The refusal of the gatekeeper

It’s nearing the end of the semester, so like all professors I start getting the pleading emails. Students who have not submitted work want to know if there’s extra credit. Students who had a crisis in the middle of the semester and said nothing then now want consideration. So many family responsibilities, funerals, justifications…

It’s an open secret that I’m actually a very nice person — I deliberately come off as being no-nonsense, no exceptions. But I do assist students as individuals, as anyone knows who reads this blog (and as any crisis-prone student of mine knows).

This semester I had one of those students, writing me last week to say he’s lost his home and has been living rough and just got a sofa at a friend’s place, and he’d missed all that work, and if he doesn’t get a C he’ll lose his financial aid for summer and have to drop out of college.

Now the one thing I really hate about this job is the idea that I’m supposed to adjudicate crises. I’m expected to somehow weigh, like a professorial Solomon, dead aunts and foreclosures and parental neglect and (increasingly) emotional problems complicated by (or being treated with) various pharmaceuticals. I have neither the training nor the interest to judge people’s lives. I only judge their work.

So even though I’ve been doing this for thirty years, a request like this one can still throw me. I happened to be in a meeting with an education professional a few days ago, so I asked what he would do. He gave me the party line: it was on the syllabus, it wouldn’t be fair to others to make an exception, I’m sorry but the answer is no.

Keeping in mind that as a Teaching Assistant back in the 80s I got both the Cream Puff Award (for cushiest grader) and the Iron Balls Award (for harshest grader) in the same year, I know that student success is up to them, not me. But I don’t like being what one colleague called “gatekeeper”, the troll guarding the path with gates made of rules. So before the pro had done speaking, I knew I wasn’t going to follow his advice.

The student had missed the document annotation for 12 weeks. These are the Perusall assignments, where I don’t allow late work because we’ve moved on to the next unit. It would have been a royal pain to both reopen all these assignments for him, and to go back to each one and grade them. So instead, for 90% of the points available in that category, I made sure he was stable on that sofa with an internet connection (he said yes) and offered to have him turn in the answers to all the questions he’d missed on all the documents he’d missed for all the weeks he’d missed. I gave him five days.

It came out to eight pages, but I could scroll and write comments in SpeedGrader at the same time, checking everything at once and assigning points. He had told me he had done the reading, just hadn’t posted, and his work showed that was true. I assigned a grade, and it looks like he’ll get that C if he does the last couple of weeks of regular work, and does it well.

Because really, the point is learning. The rules are there to make it possible to grade the work of 40 students per class, about 30 of whom are underprepared for the work, without a T.A., while giving meaningful feedback and opportunities to practice historical skills. His work showed his learning – does it really matter that he did that at the end?

I don’t know. And maybe I was wrong. But I don’t think so.

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