Thursday, March 20, 2008


if you're sitting around this long weekend staring glumly at a pile of grading, a great way to procrastinate while raising the intellectual tenor of the grunt work in front of you is to read jay teitel's essay in the new walrus: it's called "failure to fail" and i recommend it for lots of reasons, and not just 'cause he quotes me using rather robust language. (note to self: stop swearing during phone interviews.)

the article is great for the way it records a tuition-payer's stunned astonishment that students never fail. those of us in the biz forget to be astonished. we know it's really hard for a student to fail. i mean, hard to fail a student. i mean .... well, both. there are lots of reasons for this. jay teitel is just recording a phenom, so he doesn't give them. but worry not, dear reader. today's blog will give you

three good reasons students don't fail.

1. good sound pedagogy: especially in the humanities, and especially with skills-based subjects like writing, more work is sometimes better work. a student will learn more by rewriting an essay than by failing it. how do you motivate students -- who are busy, savvy people -- to do more work?: offer more grades. incidentally, grading rewritten essays is rarely rationalized in an instructor's workload. when students don't fail, it's partly because teachers work so bloody hard to help them learn.

2. disciplinary flux: if we don't know what it would mean to fail, it's party b/c we don't know what it would mean to pass in a discipline thrashing about like a spawning salmon. take english, for instance. do you fail someone who can't write a grammatical sentence? doesn't understand french philosophy? didn't participate enough in class discussion? got too many wrong answers on the pop quizzes? didn't offer useful observations in a peer writing group? anyone who skips class *and* writes poorly *and* misunderstands the readings *and* opts out of discussion fails. but what about the student who performs solidly in most aspects but badly in a couple? or poorly in nearly all but spectacularly in one?

3. greater cultural sensitivity: yeah, that's an odious phrase. you're right to choke on its self-righteousness. but what i want to convey here is that in the olden days, "you didn't meet the standards" was all too frequently code for "you couldn't crack the white/middle class/genteel/north american/male-centered codes." university degrees remain a great economic equalizer, battered though this social role is by ever-downloaded costs onto "consumers." when students don't fail it's in part because we've worked hard to make curricula, expectations and environments more inclusive.

i'm on the side of passing students. i'm on the side of students who want to learn -- in my experience, the majority (though i hasten to add that i don't teach a lot of compulsory intro courses, which is where the really hard work lies). when i inherit a student in my class who can't structure an essay/tell the difference between its and it's/locate the library on a campus map, my first inclination, of course, it to wonder how the hell she passed so-and-so's intro course. but then i remind myself that not everybody aces every class. some folks pass with a D.

before i go, i have to excoriate one utterly bogus reason given for why students don't fail. call it a mini-rant.

what is this conviction that universities want students to repeat courses because of the tuition money they'll make? universities do not make nearly enough tuition out of any given student for that to make any sense. i know: tuition is expensive -- too expensive, i think. but your $5K still represents well under 25% of the actual cost of a year's university education. if the university was just aiming to be lean and mean, we'd fail way more students, as early in the year as possible -- say, a day after the no-tuition-back add/drop deadline. c'mon, people: use yer noggin!

but that's enough from me. those papers on your desk ain't gonna grade themselves.


ClanQueen said...

Excoriate, what a fabulous word!!!!

Anthony said...

have you read june jordan's essay on black english, and literacy? itsays alot about category four.

Anthony said...

category three not four