Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Quality of Mercy is Strained

In large measure, I'm now operating free of the ball and chain that was my administrative appointment. I've handed over a thumb drive full of documents to the next in line---the Captain, and he's going great guns. There are, of course, a few things that still require my attention: a monumental screw-up on the part of the registrar, and, more troubling, a hold-over student who refuses to accept his fate.

The Captain and I agree, this kid is a piece of work. Cap's name for him is "the chucklehead" which is totally his name from now on. Chucklehead chose this major because of its openness (or, as he told me during his first advising meeting: "no one cares what I graduate with, and so I picked this because it requires less than anything else"). It's not true, of course, and I tried to explain that to him, but he just talked over me---one of his favorite practices.

So here's the situation: the Chucklehead had to take one of the few final major requirements in the fall semester, which involved a fair amount of independent work. He neglected to begin that work until week 8 of the semester. However, he was willing to take "full responsibility" for his own failings----in the form of an extension into the spring semester to finish it. We argued this up, down and sideways. "Not really a good idea," I told him. "You'll be in under the wire of the deadline. If anything goes wrong, you'll fail the class and have to start over. And when you do, you'll be behind again." He insisted that he could do it, and used a bunch of rhetoric about how he'd been a fighter all his life, etc., etc.

Low and behold, he has a serious accident in the final week of classes, that prevents him from finishing the class. In fact, he won't even be able to start that work for another month or so. These injuries, however, have not prevented him from calling every office on campus to find out whether I will give him an extension on his extension, rather than failing him. ["Every office" is not hyperbole. In addition to multiple registrars, other faculty members, and the Dean, he may well have discussed this with the cleaning staff.] He's told multiple versions of this story, many of which leave out the part where he didn't begin his work until mid-term, and focus on the fact that I stubbornly refuse the extension even after informed of his medical problems.

I have no objectivity in this matter. Technically, the mechanisms exist to extend the Chucklehead's class through the end of this current semester. And he does, indeed, have extenuating circumstances. What I think is my rational brain says this: I specifically and in writing asked him to consider the idea that everything had to work perfectly for his plan to work. He ignored that, which is a pattern for him. If anything defines the way that this student works, it's his ability to talk his way into exceptions and reasons why boundaries and rules should apply differently to him. [I've fielded calls from instructors about him, for example, who are afraid to give him the grade he has earned in a class because he insists to them that he's never gotten such a low grade before. These are complete fabrications, of course.] Thus, I think that by refusing the extension of the extension, I'm requiring him to live up to the decisions he made---again, in writing. This seems like an important lesson to me, and one that if he doesn't learn it here, he won't learn in college at all.

There is a nagging sense, however, that I'm being punitive when I should be merciful. If it were another student in these circumstances, would I extend the extension? Perhaps, but only if the student did not have such a persistent pattern of behavior, I like to think.

What is teaching, if not persistent self-doubt and the nagging question of what's fair when students are individuals instead of cookie-cutter versions of the same person? How happy am I to be rid of these questions on a programmatic level, rather than a classroom one?

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