Lessons for the teach 3

Over 20 years of college teaching, I’ve had maybe 5,000 students.
Courses have a syllabus and my department has rules about how things work. Each class has a lot of assigned work. I build the assignments so that they get more complex as the term goes along.

In professional writing, for example, I have people start with a graduate admissions essay assignment, and with a series of assignments of the kind they are likely to face in the real world of business, such as memos, a resume and application letter, a letter of resignation, memos to employees about benefits lost, and so on. Writing actually easy in some ways, but getting an effective tone is harder. For example, writing a memo to employees about losing benefits requires extreme care in wording, if you want to keep employee trust.

But sometimes, students get clobbered by life. A parent can die. A boyfriend can get weird. Money can run out. Cars can break down. Children can get sick.

In a recent semester, one of my best students had that kind of crash. You can tell how good a student’s writing is quickly, usually after one or two assignments. You even have a good sense of what a student’s final grade will be. This student’s writing was superb. I’m keeping details sparse, not even mentioning gender, so as to protect privacy.

So the student had a disaster happen with financial aid and everything else. The situation was one that resulted in sleeping on friend’s couches. Problems never happen one at a time. The student was fired, there was no money to buy gas for the car to get to campus, there was no money for anything.

The student explained that in several emails what the problems were. I tried to set up a schedule the student could manage, but in the end it couldn’t be done. I got an email that said thanks for trying, things are just falling apart right now. Maybe I can take your course another time.

So here’s what I did. I bent the rules. I counted the emails as assignments—they were that well written. The work was outstanding, what there was of it. So I emailed the student and said you’d have gotten an A in the class. Let’s give you an A for the class anyway.

The A kept the student from flunking out. Did I do the right thing? I think so. Sometimes the wise thing in an academic setting is a bit of compassion.

Deep knowledge,and happy reading.
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