26 December 2015

Students vs staff, part II

You know something has gone wrong if you hand over all your emails to a senior manager for scrutiny, and you're grateful for the opportunity. 

The case was closed; my name was cleared. The students hadn't performed well in an assignment and , whether they liked it or not, they had received justified low grades. But, just like can happen in criminal law, in staff-student disputes a closed case can be re-opened. The university finds student satisfaction very important; it's one of the things with which we draw students in. And without students no money. So if students are angry they get plenty of opportunity to plead their case. If indeed some injustice has been done to them it needs to be addressed! We can't waste student satisfaction. But we also have to maintain academic robustness; we can't let the aim to please lead to us just giving high grades to whoever asks for them.

As I wrote about before, the students had not done well on one of my assignments and had demanded a higher grade. The Head of School had ruled that the marks had been fair and that the students' claim their marks had been my fault had been unfounded. I did two extra sessions of Q&A for the students so at least they had a chance of brushing up their knowledge before the final exam. But the students were still not satisfied, got the Student Union involved, and had the case reopened. They requested another meeting with the Head of School and had a meeting among themselves beforehand to gather as much evidence of this being my fault as they could. That is a rather intimidating thought; 38 people gathering to scrutinize everything you have said, shown, written, uploaded and mailed over months, trying to pick out every imperfection they can find.

I figured the gloves had come off. I made sure I documented every email the students had sent me, I made sure I knew who had accessed documents on Blackboard and when, who had come to the extra session, and all such things. I also decided I would request the Head of School read every email that has been exchanged between me and the students; not a job I figured he'd appreciate but it was time to bring everything into the open. It was all well for the students to claim they had asked a multitude of questions about this assignment and that I had answered them in unacceptable ways, and me claiming neither was true, but that stays a game of did not-did too until an independent judge would have a look.

I didn't sleep well the night before and had quite some adrenaline in my system when I walked into the office. I was also a bit conflicted; I would of course fight my corner, but the girl who represented the students was very nice, hardworking and chivalrous, and I felt bad in advance about having to aim all my ammunition at her, of all people. Soon we started. The head of School chaired.

The students hadn't found much evidence. All of it was easy to counter. As staff you know sooner or later some student will try to screw you over, so it doesn't take long for you to realise you should never delete an email by or to a student. I was glad the Head of School suggested himself he would read them all. One victory! I had all the facts, and it sounded like the student representative didn't; it seemed she was fighting a case on hearsay. The Head of School explained to her the procedure of module evaluation and grade evaluation and that even if the students don't raise any concern, everything that looks a bit off is closely scrutinized, and corrected if needs be. It is true but not what the student rep wanted to hear. At the end she got upset. It was painful. She herself had no beef with me, and I had no beef with her, but she had taken it upon herself to represent people who did, and had to take all my rebuttals on the chin. So in the end, all were unhappy.

The students were unhappy with their grade, I was unhappy with both their efforts on the assignment and the way they chose to respond to their grades, the student rep was upset, the school is unhappy about the evident lack of student satisfaction, and everyone involved has had to spend a lot of time on a matter that just wouldn't get any better. I am glad the correspondence will be reviewed as I stand by it, and would like it to be judged on what it is, an not on what people who benefit from having a biased view say it is. I expect my name to remain cleared which is good, but that also means that all the signs indicate the students really don't have a case. And that may spell bad things: as they have all gathered together against a common enemy, got all fired up, and taken their case to the Head of School twice, I don't think there is any chance they will now just accept they just didn't do a very good job and should have asked when they had questions. That would be a bit of a tough thing to admit at this stage, wouldn't it? Nobody likes admitting they buggered up and tried to blame someone else. So I think there is a good chance they will decide this is a staff conspiracy and that they'll bear a grudge ever after. And then there's the "where is smoke there must be fire" effect. There is no good way out of this. I'll just have to try to shake it off and enjoy if my teaching even remains upright if 38 angry people do all they can to bring it into disrepute. If I can survive this, I can survive teaching at its most trying!

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