The closing weeks at the end of a term bring the misery of students popping back up in a course—students who had hopefully been buried and assigned an easy E in the course. After all, they disappeared for long stretches without warning. Now they reemerge as if from a dark cocoon or place of hibernation, revived and desperate to make up all missed work.
Can this be?
Not only does an instructor face end of term fatigue, but now the reappearing students need special coaching, scheduling, and “understanding.”
It’s like the dysfunctional family appears full force at the worst time.
But is it always dysfunctional?
A parent has died, a child become seriously ill, or a student is facing a dire relationship. School dropped out of consciousness, and instructors across the landscape were left wondering indefinitely since communication from the student end ceased without a hint of the situation. Sometimes, it’s not a crisis but the lethargy of distractions not recognized and processed.
Justice—or is it fairness?—
would indicate penalty per the syllabus for all late work. Who wants to give the message, “Don’t follow the schedule or worry about the consequences because there aren’t any, or at least none distressing enough to modify future strategy”? Why educate students for jobs in a way that teaches habits that won’t bring success in a job? Besides, students who try to cram weeks of missed work into a small time frame at the end are not likely to do a good job since learning generally builds on previous lessons.
Yet justice alone isn’t entirely satisfying.
It’s not that injustice is ever satisfying, but mere unbending rules on consequences leave the soul yearning. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock has loaned money to Antonio, whom he hates, on the condition that to default on the loan will entitle Shylock to take a pound of actual flesh from Antonio, which Shylock would dearly love to do.
Antonio does default, but when Shylock goes to cut the pound of flesh, the heroine, Portia, points out that the contract does not allow any blood to be taken, and she utters her famous line:
“the quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath” (Act 4 scene 1).
It’s easy to get pulled in Shylock’s direction with particularly the maddening situations of some students late in a term after weeks of having disappeared. For some, the task is too much and unrealistic, and the merciful thing to do is not encourage what cannot work. But with those still in striking distance of a passing grade or better, it is inspiring to see a few dig out and even shine, and the calculator doesn’t indicate the whole truth for them. Isn’t a good comeback story is good for the soul—the student’s and the grader’s? It brings up the question, “What are we really teaching?” At times, what we are teaching is how to recover from a lapse and finish strongly.