Nobody Ever Said Life Was Fair
And the last few days, what with the parent complaint and having to reach out to my student and apologize for him not finding the right room, I've spent a lot of time thinking about fairness.
I've also spent a lot of time thinking about the coordinator of my master's program - a man I adored for many, many reasons. I've thought about him more in the past two years than I have in the past ten, because now as an instructor, I realize what an unbelievably great professor he was himself. So many of the things he did in class, I remember and now think, "Oh . . . duh. I get it now!" I suppose it might be like when people become parents and then think back on their own childhoods and suddenly realize that their parents had a reason behind most of the things they did and it wasn't "just to be mean."
This professor told me once that he kept a "course journal" and after each class, he wrote about what activities he did, what articles we discussed, guest speakers he had (if any) so when he went back and planned the same class meeting for the following semester, he had a record of what worked and what did not. I've been meaning to do that myself for two years now and of course we all know . . . the road to hell, etc.,
One of the things he also did on the first day of each semester was review his "fairness" continuum. First he started by drawing a long line, almost the length of the board and wrote "Flexible" on one end and "Rigid" on the other. He said this was one way to look at how he approached things like students missing deadlines, failing to do work correctly, etc., Then he said, "However, this same continuum might be viewed another way" and he went back and crossed out "Rigid" and wrote "Fair" and crossed out "Flexible" and wrote, "Unfair" and "Plays favorites." Then he said, "I think I should let you know that I always reside around here," and he made a large "X" about six inches away from the newly written "Fair" and about six feet away from "Unfair."
And clearly, I still remember that speech, even though it was less than 5 minutes long. It just made a lot of sense. It resonated with me.
It's because of that drawing that I'm really, really struggling right now. I forced myself (well, I didn't force myself - I did what I was told to do) to send the student with the complaining father a long, detailed e-mail. I attached the syllabus, explained what he had missed - gave him my cell phone number (something I never, EVER give to students), offered him a chance to make up the quiz he missed (again - I never give makeup quizzes either), suggested we meet to discuss the lecture he had missed, offered him the extra credit opportunities he missed (my rule is, if you're not in class when I assign extra credit, that's it. Extra credit is a nice gift from your instructor - one of a few rewards for the students who actually show up) - in short, other than going to his dorm room, knocking on his door, introducing myself and handing him a basket of mini-muffins, there's not much more I could have done to make sure he felt "comfortable" with the fact that he'd missed the first two classes. And you'd better believe I carbon copied my department chair on the e-mail and of course - he was thrilled. This is EXACTLY the sort of thing we're supposed to be doing to make sure students feel this is a "student-centered" place. Word needs to get out - here at D-list University! We care. We're the caring university. Here, have a warm chocolate chip cookie, a cup of hot cocoa and a diploma not worth the paper it's printed on.
Aside: A friend of mine had a student miss the maximum "lateness deadline" and told the young chap that he could no longer turn in his paper. Two or three weeks and many lame excuses and promises of "I'll get it to you" were just too much. He went and complained to this same department chair that this evil instructor wouldn't let him turn in this assignment. Our department chair went to my friend and said, "You will let this young chap turn in his paper," and she explained what had happened and said it wasn't fair to the other students, he'd had more than enough time to turn it in and she wouldn't accept it. What she thought and the guidelines on her syllabus were meaningless. Department chair said, "I don't care. He gets to turn the paper in. We need to be patient and understanding." She had to accept the paper. It stunk, and the student got a "D" anyway.
So here's what I take away from this experience (and a few others in the not-so-distant past): For students who know how to read and tell time, and show up to both classes, and even those students who show up to the wrong classroom and building, but manage to e-mail me the next day to find out what's up - they get the "standard of care", if you will. But, a student who isn't grown-up enough, or confident enough, or whatever enough to contact his instructor himself? He gets special, red-carpet treatment.
Flashback to spring semester: the students who manage to show up to the final exam on time? They get exactly that: a final exam. For a student who shows up too late to take the final and also three hours late to the make up final? She gets three extra days to study and coffee made especially for her by the department chair.
If I were a relatively normal student, who functioned at a basic level of competence and I was privy to this information, what would be my lesson here? My lesson would be that at this school, you get special treatment when you fuck up. When you do what is expected and/or required of you? You get nothing special. Yeah, yeah, maybe there's that "sense of accomplishment" crap and the whole "knowing you're capable of managing your life like an adult" but so what? Clearly, another saying from my childhood - "the squeaky wheel gets the oil" rings true.
But you know what? It ain't fair.