Having been a professor for quite some time, I have seen various gambits played by students in the hopes of passing a class or getting a better grade.
One common gambit is what I call the appeal to dire consequences. The idea is this: a student who does not have the grade he wants will contact the professor and assert that he should either be given that grade or be granted special treatment that will enable him to get that grade. As a reason for this assertion, he will point out the dire consequences he will suffer should he not get the grade.
For example, I had a student copy a paper word for word from the web, thus resulting in a zero on the paper. My policy is that the zero is non-negotiable. After all, the student knows what she did, I know what she did, and hence there is nothing to discuss or negotiate. Naturally, the student claimed to close to graduation and that failing my class would be a tremendous setback for her.
As another example, I had a student who took one test out of three, did only seven quizzes out of fourteen, and did not turn in a paper draft. Fifteen days after the paper’s deadline, he emailed me asking to be able to turn in the paper. I had already extended the deadline ten days because of my surgery, so my opinion was that he had plenty of time to do the paper. He initially tried to say that he thought the paper was “too hard”, then switched to an appeal to dire consequences. Apparently, if he did not pass the class, then he would break his contract with the military and be forced to enlist rather than entering as an officer. If true, this would be a rather dire consequence indeed.
Naturally, I also have other less extreme situations. Every semester I have a few students who either do not do the work or fail most of it and who then ask for special treatment because something bad will happen if they fail.
While I am very sympathetic to my students and want to work with them, the fact that there will be dire consequences does not give me a legitimate reason to simply give them the desired grade or even special treatment that will allow them to get the grade they need (or want).
While this might seem cruel, it is important to keep in mind what a grade is supposed to represent. As I see it, a grade is ideally supposed to reflect the knowledge and ability the student has demonstrated in the class. So, a student who has shown exceptional ability and knowledge through the coursework deserves an “A”. Likewise, a student who shows that he barely grasps the material and has demonstrated poor abilities earns a “D.”
Obviously, the fact that a student will suffer dire consequences (assuming the claim is true) does not show that they have demonstrated the required level of knowledge and ability. Rather, it just shows that they will (allegedly) suffer dire consequences if they do not earn that grade.
Naturally enough, I often use a running analogy to illustrate my point. When a race is run, the place awards are given out based on how a person places, not based on any consequences relating to getting or not getting an award. A second place runner who insisted on being given the first place trophy because his girlfriend will leave him for a winner if he doesn’t take home that trophy would be seen as absurd. While it might be sad that his girlfriend will leave him, this fact does not magically move him retroactively into first place. He is a second place finisher who just happens to really want that first place trophy.
Another reason I do not make such exceptions is that I am committed to fairness. If I grant one student special treatment, then I have to grant all the students the same treatment or I am acting unjustly (and would open the door to grade disputes). Obviously, every student can say that they would suffer some bad consequences for getting a bad grade, so if I granted exceptions based on that, then all the students would be entitled to such exceptions as well. Obviously, if everyone got exceptions, then there would be no real point in setting class standards. After all, why set rules in place when they are not going to be enforced? To do so would be pointless. If such exceptions are going to be the way the class is really run, then they should simply be written up as the class standards. Of course, such class standards would be absurd.
Some people might argue that the potential dire consequences to the students should give me a reason to grant them special treatment.
In some cases, people take this view because they confuse dire circumstances with dire consequences. A relevant dire circumstance is when a student is in a bad situation that legitimately impedes their ability to do work in the course. For example, being out for two weeks with a torn quadriceps tendon would be a dire circumstance. In such cases I am happy to work with students. After all, their course progress is being impaired and they have a legitimate reason to expect me to work with them to overcome the challenge presented by these circumstances.
A dire consequence is, as noted above, when something bad is supposed to happen to the student if he does not get the desired grade. This is obviously quite distinct from a dire circumstance.
Some might take the view that students should be granted such special treatment provided that the dire consequences are real (that is, they are not lying to get the desired grade). From a moral standpoint, a case could actually made for this. The rough idea would be that what people should do is what does the greatest good. So, for example, if a student wants a C so she can pass and go on to get a job she has landed, then it could be argued that the good that would come from this would justify the grade.
In reply, it can be argued that granting such special exceptions could very well have serious negative consequences. For example, suppose the student is just given a C in an important nursing class and they go on to injure a patient because they did not learn what they were supposed to learn. Also, there are the consequences to the education system to consider. If students were, in effect, graded based on consequences and not performance, then there would be serious negative consequences for the education system.
Another reply is that as a professor my job is not to assess the long term consequences of a student getting a grade. Rather, my responsibility in assigning grades is to determine what knowledge and ability the student has demonstrated. How would I ever begin to determine the long term consequences of granting such exceptions? As in the above examples, would passing a student unjustly have good consequences (she gets a job and goes on to be a productive citizen) or negative (she severely injures a patient because of her ignorance)? How would I go about setting a grade scale or exceptions based on assessing such consequences? For example, suppose a student would lose a $3,000 scholarship if she did not get an A and another would lose a $25,000 scholarship if he does not get a B. What sort of exceptions should, if any, be granted to each student on this basis? My view is, of course, none.
Some people might accuse me of not caring about the students in such circumstances. This is not true. I do care about my students and if someone comes up to me at the start of the semester and says “I need an A in this class to keep my $50,000 scholarship” I will be happy to work with them all semester to get them to do A quality work. But, what usually happens is that a student informs me of the alleged dire consequences near the end of the semester-usually when he finally realizes that he is not doing well.
In those cases, I point out the obvious-the time to worry about getting the grade you need is at the start of the semester, not when it is too late to legitimately do anything. I also point out another obvious thing: the fact that a student needs a specific grade to avoid dire consequences gives them a reason to do what it takes to earn that grade. It does not give me a reason to simply give them that grade or make special exceptions for them.
So, when a student who has not put in much effort comes to me with a dire tale at the end of the semester, I do feel bad. I am sorry that they made bad decisions and I am sorry that they will suffer such dire circumstances. But, the choice was theirs and being a responsible adult means that you have to accept the consequences of making poor choices. What sort of educator would I be if I taught my students that the way to get through life is to expect others to take responsibility for your poor choices? A poor one indeed.