Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Moral Judgement - Distinguishing Between Mercy and Justice

I teach, and I love teaching. I particularly love teaching students who take their studies somewhat seriously. As a "non-traditional" student, I understand there are many aspects of life pulling at many students - work, family, education, support, finances, etc. And so, I do not require my students to do busy work, to work outside of the scope of the class description, and I strive to make my grading criteria more than fair. I'm also a believer in granting mercy - so I've cushioned my syllabus with points for attendance, points for participation, and I extend deadlines as I see fit.

So here's my rub - in the past 12 years of teaching, I have given perhaps 10 "I's" or incompletes, to students. This then sets into place the process, because of extenuating circumstances, to finish off course work for a grade, particularly one better than the grade they would have received or a "UW," an unofficial withdrawal. I contract with the student to complete work and consult with me, during this process, with a deadline placed for course completion. In all this time, only 2 students have taken this "I" seriously and finished their work.

One "I" was for a student from last semester, Steve. His uncle completed suicide, he suffers from depression and ADD, and he just could not focus to finish the course work. I had faith in this student, he was diligent and stayed in contact with me. A retake, to me, sounded like justice, so I extended mercy, and Steve met with me on a monthly basis, finished his research paper, his final paper, and his "I" went to an "A-," with my total support. He left with a smile and a sense of accomplishment, and I walked away with the same.

Late last week, Thursday, I received an email from a student wanting me to change her grade from a B (it was a low B, generously given), to "something better," because she wanted to join the student council. Her deadline was noon today. She gave me no sense of her specific needs, nor any suggestions for how she should earn this grade change. Wanting to grant this student some mercy, I changed her grade to a B+. No work involved for her.

Yesterday I received an email from her telling me that I was the only professor willing to work with her, that her father wouldn't pay her tuition this fall if she didn't get into the student council, and that she needed a solid "A." I asked her to meet with me on campus, to bring her research paper and a recently written paper. Well, she met me, without the work I had requested. She got teary a couple of times, talked about her other professors being mean, when I asked her about her GPA and her other classes, she talked about how hard they were and how she thought the teachers were tough.

I so wanted to offer mercy, but I couldn't help but feel like my extended olive branch of a "B+" was not the answer to her woes.

So today, I called my English Dept. liaison, shared the story, and then I offered her Justice. I didn't change her grade to an "A" by noon today. Instead, I'm offering her the "opportunity" to grow, learn, stand on her own, be responsible for her actions and inactions, and - work through whatever issues she has with her father. She's an adult - and maybe the gift I'm giving her will be just that - justice doesn't have to be a life sentence, but a lesson in moving forward.

Lesson learned for me - I cannot always be merciful, even when I try.

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