Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


The left tail of the distribution

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:59 pm.

[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 photographed has 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.


  1. 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 is reading this: IT MEANS YOU GOT 1/10 ON EVERY QUIZ.)

    Couldn’t she have showed up to only half the quizzes and gotten 2/10 on each of those? (In case that student is reading this: that’s not the only way you could get an average of 1/10 on your quizzes.)

    - Nicholas — 4/29/2005 @ 5:12 pm

  2. :-P Yes, but that student did show up to all of them (well, she missed at most two, and I count the best n-2 marks), and got an average of 1/10. So in her case, my explanation was correct.

    - Moebius Stripper — 4/29/2005 @ 5:53 pm

  3. One of my joys, toward the end of the semester, is going through the class roster to and dropping students who haven’t been showing up. They are typically very easy to find — just sort their averages in ascending order, and they float right to the top. I think of these as mercy drops (because the student gets a W instead of an F, and I don’t have to keep looking at their name on the roster).

    The icing that goes on this cake sometimes are the students who haven’t been showing up, and have a dismal average and no hope of passing the class, at least in part because they haven’t been to class in a month, making them perfect candidates for a mercy drop. But then they show up, for one class, right before the drop deadline, indicating to me that they do still think that they are in the class, and so it would be inappropriate to drop them, and so they have more-or-less explicitly asked — nay, demanded — that I give them an F without even looking at their final exam. I had a guy do this just this week. He showed up for the first time in weeks, and brought neither pencil nor pen nor paper. WTF?

    I have great patience for those who don’t understand math. I have sympathy for those who have Circumstances in their lives. I even have a little interest in helping those who are still learning that their choices have consequences. But. The ones who can’t even make a choice? Please keep them away from me. Take the class, or don’t take the class — either way is fine with me, and I’ll respect you just the same. But for the love of Mike, pick one.

    - Tarid — 4/30/2005 @ 9:19 am

  4. We’re at the drop deadline at my school this weekend. (Monday is too late for in-person drops, although on-line drops are still valid through tomorrow.) I saw a student in the quad on Monday and asked him why he had missed class for a couple of weeks. He said he didn’t know. (Mysterious!) I told him he should decide whether he was still in the class or was going to drop. He showed up Wednesday (it’s a MWF class). Okay, fine. We had an exam Friday. He’s not there, but he’s still on my roster. I won’t issue a drop for him because he showed up Wednesday. Poor sap should have stayed away. Maybe he’ll log on to the school site and drop this weekend.

    Betcha he won’t.

    - TonyB — 4/30/2005 @ 2:36 pm

  5. Hunh, at Island U we weren’t allowed to drop our students after the first week of class. During the first week of class, we take attendance; if a student is away and doesn’t contact us, they’re dropped to make room for the waitlisted students. I’ve never had to drop anyone, myself. Department Head told me that he’s dropped students who never showed up, not once; and then, at the end of the term (during which they attended no classes, nor did they write the final), they were SHOCKED to see they’d been dropped, and they protested loudly - because Financial Aid will fund them according to the number of classes they’re enrolled in. Maybe that’s why your (Tarid and TonyB’s) students show up once after several weeks away.

    The student of mine who got the 6% missed the last two weeks of class, but then came for the final. One the last page of her final she’d left me a note, saying that she wanted to show up for the final so that she’d get an F instead of a Did Not Write. This is perplexing for two reasons: one, Island U doesn’t issue DNW’s - either you fail or you pass, unless you’ve been granted an Incomplete; and two, why, for the love of God, did she sit in the exam room for an hour and a half?

    - Moebius Stripper — 4/30/2005 @ 2:49 pm

  6. I’m fairly certain the financial aid angle explains the behavior of one student who came back to ask for reinstatement a month after I dropped her for bad attendance and earning a zero on an exam (she got her name right, but I don’t give points for that). There was no chance she could have passed the class, but the units could have qualified her for aid till the end of the semester.

    My college issues only a W for a student who withdraws after the initial enrollment period and before the drop deadline (which is very late in the term). Some schools may issue a WF, which is more punitive, since it means “Withdrew but would have gotten an F”. Wow! We don’t have a DNW anywhere that I know of (or equivalent, of course, because we don’t use the idiom “write an exam” in the states; we say “take” an exam). A grade of Incomplete can be issued for cause (usually a documented emergency) provided the student is doing passing work at the time he or she was prevented from continuing till term’s end.

    And students who sit in an exam room for hours doing nothing mystify me, as well. Waiting for a miracle?

    - TonyB — 4/30/2005 @ 10:25 pm

  7. At MIT, the grade of “O” (the letter) means, basically, “this student would have passed if they hadn’t been absent from the final exam”, so I suppose that’d be the equivalent of DNW.

    Not that I have direct experience with this.

    - Rob — 5/1/2005 @ 12:11 am

  8. I might have said to the girl who brought excuses: “Is your name Jen Pringle?” Of course, no such luck.

    - Anne of Green Gables — 5/1/2005 @ 9:13 am

  9. Here are the grades I’m allowed to give:

    I. passing grades:

    A, B+, B, C+, C, D (you will note that we DON’T HAVE MINUSES): these are exactly what you think they are.

    S : “satisfactory” for C or better work if the student elected the S/NC grading system.

    II. neither passing nor failing grades:

    I : “incomplete” - a regular incomplete

    SI : “satisfactory incomplete” - an incomplete under the S/NC system

    IW: “incomplete due to writing deficiency” - student needs to take remedial English and resubmit written work

    W : dropped after the first drop deadline but before the second deadline

    WP : dropped after the second drop deadline but was passing at the time

    III. failing grades:

    F : exactly what you think

    FX: failed + stopped attending

    NC: a D/F under the S/NC grading system

    WF: dropped after the second drop deadline but was failing at the time

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 5/2/2005 @ 1:35 pm

  10. Oh, I am positively salivating over that grading system. I especially like the IW, as I have a number of students, recent arrivals in this hemisphere, who would probably be doing quite well in my math class if their English were up to snuff. Failing them and having them take the course again is useless - it’s not the math they’re struggling with.

    I also like the distinction between “withdrew from the course but was doing ok” and “withdrew from the class in order to avoid getting an F, but let’s be honest here, it would totally have been an F if they’d stayed.”

    - Moebius Stripper — 5/2/2005 @ 2:05 pm

  11. “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.”

    OH MY GOD IT’S MY EX-BOYFRIEND. Har! He gave me the same freaking excuse to explain why he’d abandoned (years before I met him) his “life’s passion” of becoming a professional concert pianist. He had failed to get into Juilliard or someplace — some marginally-better guy “who had connections” had pushed him out of the one available spot, and instead of sucking it up and reapplying the next term or hell, simply going to whatever slightly-less prestigious school was dying to enroll him (he said) he decided to drop everything connected with playing classical piano. Of course, the real reason — and the same thing that no doubt drives your anti-student — was that he was afraid of failure. He became a big talker who is famous for sucking time out of other peoples’ lives (not just mine).

    - Andrea Harris — 5/3/2005 @ 5:56 pm

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