors?

To be sure, there are some extenuating circumstances and back-stories of genuine hardship and life-threatening mental or physical conditions in which deans and administrators rightfully need to intervene. In these cases, they should contact department chairs and have a frank discussion about the circumstances as early as possible. Furthermore, there should be an unambiguous policy regarding the use of student confidentiality. If faculty are meant to consider certain facts, those facts should be stated explicitly and not given an oblique nod.

As an academic who has been in the classroom for the better part of 25 years, in different countries and different departments at a variety of institutions, I offer the following insights:

First, administrators deprive students of valuable lessons when they disappear the consequences of failing.  College education is, technically, adult education. College students can only be adults if our society lets them detach from fairy godparents who come in and magically sweep their troubles away. Private industry does not have a problem with this.  The military does not have a problem with this. Gainfully employed 18 year-olds cannot ask parents to speak to their supervisor if they don’t like the consequences they are about to face. So why is this the case in education? Moreover, why do institutions acquiesce?

Second, educators begin to feel at best ambivalent, and at worst, apathetic and cynical, about student assessment. We understand the implications of failure. We are professionals in our field and we experience success and failure every day when we enter and exit classrooms, when we submit articles, and when we undergo annual performance reviews. We are accustomed to being assessed, criticized, applauded, validated and scrutinized by our peers. We are responsible for managing student assessment for students in our own classes. We know that the impact of the assessment is not in the actual grade. It is found in in what follows. Some students will choose grad school, medical school, or a remunerated path of some kind. Whichever path they choose, their aggregate experiences in college give some indication about their ability to hold up their end of the academic endeavor. Making the consequences of failing inconsequential erases part of their story and minimizes our role as educators.

Finally, when students in Johnny’s situation are allowed to graduate regardless of their performance, “Johnny graduated!” becomes a type of fake news. Liberal arts institutions are some of the most vocal critics of the government’s willful suspension of disbelief (willing suspension of reality), and yet our grade inflation and graduations finagled by bulldozer students and their families change the perceived academic integrity and inherent meaning of the college degree.

Dr. Lisa Di Carlo is an anthropologist and lecturer with more than 25 years of experience in higher education in state universities, and private universities in the US and abroad. She is a Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow. 



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