I remember how bad I felt when I assigned my first F. The night before I turned in my grades, I could barely sleep; I kept tossing and turning, worrying about the student who was about to fail. I thought this failure was going to ruin this kid’s future; he was doomed, I was certain, to a life of meaningless jobs for sub-minimum wage because his first-year writing teacher failed him. I equated his failing with my failure: He failed by not doing the work, and I failed him on an existential level because I was not able to keep him from failing.
As my mentors at the time explained to me, it did indeed get easier to give Fs. One of the reasons was linguistic; I stopped saying I was "giving" grades and instead switched to the language of "recording what the student earned." In this case, semantics did make a difference, but, truthfully, in the 15 years since I "recorded" that first F, I have never felt good about it. Contrary to what many students believe, giving — ahem, recording — failures is not fun. Teachers do not celebrate when students fail; and many, myself included, often bend over backward to find ways to allow students to pass. We listen to their stories, their excuses, their reasons, and we give an extension or some extra credit. We work hard — sometimes harder than the students themselves — to help them pass.
I never really questioned this practice until I stepped into the dean’s role in academic services. At my institution, the dean of academic services oversees the granting of incompletes, leaves of absence and withdrawals (both voluntary and required), and any and all academic issues students may be having. In practical terms, this means that almost every student who is struggling academically sooner or later comes to my attention. While my role is to counsel students about academic issues, inevitably their personal lives — mental, social, physical, emotional -- are wrapped up in their academic issues, so I hear stories that range from the tragic to the sad to the more mundane.
As dean, I spend much of my day listening to tales about dying grandparents, sick siblings, financial struggles, drug and alcohol addiction, family troubles, roommate troubles, classroom troubles — the list is endless. In many ways, I am still the softie I was 15 years ago; I often believe students' stories — even the most fantastical ones — until they give me a reason to doubt them. I have learned, though, how to balance my (perhaps) naïve sense of trust with the realities of needing documentation. It does take some skill to express sympathy in one breath and in the very next breath ask for a copy of an obituary. Where I have noticed the biggest shift in my thinking, however, has been with the issue of giving Fs.
Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I’m sure at this point some of my readers are thinking that I am being too quick to judge Sally, that there must be extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration. About 50 percent of the time, those readers are correct: something has happened in Sally’s life that has caused her to disappear from the classroom. Sometimes that situation is the common one of a first-year student not sure how to handle the sudden freedom of college and deciding to spend too much time on the social. But there are other scenarios, too: Sally has been very ill; Sally has lost a parent; Sally has a learning disability but thought she could handle college without accommodations; Sally is anxious, depressed, addicted, or a combination of all three.
I always reach out to students when I hear they are in trouble. Some respond but most don’t. If Sally does come to see me, I patiently listen as she tells her story. Sometimes, I might cry right along with her. There are indeed days when I have to close my door to grieve over what I have just heard, weeping for the complicated and overwhelming lives some of our students lead. But even in these worst cases, when Sally’s story breaks me, I still think Sally should fail.
If Sally’s circumstances have indeed been difficult — and they often are — I will look for ways to get her back on track. I might help her get an appointment with the counseling center or walk her down to register with our disability coordinator. I will explain the academic support services we have on campus and show her how to register for those. I will help her think about ways summer courses or interim courses might allow her to catch up on her requirements so she can still graduate in four years. In other words, I will do whatever I can to help Sally except advocate for her to get a passing grade she did not earn
Sally should fail because she did not complete the work; she did not learn what the course proposed to teach; she was not educated. If the university allows Sally to pass, we will be failing her in a much more serious way: we will be failing her as an institution that is deeply committed to learning, failing her as mentors, failing her as human beings. If we do not let Sally fail, she will not learn that adults need to take responsibility for their actions, even when the chips are down, even when the world seems like it is coming to an end. She will not learn that sometimes, for reasons beyond our control, even the best of us fail. If we do not allow her to fail, she will not have the chance to learn resilience. She will not learn to ask for help or recognize the importance of communication. If we don’t allow Sally to fail, she will not learn that adult life is hard and often unfair and that success is defined in that critical moment between giving up or staying the course.
I do not enjoy watching students fail any more than I did 15 years ago, but now I see failures as part and parcel of the total experience of a college education. Like so much in life, failure and success are just different ends of the same spectrum. Learning to navigate that spectrum with integrity, grace, humility, and a little grit, is one of the most important skills colleges can teach.
Melissa Nicolas is interim associate dean of academic services at Drew University.
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