When a game is lost by one point, that's a bummer. When a student is one point away from failure, that's a potential crisis. What should you say?

When a game is lost by one point, that’s a bummer. When a student is one point away from failure, that’s a potential crisis. What should you say?

(Some personal blips kept me away from my blogging longer than expected. Writing is my whole heart and when I miss it, I really miss it. Spring break is upon me soon and my hope is to get back on track for at least my weekly posts!

A couple quick updates: While I was away, my third piece in USA Today College published: 6 Things You Should Say to Your Professor. Very proud of this one because obviously, the topic is my whole heart. Read it and grab two pocket phrases to sound ultra-professional in most pesky classroom situations!

On to a difficult subject, one that has layers of complexity, but requires sensitivity and care. This comment was posted on my old Blogger site recently. I feel it is incredibly important for all of us. Although this was technically a public note, I’ll still change some items for anonymity. Please, please comment and add your thoughts and please forgive on the length!)

Ellen,

I was wondering, in your estimations, how common is it for a student to fail a course by exactly one point? It recently happened to me and I suspect my professor of foul play. My professor has no idea how hard I’ve worked and how much I’ve learned this semester. It would be redundant for me to take this class over, I am very confident about that. I am one point away from a C and a D is considered a failing grade.

I am a minority (anonymity here) and believe my prof is intimidated by my appearance. There is another student of the same race/ethnicity (again, anonymity) in class, but we come from different walks of life. We don’t dress the same, and the prof treats the other person well. The professor never makes eye contact with me. When I say hello, I get ignored or the prof seems like a nervous wreck, like they’ve had a bad experience with someone like me.

I’m not a thug. If I was, I wouldn’t be a senior. I think it’s time that America starts to understand that someone’s fashion in their culture and their style has nothing to do with the way we live our lives.

Thank you for your time.

Student

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There may be other students out there who feel this way and may not perceive an outlet to talk about it. So let’s talk about it.

Dear Student,

There are complex issues to tackle, but I want to first express compassion for the way you feel. I hope I can give you some tangible advice.

The initial question: Have I failed someone by one point? Rarely. I first examine the overall points and then where the individual breakdowns occurred. If I can justifiably round up to salvage the situation, I will. If the student hasn’t met the minimum standards and I believe that a retake of the course is necessary, then, yes, failure of one point would happen. With that slim margin, I try to look at the situation from a qualitative perspective (Did the student attend class? Regularly engage in discussion? Show improvement in any areas?) and see if the D accurately reflects what the student earned. A D does plenty of damage to one’s GPA. An F can be monumental, as well as a class that requires a retake.

As to the bigger issue at hand: The one point and discrimination. Let me try and deconstruct:

-I have no doubt that students who fail or receive a D may have learned a ton. In my currently ending term, I have some unfortunately low grades due to the written work requirement in one of my classes. I know that each of these students learned far more about our topic than what their grade reflects. As much as I want to grade on effort, I can’t. There are mechanisms in my grading scheme that allow some wiggle room for these students (some freebies, if you will), but beyond that, my grading is based on set standards and prescribed requirements.

Because the discrimination issue is not quickly or easily addressable, but the grade problem has a finite shelf life, could you go to your prof for an “all business” conversation and say, “I need to discuss my one point gap with you. I am between a C and a D and the D will mean I need to retake this class. Here are my assignments and proof that although I missed the mark on several occasions (tests, etc.), I am asking you to reconsider the point”? Show any documentation you can in addition to the assignments/exams i.e., notes that you took, etc. It may not help, but can’t hurt.

If you cannot go to the prof because of the interpersonal discomfort, I don’t blame you. A division chair would have to get involved at this point, which I’ll explain in a second.

I have to be honest: Proving that the “downgrade” is due to discrimination is going to be nearly impossible (though that does not mean you should ignore your concerns about either). What I’m saying is that unless you can showcase stellar work that was downgraded for no reason, the work is what is going to be in question.

I am speaking from experience: A student once wrote an outline and delivered a speech about an aspect of his/her culture. The student received a C, which was justified because the main points were disconnected and the sources lacked quality. The grade probably should have been lower. This was in ’08, so I’d been teaching for nine years. Prior, I taught at an extremely diverse community college in Vegas and then in the Deep South for four years where I was actually a religious and racial minority.

I had never before been accused of racism. The student contacted HR, the VP… everyone, certain I hated the speech topic about his/her culture, which is why I gave that grade. The subject had nothing to do with the grade, but rather the disorganization and source problems. The accusation never went anywhere–the work spoke for itself.

I just want to make a side note here: It was incredibly easy for the student to blame me for the outcome, rather than examine his/her contribution to the outcome. So putting the other issues aside, I ask you–with respect and care–to please think about what led to the outcome of your D. Was it the subject matter? The prof’s teaching style? The fact that you felt uncomfortable in the class? Looking at this honestly will be critical to you moving on. Also, you may have to debrief this situation within yourself because you may not be able to “process” the real issues with your professor.

-On to the heart of your concerns: The discrimination. What you have to know and probably do is that your professor’s behavior has zero to do with you personally. I know from the behaviors of my somewhat racist Jewish grandparents (I’m sorry… it was true!) and the fascinating discussions with my students in the Deep South where cultural tensions still run high, often, these reactions are deep-seated and instinctive. The behavior that you describe in a diverse public classroom, however, is inexcusable, regardless of personal beliefs. Students should be comfortable, regardless of clothing/ appearance (within the Student Handbook rules, if there are any…) or your race, religion, etc.

Whether or not you’ve resolved the grade issue, you need to express your concerns to a division/department chair. I would say, “I have been in X class. I admit that I’ve been struggling and my grade is not as strong as I would like. My experience has been unusual and uncomfortable because my professor seems very nervous around me. I realize this is a serious accusation, but my prof’s behavior (describe your experience and be specific) when we’ve interacted makes me question if there is something about my appearance or my ethnicity/race that bothers him/her.”

The chair may ask what outcome you seek. If you met with the prof over the grade issue, which is the ideal, then you could say that you would like the chair to speak with the prof and look into the matter. If you didn’t meet with the prof, say, “I’m between a C and a D by one point. As I said, I’ve been struggling, but I can’t help but make a connection between the way the prof has treated me and this one point difference.”

Remember: The interpersonal issue–bad as it is–and the grade problem are likely going to be treated separately. The division/department chair will hopefully speak to the prof. Discrimination is a serious accusation and it should be investigated, particularly to see if the prof has had similar complaints.

Some other options:

-You could tell the division chair that you would like a Student Affairs officer involved. You can go to the Student Affairs administrator independently, but there is a hierarchy on a college campus, and you want to respect the hierarchy as much as you can. People will take you more seriously if you do.

-If you’ve read my other posts, you know that I recommend the counseling center a lot. Speaking with a campus counselor would enable you unload your thoughts, and this is another person on campus who would know about the situation.

-Your Student Senate may be able to help you file a formal grievance, or certainly you can do this yourself. The Student Handbook or your Student Affairs office should be able to help. Hopefully you would not have to go that far.

I hope you achieve resolution on the grade issue, as well as your concerns about this professor. And, of course, I agree with you that appearance has no bearing on the way someone lives their life. This is an incredibly challenging situation. I know it is going to sound cliche, though I mean this sincerely: Be reflective about the interpersonal dynamic and the academic piece. They will both offer you huge growth opportunities far beyond college.