I was a squeaky-clean new professor at my very first tenure-track job when one of the counselors (academic and otherwise; it was a small college) gave a presentation to the faculty. She said, "Students have a right to fail." That got my attention. I thought, oh wet-behind-the-ears professor that I was, that whether students passed or failed – whether students learned – was all on me.
She went on to say that she’d have students come into her counseling office to say that they needed help because they weren’t passing a class. Her first question: “Are you reading the textbook?” If the answer was no, she told the student that there was nothing else to talk about. “Come back after you’ve done the assigned reading.”
To the faculty, she said that she knew that we all had kind hearts, that we wanted to give students a second (third, fourth, nth) chance. But – and this she emphasized – students have to meet you halfway. If students aren’t doing their part to learn, you cannot make them learn.
Put that way, it sounded like a relationship I didn’t want to be in. I’m doing everything to help my hypothetical spouse* succeed while my hypothetical spouse does nothing. “Honey, I filled out all of these job applications. You got three interviews all scheduled for Friday. Here is where you need to be and when.” Friday evening after I get home from work, “How did those job interviews go? What?! What do you mean you didn’t go? You spent the day playing Call of Duty?! Okay, okay, here, let me call those places, and I’ll tell them something, like your grandmother died. I’m sure they’ll let me reschedule the interviews for you.”
At the root of “students have the right to fail” is that learning is the responsibility of students. I tell my students that. I say that I’d love to open up their skulls and dump the knowledge in. Or plug them into the Matrix** so they can download it all to their brains. But that’s not how learning works.
Faculty can help students learn, but it's the students who need to do the work, who need to do the learning. Sometimes, for a whole host of reasons, students choose not to do the work. And that's okay. It's the student's grade. They know what the assignments are and how much each is worth. Sometimes they're willing to spend the points on something else, including Call of Duty***.
My senior year of college, my friend and I skipped the final presentation we were supposed to do for a course. I did the math. Not doing the presentation would drop me from an A to a B. I was already accepted to grad school; it didn't matter if I had an A or a B next to that course on my transcript. I consciously chose not to do the presentation. It was a beautiful spring day; spending the afternoon at the lake was worth the points. None of that had anything to do with the professor; that was all on me.
And sometimes students just aren't ready to be in college, again, for a whole host of reasons. I’ve spent my entire career at community colleges. I have students who come up to me on the first day of class and say something like "I took your class 10 years ago (or “I went to <big state university>,” or “I went to <small liberal arts college>”), and I failed. I wasn't ready to be in college. Now I am." And they are; they are frequently some of my best students.
And not all students are striving for an A. Some are shooting for a 2.0 GPA, enough to keep them in college. It may be that they are good with “good enough.” It may be that they have family and job responsibilities that leave them little time for classes. They figure out what they need to do and what they don’t need to do in a course to get the grade that’s going to allow them to keep that 2.0 average. A colleague (an economist) and I were talking about this one day. We now think of that 2.0 as the academic poverty line. Like people living on the economic poverty line, as long as things are good, living paycheck to paycheck is fine. But when the car breaks down or a child gets sick, they find themselves in a financial freefall. The same for students who are aiming for a C in a course. They don’t do some of the work early in the course for whatever reason with a plan to do the later work, enough work to get that C. But then later in the course when the car breaks down or a child gets sick, they don’t have the time to do the later work, and they find themselves in an academic freefall. Now they’re asking for deadline extensions and extra credit; they are asking the professor to bail them out. ("How is it you have the time to do the assignment now or the time to do extra work now when you didn't have time to do the assignment for the last 5 weeks?")
My counselor colleague pointed out in her presentation that when students come to you begging you for that deadline extension or extra credit so they don’t lose their scholarship, or so they don't lose their financial aid, or so they don’t get kicked out of college, remember that yours is not the only course that brought the student to this point. Yours is just the last one. The student made a series of decisions that got them here. The result of those decisions, she said, is not your – the professor’s – responsibility.
As a professor, I take my job very seriously. I have, with much thought and consideration, chosen the content of my courses, the structure of those courses, and the assignments I ask my students to do. The best any professor can do is present content worth knowing in a course structure that will help students who do the work to learn that content.
The one thing we cannot control is what the student brings to the table or even if the student comes to the table.
Students have a number of rights and responsibilities. Among those rights and responsibilities is the right to fail.
*The hypothetical relationship depicted bears no resemblance to my current or past relationships.
**The Matrix was released in 1999. It’s older than a lot of my students. Referencing it probably makes me seem as old as I am. If you can stick with references to the Star Wars universe, you’ll be on less-dated ground.
***I didn’t intend it, but Call of Duty is pretty ironic in this blog post.