Ask the Radical: The Dreaded Grade Dispute

June 2, 2007, 12:36 pm

From time to time, the Radical will take direct questions about how to proceed in delicate matters not occurring at Zenith (refresh your memory of the Blogger Ethic, or just try to imagine the consequences, if you don’t understand why she does not address controversial events at Zenith any more.)

This dispatch is just in from the Land of Contingent Labor:

“Dear Professor Radical: I was recently accused of giving a student a failing grade because I am allegedly biased against him. When he lodged the original complaint about the grade, I provided him with all of the reasons for his grade, including not answering assigned questions, not addressing gay people in a class about sexuality, and not answering questions when asked during his presentations even though answering questions was part of what was expected in the presentation. His response to my explanation was to accuse me of reverse discrimination.

“The Chair of my department has chosen to take both the grade dispute and the accusation seriously because of another incident in which a student used a racial slur in my class, and my disagreement with how this was handled.

“Any thoughts on how to address the issue with the student and with the Chair, since I am leaving this job soon anyway?”

Well, first of all, it’s good that you are leaving the job. And I would say that even if you and the Chair did not have a vexed relationship stemming from a previous incident, unfortunate as it may seem, s/he is obliged to take a complaint seriously if it has been made (although I hope that s/he has the good sense to correct the student that what is being alleged is *discrimination,* period. “Reverse discrimination” is one of those phrases — like “partial birth abortion” – that has been specially designed by radical conservatives to give a particular ideological spin to such a situation.)

But what should be done? And what does a faculty member — contingent or not — have a right to expect in such a situation? As Director of American Studies off and on I have periodically been asked to step into grade disputes in which both the student and the faculty member are in a state of outrage, and my job, as I perceived it, has been to resolve the situation but not necessarily decide who is telling the truth, even when I think I know. Let me give you two situations, each drawn from real experiences:

1. Student A appeared in my office in tears, saying that Professor X had refused to look at, much less grade, her senior work, because the agreed upon terms of the tutorial (that A and X would meet on a weekly basis to discuss said work) were violated by A. A never showed up for the tutorial appointments, X charged. A, on the other hand, claimed that after much back and forth over meeting times, X was never able to establish a regular time, and often did not show up at times that had been scheduled with A. A became discouraged, stopped trying to schedule appointments, and just wrote the paper. X rebutted this vociferously, claiming that A was “a liar.”

What I thought I knew: that A was kind of a sweet, slightly out of it, young woman who I knew superficially and had never, to my knowledge, been involved in a dispute of this kind. I also had no reason to suspect that A was not being truthful, and what she said resonated with other complaints I had received about Professor X. My experience with X was that s/he was extraordinarily creative, somewhat high-strung, more likely to get into disputes with other faculty than some colleagues, forgetful, and unlikely to perceive that s/he had contributed to the misunderstanding, however unintentionally. My instinct was that Student A was probably telling some version of the truth; furthermore, A could not graduate without getting a grade for this work, so somehow a grade needed to be produced lest the dispute get really ugly.

2. I got a call from Faculty Y, saying that s/he was outraged on behalf of student B, who was taking a class with Professor Z. B had turned up in Y’s office hours in despair, saying that the term paper that sie wrote for Z had received a failing grade. Y claimed that Z’s grade was due to transphobia: that B, as a transgendered student writing on a trans topic, did not hirself believe the work was graded fairly, and furthermore, that in all hir meetings with Z during the term, felt harassed and criticized, tried to do what was asked, but nothing ever seemed to be good enough for Z. Y demanded that I confront Z about transphobia and insist that the paper be re-graded fairly.

What I thought I knew: I had taught B, who was an average student but had not distinguished hirself in any way that was apparent to me; Z was a young colleague, with very high standards, whose courses were universally perceived as quite rigorous. But Z was also queer, very politically conscious, and a devoted teacher; therefore I thought that discrimination against a particular student was unlikely. My sense was that Z was probably in the right in this matter, and that B was not lodging the complaint out of spite, but out of some genuine frustration about how to meet Z’s standards. Complication: Y, who had originally called me, was a very senior colleague, and Z was very junior.

In both situations, what I did was this: I interviewed all parties, gathered information on their perspectives and then asked them to agree that final work would be submitted to me for my evaluation and submission of a final grade. Both students received grades sufficiently good to, in one case, graduate the student; and in the other case, move that student into hir major of choice. While both pieces of work were inferior, I did not believe that a disputed grade was a good reason to bar the student from progressing on to the next stage. In neither case, therefore, did I fully validate the faculty member’s position, although I worked very hard to be supportive and sympathetic to each.

In the case of A, no actual grade had to be assigned, since the senior work was pass/fail: thus, while the work itself was admittedly quite odd, and bore the marks of not having been critiqued and supervised by a mentor, the student had clearly made a good faith effort to complete it, it was quite long, and represented what would normally be considered to be minimally acceptable in terms of meeting the graduation requirement.

In the case of B, I asked hir for previously submitted written work; I asked Z for the course syllabus and for the roster of other grades given in the course. I also asked that Z write several paragraphs that covered B’s ungraded work for the class — participation, absences, visits to office hours. B and I talked about this document, and with a few minor emendations, we were able to agree that it fairly represented hir efforts in the course, which had been slight in these areas. I also talked to B about the course readings enough to get a sense that sie had not done much of the reading for the course, which probably contributed to hir confusion about what sie was ultimately being asked to do — or could do — in the term paper. And when I saw the term paper, I understood that the paper sie had written was autobiographical, and not the critical essay engaging class readings that sie had been asked to write. When talking to B, I also learned that sie had submitted similar personal essays to Professor Y in another course, and received high marks for them. Therefore, although it was not Z’s fault, B was correct in thinking that sie was being held to a standards different from those sie had previously experienced: Professor Y’s concern for B’s well-being during a difficult life transition had caused Y to allow B to not meet the course requirements and submit more personal writing instead. It was unclear to me whether Professor Y had explained to B that sie had been exempted from the standard Y had used to evaluate the rest of the class.

Neither of these incidents exactl
y mirrors the problems my correspondent’s question raises, one of which is very disturbing: that the instructor being accused of discrimination has reason to believe that s/he is being discriminated against. It seems to me legitimate that a faculty member ask a student to modify offensive behavior and be supported by the Chair; and I would question what the student who did not wish to talk about gay people was doing in a class about sexuality. The latter student does not seem to be there for legitimate learning purposes, and Professor Contingent was right to ask him to participate honestly in the course.

That said, what does the faculty member have a right to expect from the Chair in relation to these incidents? Certainly that her side of the story will be listened to, taken into account and perhaps even given sympathy. But if the Chair is doing the job right, s/he will solve this problem in a way that is least likely to have reverberating effects for the faculty member and for the Department, even if it means tempering support of the faculty member by recognizing that the student has a legitimate point of view. This is even more likely as an outcome if Professor Contingent’s contract is due to expire shortly: having an ongoing dispute with a student on behalf of a faculty member who you will never see again is a lot of wasted labor and unwanted attention for no gain. The Chair will also recognize that most disputes represent conflicting points of view in a “he-said-she said” situation that are not likely to be resolved by more talk, either because one party has an interest in covering up the truth, or because the situation was genuinely perceived differently by two individuals committed to differing points of view. In either case, the faculty member is unlikely to have her perspective completely validated, because to do that would invalidate the student’s perspective and prolong the dispute to no good purpose. And prolonging the dispute — or opening up the curriculum of the program to ideological scrutiny — is not in the Chair’s interest. So if I were the Chair, I would do what I did in both situations above: make all parties feel listened to and grade the work myself.

What can the faculty member do? Well, I would have a couple suggestions for the future.

1. Students are often drawn to controversial classes, and controversial teachers, for reasons they themselves do not understand, and their form of resistance to ideas that upset their worlds can be refusing to learn and getting into conflicts with the teacher to get attention. Furthermore, in some public systems, students can have difficulty getting into the classes they need to fulfill graduation requirements, and might end up in a queer, critical race or feminist literature course because it fit their schedule or there was a seat open. I could not recommend more strongly that controversial courses be offered with a credit/fail option, partly because students with ambivalent feelings about the material do not have to be graded on prior knowledge or affinity for the material at hand, and partly because it encourages students to take risks and not become hostile and defensive when they aren’t understanding the material or don’t wish to fully engage.

2. For many years after a particularly unpleasant incident in one of my classes (which included unfounded charges of sexual harassment and racism) I had a code of civility on my syllabus: students were asked, in the first class, to discuss the code while I was out of the room, amend it if they wished, and then we would all agree to it. At the time, I was also having particular trouble with students being disrepectful to each other, which inevitably produced conflict with me as well. This “contract” worked like a charm — less because I could use the code to discipline students, but because we talked about how we would treat each other and students felt that they were full partners to the agreement.

3. For any faculty member, at any level of experience, I would also say: if you find that you are persistently getting into conflict with students, without necessarily ascribing blame, you need to ask yourself why and how to address conflict, or avoid it, without intervention from outsiders. Most frequently, asking a student for a private meeting to discuss what is happening, perhaps even with another colleague present, is a better way to address bad behavior than to confront a student in front of the class (which may have escalated Professor Contingent’s problem with the student in the sexuality course) And giving a student a C- without any oppoprtunity to do extra credit work, or re-do failing work, is also bound to cause a conflict with a student to escalate, particularly when the student has framed the problem as an ideological dispute from the get-go. It’s unfair but true: sometimes it is worth finding a reason to give the student a reasonable grade just to get them out of your life. And it is simply the case that some students — like those people who are constantly suing others for real and imagined insults – go around fishing for trouble, and you need to be alert to them when they show up. Don’t get stuck fighting out a crazy situation because you “know” you are right. Right you may be, but it sometimes isn’t worth your peace of mind to fight it out to the end.

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