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The left tail of the distribution

[I’ve had this post in the wings for nearly two weeks; I’m dusting it off because end of April seems like a good time to wrap up talking about teaching, seeing as how I DON’T HAVE A TEACHING JOB ANYMORE.]

Three times in my teaching career to date, I have assigned final grades of zero. All three of these students failed make a single appearance in my class during a quiz, a test, or exam; hence the zeroes. The naïve reader might infer that my interaction with such students would be commensurate with their marks; I too used to be that naïve before I started teaching, so I won’t laugh. Here are their stories, presented in reverse chronological order because my grade ten English teacher taught me that whenever you have three different points you’re developing in an essay you should finish with the strongest one and begin with the second strongest.

  1. My most recent zero was The Woman of a Thousand Excuses, who hadn’t made a single appearance during the first month of classes last term, missing two quizzes and a test in that time. “But I’m keeping up with all the homework!” she told me in an email. I was unconvinced, but wrote back something brief about requiring a note for the missed test, which she had skipped because she was attending a funeral. Two days later I received, and I shit you not, an electronic copy of the eulogy delivered by the wife of the deceased. Dearly departed, by the way, was apparently a prominent union leader during the fifties who, I suppose, sort of fought for my student’s right to miss tests without being threatened with termination (student aid, in this case), so out of respect for the dead I cut her some slack. Or at least, I would have cut her some slack if I had ever seen her again that term, which I didn’t. Ergo: zero.She enrolled in my class once again this term, attended the first quiz and was then MIA for eight weeks. Then, I got another email from her, detailing the trials she’d suffered this semester, which appaeared to be cribbed from the Book of Job. But she used to get good marks in math classes, so she thought she could pass this one. Would I kindly write up a page of review questions that she could work on, as a quick way of catching up on the two missed tests and five missed quizzes? I wouldn’t, but sent her copies of said tests and quizzes. She failed this term anyway, though not as desperately as some of my students who’d actually attended the class all semester except on Tuesdays and whenever they were too tired to show up. I’m pretty sure that she could have pulled off a decent grade if she had attended class consistently throughout the term.[ETA: between when I started writing this entry and when I posted it, this student came to me to get me to sign a late withdrawal form. I hadn’t been aware that it was possible to withdraw from a course four months after it ended, but in this case, what the dean says goes.]
  2. My second semester at grad school I had a student who joined the class late in the term, showed up twice, and then didn’t come to class for three weeks, missing all of the quizzes and the first test. I figured she’d dropped the class, either officially or unofficially, and thought nothing of it until three weeks before the final exam, when she made an appointment to meet with me. She’d had a really rough term; would it be possible for me to grade her strictly on her final exam? I offered to pass her if she could obtain a 60% on the final; did she think she could do that? Oh, yes, she said eagerly; she was sure of it. I don’t know whether or not her self-assessment was warranted, as I didn’t see her at the exam, either. Two years later I ran into her on a city bus. She stared at me for a few minutes before exclaiming, “That’s where I recognize you from – you taught me calculus!” I said something friendly and nondescript in response, even though “no I didn’t” would have been an truthful reply.
  3. But by far the biggest piece of work, and the biggest drain on my time and patience, was the student I had back my very first term teaching, back when I was too young and inexperienced to tell this kid to take a hike the second time I saw him, which I would do without hesitation if faced with a similar situation today. Clueless Timesucker was a refugee from Calculus for Students Who May Actually Use it Some Day, and joined my Calculus for Students Trying to Get Into an Overenrolled and Completely Unrelated Major class two weeks into the term. This kid had tasted university-level mathematics, and had found it frightening; he was so behind, he was completely lost even in the easier calc class, he’d been out of school for years; what should he do? I told him to find himself a copy of a grade 11/12 math text, and I’d highlight the sections that he should work on concurrently with the course material.Two days later, he returned, text in hand, and I underlined the sections that were most pertinent to the course. He trotted off, and two days after that, returned. This stuff, he informed me, was hard. Yes, I said, it was difficult to get back into math after years away. Had he gone over any of the sections I’d told him to look at? Did he have any questions in particular about the work? No, he said; just that it was hard. And because I was young and stupid, this continued for another ten minutes.A week later, he missed the first quiz, and then came to my office the following week, “just to chat.” I told him that I’d noticed he’d been away for the quiz; did he have a reason for that? At this, he sighed mightily and gave me the most bizarre justification for an absence that I’ve ever heard, before or since. “You see,” he opened with the air of someone delivering an inaugural address, “I’m the sort of person who needs to either get zero, or a hundred. And I didn’t feel I knew the quiz stuff very well, so I skipped it.”

    It took me a moment to recover from that, and when I did, I informed him matter-of-factly, “In that case, you will get a zero in this class.”

    And lo, he did. Because he never wrote a single test or quiz with me. But this wasn’t the end of my interactions with Clueless Timesucker, who, as the fates would have it, happened to frequent the same restaurants and bookstores where I spent much of my time. And every time I saw him, he greeted me with, “HEY! How are you? Man…that zero you gave me really screwed up my average! MAN!” I didn’t remark that it was a good thing that zero had screwed up his average, because otherwise, what would that say about his average? During my final year of grad school, Clueless Timesucker became the first of my two hundred or so former students to join the pottery studio where I spent much of my time, and apparently he would ask the other members if they’d heard the story about how this other potter in the club had given him a zero in Calculus, “which totally screwed up my average!” Needless to say, he omitted some minor details, such as how he never showed up to class and hadn’t submitted a single paper with his name on it to me.

That’s the Zero Brigade. The lowest mark I have ever given to anyone who actually showed up for all of the tests and the final was six (6) percent; the girl whose exam I photographedhas that honour. I’m not an overly generous grader, as my students remind me routinely; however, I am loathe to give zeroes on any question that is worth five or more points, and will do so only if the student’s solution contains nothing that could pass as mathematics. The weekly quizzes are out of ten marks apiece, and I give a minimum grade of 1/10 to anyone who shows up to write one. This student got an average mark of 1/10 on her quizzes, so you do the math. (In case that student (whose attendance was perfect, Nicholas) is reading this: IT MEANS YOU GOT 1/10 ON EVERY QUIZ.) I’d omitted to scan the last page of her final exam, in which she remarked that she was “pretty sure” she’d failed the course, so I’m going to chalk that up to a false memory. She’ll be taking precalculus again next term, she told me, and it seems such a waste, because precalculus isn’t what was giving her trouble. If I thought it would do her any good, I’d recommend that she go way back to fourth grade or thereabouts. Except that she already attended fourth grade, ten-odd years ago, and a fat lot of good it apparently did her.

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