Monday, June 13, 2005

Double trouble Part 2

The first sign that Ariel and her well-earned F were not going away quietly came in an email from the department secretary over the Christmas break. Ariel’s mother had called the office several times, demanding a meeting with the head of the department to “discuss the grade.” Could I call the woman? the secretary entreated. Better that I should explain why the girl failed a basic journalism class.

I thought about it for a good while. It was the week before Christmas and I had come down with my annual bout of bronchial wheeze-o-mania. Something about having down time from classrooms always sends my lungs into freefall. I also was running a temp of about 102, so I didn’t really feel up to getting into it over the phone with some helicopter parent (so named because they hover over their college-age kids). Already I could hear the booming strains of “Ride of the Walkyries” between the thwap-thwap-thwaps of approaching rotor blades.

Reluctantly I punched in the number for Dr. and Mrs. “Prospero.” I recognized the San Antonio area code. Unfortunately, the mom was home.

Short-handing that first conversation, I’ll just say that she did most of the talking. And being an experienced reporter, I took notes of everything. Among the highlights:

"Ariel is so disorganized she can’t even balance a checkbook. She’s overdrawn at the bank all the time.”

"She still sends her laundry home so our maid can do it. She lives in a high-rise apartment that we pay for but she loses her keys so often that she ends up sleeping at the sorority house. I think she’s majoring in partying.”

“She also flunked French and art history last semester. We just don’t know what to do about her.”
Well, I said in the calmest and most measured tones I could muster, seeing as how I was hallucinating sugarplum fairies from the fever, some young people just aren’t college material. Sometimes it takes a semester or two to learn self-discipline. My class is challenging but it isn’t difficult to pass if the student actually does the assignments. Ariel didn’t do the assignments.

“She said she did,” said Mrs. P.

Well, she didn’t.

“She says you lost them,” said Mrs. P.

No, she never turned them in. I’ve never lost a student paper and besides, they’re supposed to keep back-up copies on disks in case there’s ever a question. She could have turned in a back-up. If she’d done them. Which she didn’t.

Mrs. P. continued to argue, working herself into a real lather, insisting that I was somehow at fault for her daughter’s failure to complete five of the seven assignments in the class. I didn’t feel like talking anymore, so I told the woman that as far as I was concerned the only reasonable solution was for Ariel to take the class over again and try to pass it. The F was a fair grade. I wasn’t changing it.

Fast-forward to the week after New Year’s, still a few days from the start of a new term. The head of the department, Dr. Frinck, asks me to meet him in his office. “What can you tell me about Ariel Prospero?” he says, squinting from behind smudged trifocals.

I go through the story in chronological order. I have brought in her grade card, with all my notes on it of days she arrived in class late, deadlines she missed and assignments she failed to do. He looked at it for several long moments, flicking the edges of the card with his fingernail.

“Well, the parents aren’t happy about this. They’ve gone to the top. The dean. The university president. They’re stirring up a real shit storm,” said Frinck. “They want a refund of tuition money.”

She flunked the class fair and square. You can see that for yourself, I told Frinck.

“You need to write me a memo,” said Frinck. “Detail the thought processes you use as you evaluate student work and what sorts of systems you utilize to calculate grades. Include any copies of student papers that you gave high grades to, with names redacted, of course. Attach a copy of the syllabus. Have three copies of the memo and supporting documents on my desk by tomorrow morning, will you?”

I wrote the memo, the first of three I’d be asked to write for Frinck, the dean and the provost.

Next came an early morning meeting with the dean a few days later. “How do you suggest we resolve this in a way that satisfies all parties?” she asked.

Very sneaky. The obvious answer is that I raise the girl’s grade to a passing D. They couldn’t request that outright, but the implication was clear. Do whatever is necessary to make this go away.

I decided on the spot that I wouldn’t change that F, even if it meant my job.

“They’re threatening to sue the university and you,” the dean said. “The mother says you discriminate against sorority girls.”

That’s odd, I said. The other sorority girls in that class made A’s and B’s.

The dean can be an intimidating old bird. There I was, sunk into a low-slung chair in her office atop the school of the arts. She occupies a poshly decorated inner sanctum decorated wall-to-wall with photos of her and various bigwigs from politics and the performing arts. I felt like the kitchen help being called on the carpet for stealing a turnip.

Look, an education isn’t something you buy, I told the dean. You don’t write the check and purchase good grades. You show up, do the work, take your lumps and your F’s, if you get them.

“How can we resolve this in a way that provides a rewarding educational experience for Ariel?” asked the dean.

Huh? Ariel had 15 weeks to have a rewarding educational experience in my class. She blew it.

I left the office with all the little hairs on the back of my neck quivering. So this is what it’s come to? A university administrator leans on a lowly adjunct to appease some rich, whiny parents who have the nerve to threaten legal action because their party-hearty daughter flunked a course? Shit, why not sell grades outright? Normal tuition for C’s. Another $5,000 for guaranteed B’s. Another $10K for A’s. The menu method. Already parents assume that writing the tuition check guarantees a degree. And their little grade-grubbing offspring spend weeks, sometimes months, nagging professors to raise grades by as little as half a point so “I can get into law school/grad school/whatever.” They will argue like Perry Mason over every mark on every assignment, looking for loopholes. Let’s just stop the charade of grades altogether. A’s all around for those who can afford it.

Still more. Part 3 to come.


Anonymous Sherry said...

Jesus. This is exactly the kind of bullshit I would expect from this university. I'm embarrassed to be a student here.

6:08 PM  

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