Saturday, June 02, 2007

Ask the Radical: The Dreaded Grade Dispute

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 exactly 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.


GayProf said...

Sadly, most conflicts over grades are simply not worth our time or energy as professors. We probably all have had some disgruntled student (who clearly didn't deserve a better grade) work the system.

I once had a student who had some serious and legitimate reasons that meant he/she had to stop attending class. At no point during the student's absence, though, was I ever informed about why. After missing almost eight weeks of class, the student appeared again in the last two weeks with a pile of papers. Though sympathetic to the situation, I didn't feel the student should actually get a grade for the class (especially given that participation was a key part of the final grade, the work submitted was way off topic and incomplete (probably because of missing half the class and being unclear about the assignments), and the college had an explicit policy about such situations (which was that the student would have the class removed from their transcript without penalty)). Unsatisfied, the student started to pursue the matter through official channels. Before even bothering to let it get that far (and knowing that any university isn't going to risk lawsuits), I relented and gave the student the minimal passing grade.

In some ways, it was a dishonest solution because the student really didn't do the work required for the class. Yet, the reasons for not doing the work were murky enough that neither I nor the institution were going to push it too far. In the grand scheme of things, it also just didn't matter to me nearly as much as it mattered to the student.

Finally, I think that all young faculty (especially those teaching at a state institution) need to remember that the syllabus will generally be regarded as a contract. The administration will mostly support faculty if they have explicitly outlined their grading policies and addressed particular contingencies in writing. In my case, it had not occurred to me to think of the scenario of this particular student (though I updated my syllabus after that semester to include the college's official policy (had it been there in the first place, I am pretty certain the college would have supported giving the student no-grade)). If the syllabus is vague, though, the administration will almost always side with the student.

Sorry, that is longer than I intended -- but it is an interesting and tricky question about ethics and teaching.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but as a straight female student who respects gay rights and supports dialogue, I find that I'm very often placed in a situation where I feel silenced in classes about sexuality since sexuality isn't the be-all, end-all of my identity in the first place, I'm not nearly as impassioned as those who try to make it so.

And I feel that out queer professors at wesleyan have a strong (albeit probably subconscious) preference for queer students who publicly out themselves (often) in class. And these students tend to dominate class discussions in the first place since they nominate themselves experts on the topic of sexuality since they are out and you who are not cannot possibly know anything about sexuality.

So if one of these students were, for example, to field me a question like "Why are you straight?" on a class presentation, I wouldn't answer it.

gwoertendyke said...

without going into the long boring details of the one horrible experience i've had with grade disputes, i would say that it really (obviously) depends upon your position in the academy. as a graduate student teaching a women's studies class, i had little power. this student pushed her complaint to the top levels of administration, despite my unwillingness to let her pass, despite my lengthy account and open grade book of her performance, despite the real pressure the department put on me to let her pass. but in the end, she found a loop hole anyway and it was at the juncture where my status meant i could do nothing. i was basically forced to sign something that said i would allow the university administration take over. i have no doubt that this student was able at that level to get her way but i was no longer a part of the process.

it felt horrible and really soured me on teaching for awhile. but i learned a lot from it.

Tenured Radical said...

adjunct whore: I would go with gayprof on this one and, I have to say, I am very sympathetic to your story, since what is crappy about these disputes is that they so quickly become a naked contest about authority. And yes, these things can really interfere with what you thought it meant to be a teacher. The one time I ended up asking students to leave my class because of bad behavior (they were lesbians, by the way, Anonymous -- but I'll get back to you in a sec) it was very clear to me that either they were going to tear my class apart or I was going to have to get rid of them, since their primary goal was to stop the work of the class I had planned and force everyone to do political work they were invested in -- as if that were the work of the class. But I could only do this because I was a tenured member of the faculty who had a certain amount of clout -- had the struggle become protracted (they quickly gave in because they hated me too) I would have had to concede ground, because actually I had no right to make them drop the class. As gayprpof notes, that needs to go in the syllabus, but even then, it isn't clear that you can make a student drop a class involuntarily. Most faculty do not have this kind of clout, period. And particularly when you occupy one of the many positions of weakness -- adjunct, graduate student, untenured faculty -- I sometimes think that authority is best preserved by figuring out, voluntarily, when and where to give in and cut a deal. Sometimes making the struggle end is an appropriately tempered show of authority (i.e., I am the grown up, you are not. I will graciously concede your point and you will now *shut up.*)

Anonymous: it's always interesting to me what pushes people's buttons in a post -- but aside from the "queer profs like queer students best" part (NOT -- see above), I agree with you about the over-privileging of minoritized selves as unanswerable positions of critique. One of the challenges of teaching at Zenith right now, for me, is how quickly an interesting political discussion can be turned into sanctimonious shit by a student deploying a couple key (but empty) words or phrases, my least favorites being "privilege" and "straight white men." Then everyone just sits there stunned, and you move on. I am working on interventions, but it isn't easy, particularly when the other students won't speak up (hint, hint.)

On the other hand, being "silenced" is actually something over which a student has some control. If you don't feel you can speak in the class, or you don't feel that others respect you, go talk to the professor about it and develop a strategy. That's why they pay us the big bucks -- not, as some college administrators sometimes think, to provide therapeutic support for students who are "like us" (whatever that means.) And I think one of the points of this post for a student should be, everyone has a perspective that is, in some way, deeply felt and needs to be addressed in crafting a solution. That you think there is a deep bond between gay students and gay faculty I do not doubt, but it may be a perspective that the faculty themselves do not share. I do think that faculty, more generally, gravitate toward students who are outspoken, and I know that that can be very difficult for students who are shy or uncertain about whether they have the knowledge or sophistication to speak about something, or worry that they will be criticized for their (ahem) "privilege" if they contradict whatever truism is on the floor. But that isn't just an ontological condition -- it can be changed by using the resources available to you -- teachers and books. And your brain.

And -- although I know smart, articulate queer kids can turn this into an in" crowd thing - there is a reason why straight people don't think their condition is a big deal and gay people do: it's systemic homophobia. That doesn't mean I think *you* are homophobic, but you are in a position not to be particularly affected by it, so you get to be not interested. Gayprpof and I, on the other hand, do not have the leisure to not pay attention to sexuality all the time -- even as I think we would both concede that we do have a measure of power over any heterosexual undergraduate that we need to use wisely.

But if you get interested in sex and power -- read Michael Warner's "Normal" and it will continue this topic in a better way than I can here.

gwoertendyke said...

wow, on both accounts. first let me say thank you for your nice show of sympathy--i still have all of the emails and paperwork on this one student as it traumatized me to some extent. i appreciate hearing thoughts on these kind of issues from people more experienced than myself.

secondly, i was offended by anon's post, however misguided that response might be, and your thoughtful and generous response back is extremely impressive. you and gayprof really have become role models (for me)in the academy in ways i couldn't have predicted, so thanks for articulating these very difficult issues.

and i apologize for my typos!

cantdance said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cantdance said...

I've spent the morning mulling over anonymous’s comment. While I was obsessing, TR actually responded. That is what separates the professor types from the insecure types? Anyway, my post is a smidge out of date now, but its going up anyway.

Fairly recent grad here: My first 3 years at Zenith I didn't talk to much (in the classroom). I'd say I silenced myself --it had more to do with me than it did with the other students in the room. Partly that was just me being wimpy, its true. The other part is that I came to college ill-equipped to disagree respectfully with my peers, and learn from it. My high school education was politically/culturally homogenous, so we didn’t get much practice arguing constructively, or thinking about others’ prespectives. The results was that at Zenith, I worried too much about how to disagree in the context of a classroom discussion , without it feeling like an ad homimen attack. That made me hesitant to jump into passionate classroom discussion, especially around sexuality, especially because, I am openly queer. It is really exciting to go to college and finally take some classes that overtly relate to your life, and are of your choosing. The downside is that all of a sudden things become much more raw. So I think its natural to feel silenced, but in the end if you are conscious of it, and figure out why, and how to deal, it can be a learning experience.

Being able to learn from points of disagreement (as opposed to common ground) is related in my head, but not concisely enough to comment.

Sisyphus said...

This discussion of classroom dynamics is fascinating, and pedagogically useful. I've taught in Women's Studies, ethnic studies, and lit. courses, and I have to say I like teaching these issues in literature courses best --- if only because I can take the easy way out and say "but what is going on in the text?" when discussion gets very heated or personal.

Another way I like to deal with strong personalities or people who want to hijack the course is through written responses, either in-class or as additional homework. When people feel they have alternate avenues of having their voice heard (ideally) they feel less shut down by discussions; at least the teacher is listening and responding to them and encouraging them to bring their thoughts out at the table. The down side is that you do have to actually read and comment on all of these for it to work, and that piles up as a huge, burnout-inducing pile of work very quickly.

GayProf said...

I can't discuss Anon's experience. I don't have any knowledge of classes at Zenith or her specific relationship to professors. I also hope that she doesn't feel like she is being shut-down.

At the universities where I have taught, though, queer students still did not feel comfortable being out in class(despite having a professor who was out in the classroom). They were happy to be out to me during office hours, but felt unable to face the daunting task of being out in a classroom of Texans (which was something I could never figure how to address effectively despite trying a number of different strategies).

Still, I would argue that in my classes on sex and sexuality I would (and do) welcome the insights of straight women. All of our sexual experiences and the limits of our sexual expression are mediated by existing structures. Yes, even straight men's ability to express their individual sexual desires are at stake. We all have a reason to explore how ideas about (all forms of) sexuality are created and contested.

gwoertendyke said...

i did not mean to shut down anon but i did feel like i needed to be honest about it upsetting me. and as i said, my response may be misguided since his/her post also opened up an interesting exchange.

Anonymous said...

Hi, me again (above anon).

I graciously understand the systemic homophobia that gay and bi students go through outside the Zenith bubble. But at Wesleyan, it's not uncommon for much of the zealousness of many outspoken gays on campus (not you at all, Professor, but I mean some groups of students in particular) who make it a point to alienate straight students and push their identity on to mostly otherwise tolerant students because they have no real other targets inside the bubble. There aren't a whole ton of conservatives hanging around wagging their fingers at them. They somehow feel the need to pick up new enemies and they seem to do this by provoking them in the classroom or by confronting them about their "straight privilege."

It's pretty much counterproductive. It's weird when I had many gay friends in high school and we worked together, here it's sad to watch allies made to feel awkward for living in Open House or not being sophisticated enough to speak in a class about queer sexuality.

And I didn't mean to sound like I was generalizing. Of course not all queer professors gravitate towards all queer students and of course there are going to be some that everyone regardless of lifestyle wants to throw off a 12 story building. It's just incredibly difficult to separate the social from the academic at Wesleyan when something you say gets misconstrued as a ignorance or ill-intentions and then ends up on the ACB or gossiped about like you're some intolerant redneck. Hence, there is a degree of self-silencing that I feel many queer professors aren't aware is happening. It's not that we're shy, it's just it seems like we're being set up for a trap and many, many otherwise outspoken, smart individuals who are "priveleged" (white, straight, especially male) I know will never take a course on Race or Sex at Wesleyan precisely for this reason.

Sometimes it's more than just a student being shy. Sometimes the social aspects of a campus can really, really affect what goes on in the classroom.

gwoertendyke said...

thanks for taking the time to explain yourself more fully, anon, i appreciate your candor and frustration. i especially appreciate your last comment--as someone who teaches race/sexuality/gender/class courses, it is always a problem getting more white men in particular into the courses, which is of course crucial.

i think it is important to recognize that this homophobia radical spoke of *also* has far reaching implications. the silencing that has gone on and continues to go on is more than oppressive, it's dangerous for everyone. so even while you may be on a campus where there is a great degree of comfort and social support for queerness, this does not reflect the reality of the world, at least in this country.

i think it is always scary to speak out in class, no matter who you are; many of us formulate and revise our thinking as we argue. good teachers are always careful to provide space for all sorts of positions. on the other hand, i think empathy is critical for might be surprised and receive it in return.

thanks again for posting, i understand much more where you are coming from now.

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous: I do know what you are talking about -- and my most charitable take on it is that it is about a kind of identity construction that often doesn't happen until people leave the homes of their parents.

That said, what is also interesting to me about Zenith is that Zenith students in general -- smart and brave as many of them are - worry so much about being wrong, or being told they are wrong, or (and perhaps this is more accurate for hte situation you describe) agreeing to be in conflict without making it so damn personal.

I once taught a class at Amherst for a friend, and was fascinated to see the students get into knock-down intellectual fights, the like of which I had never seen at Zenith, without personalizing it at all, which is more what I remember from college.

I wish there was more of that at Zenith....thanks for hanging in.


mattio said...

I've got to jump in here to address something that Anon said.

Anon, please note what TR wrote about how homophobia affects you less, and so you're less interested in it. Then, please read what you wrote about outspoken gays (though, if I had to edit your writing, I'd replace gays with queers) pushed their identity on otherwise tolerant students because (and here's the part I take issue with) they have no real other targets inside the bubble.

This assumption that the Wesleyan bubble is some sort of safe haven is what I take issue with - not from that analytical problematize-the-crap-out-of-everything standpoint, but from my experience. While I count my blessings for my queer community and straight allies who were a part of that community at Wesleyan (in comparison to how it is elsewhere), I am still aware of the physical violence that we experienced at parties; of the threats we got on the streets and written in dorms.

It happens. Wesleyan is not a wonderful, everybody happy place. And while, a few years after my time there, I look back with the benefit of hindsight and do wish I had my wits about me enough to have more productive dialogues and community-building, those experiences - those facts, those happenings - can't be denied.

And I don't mean to push you into the defensive about straight privilege. But it's there. And it lets you make statements about how queers don't experience homophobia, threats, or violence at Wesleyan. Cause we do. We did.

And maybe the smart, articulate queers whom TR mentions (many of whom were close friends of mine, thankfully) - maybe we didn't do a very good job of articulating what we needed from our environment. Our surroundings. Our broad "Wesleyan Community." Maybe we didn't figure it out (after all, it would be revisionst to say that we were never petty or shrill). But if you don't acknowledge what still happens at Wesleyan/Zenith, then you're not graciously understanding the systematic homophobia that queers experience.

Anonymous said...

I think the discussion is about the classroom experience and how at wesleyan queer students do not separate the two and how that makes it a very difficult experience for non-queer-identifying students to participate or feel comfortable participating.

So when you talk about all the systemic homophobia that occurs at Wesleyan and point to the classroom as the safe space to vent queer frustration, that frustrates the realm of academic freedom.

But notice how the people who tend to write homophobic things on Clark walls don't also take a course on Queer studies. And yet, queer studies courses are seen as a venue to educate the non-queer on their apparent intolerance because they both go to wesleyan (where events like clark happen) and straight. This makes it way too easy, too often to vent the frustration of intolerance on students who are relatively tolerant which distances them further from your cause.

Hence why less and less straight students seem to want to take courses on queer studies at all.