Extra Credit Requests and the Doom of Teaching

You’re not surprised. After all, it’s that time of year again.

As grades are turned in, your inbox fills with emails from just-found-religion repentant students. They loved the class, even though they didn’t pass. Honestly, it was their favorite one, and the fact that they slept through two or three weeks’ worth of meetings is in no way indicative of the happiness the joyous rapture they experienced in attending this, their favorite class by their favorite professor.

And then it comes. As a teacher, you knew in your heart of hearts it was coming, but you hoped, nonetheless, that all this utopian smoke might be reality.

Not this time, though. Not ever, you suspect.

You see, it turns out these students want … no, they need extra credit. They simply must pass this class or scholarships will be lost, parents will be mad, and the world will stop turning.

Besides, you find out as you keep reading, it turns out that the fact they failed isn’t really their fault. You see, they didn’t know all the papers actually had to be turned in. Or, increasingly, it seems that the paper was all done, and the student was just getting ready to hit the print button when — gasp! horror! — the computer crashed. And not just restart-it crashed. No, no. Crashed-like-it-was-the-Fourth-of-July crashed: sparks and flickering lights and well the file is just toast and the computer won’t even turn on and so I lost it and can’t I just get credit for saying that I did it? By the way I sure loved your class, professor!

It’s almost enough to make you wonder if you have some secret power, some previously-unknown-to-science ability to cause electronics to fail simply by the act of setting a due date. What a weapon you would have been if the Cold War hadn’t thawed!

But, alas, you know that this, too, would be far too cool to be reality.

Sometimes, though — perhaps only once a year if you’re lucky — you know that the stories of horrible consequences are true: the dire talk of an academic career on life support is no lie. You know that you aren’t really responsible for this fact. One teacher alone cannot fail a student out of school, and all responsibility falls to the student anyway. But nevertheless you’re aware of your position at the balance: give the student the grade he or she earned, and everything tips. You know it’s your duty to hold the line, of course. You know that on principle you have a responsibility to dish out no more and no less than what a student has earned. Like the executioner stepping to the chopping block, you know you’re just doing your job.

But you still hate to swing the axe. Worse still, you might really have enjoyed the student. And you might know that the student really could do the work. The student is not a failure; he or she just failed: the capability was there, the execution was not … which, sadly, is the very thing that has brought you both to the execution at hand.

When that day comes, you might think a great deal about your role in this great big world of ours, and you might write back to the doomed student:

I am sorry for your situation. I wish that it had not come to this. Truly I do. I can honestly say that I get nothing but heartache from this aspect of my job. Yours is an especially unfortunate outcome when I fully believe that you could have passed the course. Whatever issues led you to this place in your young life, a lack of capability was not one of them.

We all make choices, and to take responsibility for them means accepting their consequences for good or ill. You made your choices — whether it was choosing athletics over academia or simply choosing not to get your work turned in on time — and it would be wrong for me to relieve you of your responsibility for their consequences.

It would also be wrong — profoundly wrong — for me to give you an extra opportunity to earn the credit that you were already given the chance of earning in the first place. After all, you’re hardly the only student to be in the position of not achieving the grade he or she desired. As I cannot give that opportunity to all, I cannot give it to one.

I enjoyed your presence in class immensely, and it saddens me that my responsibilities force me to make decisions that might have such profound ramifications for you. I can only hope that beyond the pain of this experience a positive lesson can be found, and that learning it will enable you to go on to achieve successes in your life beyond your brightest dreams.

You know the student probably won’t read past the first paragraph, but you’ll feel better for having said the rest of it. And maybe, just maybe, that’ll be enough to let you get some sleep this time.


  1. You are a seriously strong and good person.

  2. I will have to say this is one of your best. After all I thought what began as a truth that was skillfully and humorously told, and in which some sage advice from some mysterious educator of the past was interjected, was a really good piece. Now I realize that sage advice (in the blocks of text) was also from your hand. Bravo! You need to frame some of that stuff and hang it on your office wall. Really, it needs to somehow get out into the world for others to contemplate.

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