See You In Court, Doc!

A former graduate student at Lehigh has sued the university, claiming that an unjust grade of C+ prevented her from achieving the degree (and therefore the career) that she wanted. For an extra frisson of unpleasantness, the plaintiff’s dad is a prof at Lehigh, so she didn’t pay tuition while she was there.

H/T: The Corner

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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35 Responses to See You In Court, Doc!

  1. Javahead says:

    What the hell? Since when was a grade an entitlement? Why isn’t this being thrown out so hard it bounces?

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    Because she is alleging bias on the part of the grader. Fair grading is an entitlement. I don’t know if her claims are true, but then neither do you two. From the article, it’s clear that she was obnoxious and a bit of a loudmouth, but this makes me more disposed to believe her accusations of bias are correct.

  3. Javahead says:

    If “class participation” is a valid part of the grade – which, apparently, it is in this case – being disruptive in class – loudly argumentative and overly emotional – seems an equally valid reason for a low grade.

    Perhaps she is right, and there was bias on the part of the grader. But from the story, and her actions as described, she seems to be endowed with a remarkably strong sense of entitlement. And her attempt to get a $1.3 Million settlement from the University (after getting a free education!) appears to reflect an equally remarkable amount of chutzpah.

  4. Andrew Stevens says:

    $1.3 million doesn’t strike me as unreasonable for the difference in salary between the career she might have been able to have and the one she is having. I’m certainly not saying she deserves it or anything like that (I’d have to have a lot of very specific information to know), just saying there’s a plausible rationale for the figure. I don’t know the specifics of the program. Most graduate programs require B grades (as that one did), but the reality is that every single person gets A’s. If it’s one of those, then she’s probably got a very solid case that they were trying to drum her out of the program. If it’s tougher than that, then her case is weaker.

    And “class participation” is only very rarely a valid part of the grade, certainly in vastly fewer cases than where it is a part of the grade.

    • Javahead says:

      You’re making at least one unverifiable assumption: that she would have been hired for the program she wanted if she HAD got the grade she wants. And that she would have done well in this career.

      Any minor-league ball player that never got promoted to the majors “because the coach didn’t like me and didn’t put me in enough” could make a similar claim.

      Oddly enough, whenever I got a less-than-stellar grade for a class, the cause was precisely the same as when I was the top student: my own skill level and how hard I worked. And I hadn’t even made it a point to swear at my classmates and accuse the the professor a personal vendetta.

      Bluntly: even if every one of her claims of bias were true, I wouldn’t grant her a cent because of her “spoiled career”. Why didn’t she switch programs? Get a loan, if she needed to? Why isn’t she taking night classes NOW to upgrade her career?

      I dropped out of college for a couple of years to build up a nest egg. And after meeting the woman I wanted to marry I finished my degree while working full time. Was it easy? No. But it was possible. I’ve friends and colleagues with similar stories. And a daughter who’s currently taking on major debt to attend the professional school of her choice.

      The plaintiff is working full-time as a professional counselor already. I’d be amazed if her job doesn’t sponsor continuing education of some sort – mine does, and I’m working for a hard-hearted for-profit company. If she wants to see the person who’s responsible for sabotaging her career I suggest she look in a mirror.

      • Javahead says:

        “Accuse the professor of a personal vendetta”. Why do I never see errors like this when I review before posting?

      • Andrew Stevens says:

        Javahead: I think rather that it is you who is making unverifiable assumptions here. I have pretended to know neither whether she should win her case nor how much she should be awarded if she does, whereas you have pretended to know both. In fact, I suspect either A) she will lose her case, B) the university will settle, or C) the judge will order the grade changed with only otherwise minor damages awarded rather than awarding her the whole amount she requested.

        My own story is even better than yours, by the by. (I worked full time and went to school full time all four years of college.) I’m not quite sure why that’s relevant, though. Had a college wasted two years of my life, I would be looking for compensation as well.

      • Javahead says:

        Andrew, I think we’re looking at this from different angles. Because I don’t see how awarding her a C+ grade is “wasting 2 years of her life”.

        A grade is an evaluation of how well the student has mastered the subject covered by the class in the opinion of the teacher – no more, no less. Most teachers try to be objective in their grading, but unless the subject is in the hard sciences or mathematics there will be an inevitable amount of subjectivity. At its worst, you get professors who students learn to either avoid or regurgitate their preferred pablum – and I agree, this is a bad thing, and something that the university should work to eliminate.

        But unless we’re planning to go all Garrison Keillor and assert that *every* student is above average and cannot fail, it should take extraordinary evidence to argue that a professor should be forced to change a grade and apologize.

        From the story, it appears that the plaintiff feels – strongly – that she has been discriminated against. But if the description of her in-class behavior was correct, I would have given her the same grade for in class participation. Perhaps the description was wrong – as you say, this is still to be tried, and we don’t have access to all the evidence.

        But unless we are to force academics to grade defensively, and give every student a B or higher, no matter how poor their mastery of their subject, it should require extraordinary evidence to even consider forcing a grade to be changed.

        And even then, I believe that the highest damage awarded should be return of all fees paid to the university for tuition and living expenses, and a revised transcript.

        Not to mention my strong suspicion – agreed, no evidence other than the story – that she was a royal pain in class due to her self-righteous posturing, and got precisely the grade she deserved.

  5. Withywindle says:

    If you don’t include class participation in the grade, too many people either zone out or is a jerk. Plus it allows you some give to joggle someone who seems nice over the cliff of a grade level. I don’t think I ever went out of my way to use class participation as a way to knock someone down a grade level–but I certainly did not mind that it set up structural conditions that disadvantaged unpleasant students.

    Part of the introductory spiel at the beginning of each class should let the students know what “class participation” means, though, in some polite yet informative way. E.g., “only speak up when you have something to say, and be concise and polite.”

  6. Dr. J. says:

    If she wins, every college would be unsafe from the legion of med and law school rejects. The salary differential would be devastating.

  7. Withywindle says:

    Oh, yes: “fair grading” is not entirely meaningful when “most of the class would fail” is the result. Often I had to figure out what ridiculous curve to use at the end of the semester to get the median grade (before subtracting for lateness and absence) up to B minus territory. They’re all arbitrary, and you can’t help but notice which students are helped or hindered by a particular curving scheme. I like to think I didn’t curve to hurt people, but I did on occasion use a curving scheme which I knew would let some amiable but slow student at least pass.

    “Fair grading” may be a nice goal, but not perfectly achievable.

  8. Andrew Stevens says:

    Withywindle: I think you rather proved my point. Whenever I ask a professor in one of the squishier subjects why he/she needs a class participation component, once you cut through the verbiage, it amounts to “So I can adjust the grades of people I do or don’t like.” Your response is no exception. What does it matter if the student is a “jerk” or “nice” or “amiable”? Since when was it an instructor’s job to grade their students’ personalities? And then these same professors often have the unmitigated gall to complain when their students whine about their grades! Well, when you’re partway making them up anyway, what do you expect? Yes, fair grading is not perfectly achievable. I also grant that, for papers and such and even possibly essay questions, there simply isn’t any way to completely remove the subjective element, nor am I asking for that ideal. This is no excuse, though, for not even trying to be objective. I don’t really blame the professors. This is the fault of college administrators who do not provide appropriate standards, training, or discipline around how grading should be conducted.

    Personally, I think the whole thing would be vastly improved by handing the task of grading over to other people who never even meet the students (or even know their names). Grading should probably be outsourced to professional evaluators who do nothing else and might even be on the other side of the country. I’m sure the grading at universities isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems to an outsider like me and I don’t doubt the majority of professors are careful, honest, ethical graders doing their best, But I also do not laugh when somebody alleges bias in grading and believes themselves to have been damaged by it (especially when one grade in a single class can mean dismissal from the program as in this case). I find such claims quite plausible.

    For the record, I had a 4.0 GPA in college. None of my opinion on this comes from unfairness in college grading that I myself personally experienced. I did have multiple problems with it in high school, but A) I never cared about my grades then anyway (I never even learned what many of them were) and B) the grades ended up having exactly zero impact on my life. Even when one teacher went out of her way to adjust my grade to fail me, the school administration overruled her since I had received a perfect score on the final exam and I still received credit for the class. (Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but sympathy for that teacher, and I had sympathy for her even at the time. Her animus against me was very well justified and I don’t blame her a bit for despising me and even lashing out at me in the only way she could. Nevertheless, it was no excuse for professional dishonesty and it did teach me that the people who are supposed to be the “grown-ups” don’t always behave as such.)

  9. Andrew Stevens says:

    Javahead: I’m not sure you read the story attentively enough. The plaintiff was in the second and final year of a graduate school program. That program required her to receive a “B” or higher in the class she was taking in order to continue the program and receive her accreditation. Because she didn’t get that grade, she essentially “failed out” of the program and lost the two years she had put into it.

    As I pointed out earlier, there are a great many graduate school programs which require a “B” or higher average (or even in every class) in order to successfully complete, but the reality of the program is that every single student gets an “A.” (The very worst students get “B”‘s and nobody gets “C”s or lower.) I don’t know if this was one of those programs; maybe it was tougher than that and they actually did try to weed people out. But if it was such a program, it wouldn’t shock me if there was a concerted effort to get her out because a couple of faculty members didn’t like her.

  10. Andrew Stevens says:

    I will also say, by the way, that I find her case prima facie plausible. She got a C+ in the class, just below what she needed to get to finish the program. The instructor apparently gave her a zero on class participation. If these facts are correct, the situation stinks of corruption. I’m not saying the grade isn’t defensible, but with those facts, the grade is going to need a lot of defending.

  11. Andrew Stevens says:

    A new link with some more information. Assuming this information is accurate, that zero points on class participation was out of 25 and bumped her down a full letter grade even though she attended and participated in every class. She was also otherwise an “A” student. I have no idea why the University didn’t just settle this during internal appeals and overrule the instructor. I am now predicting they’re going to have to settle it out of court. It’s hard for me to even see a reasonable defense of this grade.

  12. Withywindle says:

    1) To repeat, you do need to have something for class participation to restrain the slackers and the jerks.

    2) Personality isn’t irrelevant to how much you learn, or how much you make the class successful for other students. To rephrase: “personality” equals “actually giving a damn about the class, giving some evidence you’re trying to learn, speaking and behaving in ways that help other students to learn.” A class is more than just taking tests and writing essays–speech, behavior in class is part of the learning experience, and if you don’t contribute, no, you should get a lower grade. Now, there isn’t any way to do this without some sort of unquantifiable judgment on the part of the teacher. It shouldn’t have to be quantified–it should just be “if you’re a jerk you get thrown out of class, if you’re a slacker you get a D, and for the rest we just throw class participation into the black box and out pops your grade, hoopla, with results that are reasonably self-evident.” Having to resort to “class participation 10%” is evidence of a student body where too many people have been admitted in the first place; no one should be in the class in the first place who requires that sort of motivation.

    3) When you’re curving so that the majority of the class passes, when they don’t deserve too, then indeed any sort of whining sure cuts little ice. But anecdotally, the whiners tend to have grossly inflated senses of their abilities.

    4) I had a related discussion several years back on Timothy Burke’s blog. I still think what I said then: the problem is that there is no professional ethic among professors to check up on one another’s teaching, the way surgeons or military officers are supposed to check up on one another’s professional service. The problem isn’t so much that professors have discretion, but that if they abuse that discretion, there’s no professional self-regulation, hence no solution short of drastic complaints such as suing the college.

  13. Andrew Stevens says:

    1) How serious is this problem really? The slackers surely aren’t a problem. If the zoning out is a problem, they will punish their own grades with no necessity for you to add an additional penalty on top of it. If their grades don’t suffer, then what’s the problem? I could see the problem with jerks, I suppose. I just wonder how often this is really an issue at the college level. I certainly never saw it in any class that I took. (On the other hand, that is a very selective sample. Classes with me in them tended to be dominated by me so I may very well have “crowded out” the jerks. Or, alternately, I was the jerk.) I do realize that the instructor’s claim in this case is precisely that Megan Thode is one of these jerks.

    2) I’ll deal first with your justification for why the slackers deserve more of a penalty than they will get on tests, essays, etc. I’m a mathematician. This is probably the reason why I’m not seeing your side of it. If I were teaching a mathematics class, at the end I would be interested in “can you do the problems?” If you can, great and I don’t care how helpful or engaged you were in class. If you can’t, not great, and, again, I don’t care how helpful or engaged you were in class (except possibly as an explanation for why you can’t do the problems). I can see how this might be different in something like a graduate level philosophy or history class. I’m not sure I’m seeing the case for it in, for example, an undergraduate history class.

    I’m not buying your “personality isn’t irrelevant to how much you learn” argument. I agree that this is true, but if we can measure how much you learned, then who cares what the inputs were? It is, e.g., absolutely the case that effort makes a big difference in how much you learn. But if a student comes into your class and makes no effort at all because he already knows everything you’re teaching, then why should his grade suffer because of his lack of effort? Isn’t your job simply to certify that he knows what your class was supposed to teach him?

    However, it also seems like your argument is that (to use my mathematics example), almost nobody can do the problems at the end of the class, so you want to be able to reward effort. “He didn’t actually learn anything, but gee whiz, he tried hard.” Or “Maybe he actually could have learned something if he’d actually given a damn.” I’m not sure why we need to do this. There are surely gradations of failure after all. Why not use those (if you must pass people who clearly failed, that is)?

    3) Obviously, I have no opinion on whether the whiners are more or less likely to have an inflated sense of their abilities or not.

    4) I would agree with this. When I first read this post, I was inclined to be on Professor Mondo’s side and then I read the article and some other things about the case and I saw why it did end up in a lawsuit. Apparently, the student was, in error, not given a student advocate when she appealed her grade, but even so I am puzzled why this case wasn’t dealt with effectively in the internal appeal. On its face, the grade is too questionable not to have been seriously challenged. I am led to the suspicion that she is right and the fix really was in. Whether this was due to her activism or her “jerkiness” or whatever, it certainly seems like there was a coterie within the University which was out to get her. It apparently was a very selective one since her grades in other classes did not seem to suffer similarly (if the reports about her being an “A” student are true).

  14. Andrew Stevens says:

    By the way, given how much professors complain about grading, I would have expected them to jump all over my proposed solution. Why not hand what is almost universally regarded as the worst part of the job over to objective outsiders?

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      They do this in the UK where I did my MA and PhD and I am a strong supporter of it. As it is I grade my tests anonymously. They have no names on them only numbers. So I have no idea whose test is whose. But, yes a full British system where they went to Cape Coast to be graded would be better. I suspect overall grades would be considerably lower, however.

  15. Withywindle says:

    For the last: the ones who don’t care about teaching would; those who want to do a good job by their students, or who don’t trust (realistically) outside graders to be well-paid, competent, etc., would not. I would substitute “impartial” for “objective,” for the usual reasons, and then stipulate that outside readers can introduce their own partialities, even–or especially–lacking personal knowledge of the students. More anon.

  16. Withywindle says:

    1) This is a disciplinary divide–humanities, getting from humanism the idea of conversation and friendship as essential modes of inquiry (Nancy Struever, Theory as Practice), not the mere acquisition and recitation of facts. History — the humanities — aren’t just facts; they are things to be known, understood, interpreted, with a commitment of one’s person, one’s character; the way to learn this in conversation/emulation with one’s fellows, not least since what you are learning that these understandings are not self-explanatory, but derive precisely from each individual understanding, and advance by the interaction of individual understandings. So in addition to the humanism/science divide, a humanism/liberalism divide: students are not atoms who happen to be collected in a classroom, but members of a class that is a thing in itself–not a miniature res publica, but a conversation that depends as much upon action, in a conversational mode, as the res publica depends upon action in a worldly mode; learning, knowledge, is in the interaction of students, not separately in the students. Class participation is the class; it should be 100% of the grade; 10% is the faintest gesture toward the ideal.

    2) Hence slackers really deserve to fail. Their dead presence either cripples or kill a class. That they’re tolerated at all is a sign of educational collapse.

    2A) Practically speaking, the slackers are also the ones who don’t do the readings, who just try to skim through the textbook at the end of semester–where you have to hand out a study guide, because even the good students can’t remember everything in a book, so the slackers have only ever memorized fifty key terms so as to get a credit, and put nothing more into the class at all. Even if they are good memorizers, they don’t deserve good grades. Class participation also proxies for this.

    3) With a regular course load, you’re almost bound to get at least one jerk in one of your classes. The slackers regularly stifle the class–you’re trying desperately to get 6 people willing to talk, in a class from 6 to 120. If the class is a lecture, it’s a failure.

  17. Withywindle says:

    This is indeed a disciplinary divide, I meant to say–I was following up on what you said, not introducing the subject as if you hadn’t thought about it. Sorry.

  18. Andrew Stevens says:

    Impartial is probably a better word in this particular case, but I’m sure I’d disagree with your “usual reasons.” I must say this case in itself doesn’t do anything to activate my paranoia about academics (every profession has a bad apple or two), but the instinctive rallying around that academics are doing around this case definitely does. If a doctor is sued for malpractice, other doctors don’t immediately rally around and assume the case has no merit the way academics are doing around this case. As you said, this is probably due to a complete lack of professional self-regulation. I’m not sure it had really occurred to me before that the profession lacks a professional organization with a written code of ethics and a disciplinary board, etc. If I were in the professoriate, I would want to start one.

  19. Withywindle says:

    It has a code of ethics–the code of ethics doesn’t call for continuous monitoring of collegial teaching practice. Which would, incidentally, be a real drain of time, which presumably is one reason there’s no great urge to adopt it.

  20. Andrew Stevens says:

    Actually, wait. There’s the AAUP, but apparently it doesn’t handle ethical complaints. The individual institution does. This is an error and should be corrected. You need outsiders to handle these sorts of complaints.

  21. Andrew Stevens says:

    So the judge ruled against her after his attempt to find a settlement was rebuffed. (My guess is by her.) This is probably the answer to why this wasn’t settled in the internal appeals process. She appears to have been intransigent and unwilling to compromise.

    Withywindle:

    1) Your paragraph here has convinced me that the disciplinary divide on my side is extremely deep, despite my abiding interest in the humanities. I believe it is precisely this attitude which is ruining American education. When I meet and talk to young people today, the one thing that strikes me over and over is that they simply don’t know any facts. Even the ones who can talk a good game and have confident opinions on every subject never seem to have even the basics of cultural literacy. And if you don’t know anything, nothing else really matters. I am forever meeting people who have very strong opinions on very difficult philosophical issues, but don’t actually know anything at all about the arguments that have been made on the issue in either the past or the present. Needless to say, I have rarely found their opinions worthwhile.

  22. Withywindle says:

    I share your goals but differ in my preferred method. Also, I think that this is stuff you should have by the end of high school; if it has to be taught in college, you’ve already failed.

  23. Withywindle says:

    And to add: I think my “attitude” precedes the existence of American education, and created the Renaissance, so I think it has some things going for it. But I take American education to be failing on both our terms, so I don’t particularly feel an urge to blame your side of this debate for what’s going wrong.

  24. Andrew Stevens says:

    Also, I think that this is stuff you should have by the end of high school; if it has to be taught in college, you’ve already failed.

    Perhaps, but I think this is an easy way for college professors to push all the blame onto K-12 education. I think they’re both failing. Also, of course, ultimately colleges are responsible for the failures of K-12 education as well, since they’re the ones training the teachers.

  25. Withywindle says:

    Everything is failing, and there is a horrible cycle where everything becomes worse and worse. The idea that you need to go to college for teacher training is part of the cycle of failure, of course. “Push all the blame”? I suppose you can look at it that way. But it seems to miss the point: you are criticizing da yoof for lacking what they ought to have as high-school graduates. Whoever is responsible for their original faults, I don’t see what can be said to the accusation that college doesn’t do well as a remedial substitute for high school other than to say, “Of course not; a screwdriver, however adjusted, will always be an inferior hammer.” If you continue to praise your brand of screwdriver, and say that it should be universally adopted, then I will say, “It is a most absolute and excellent screwdriver.”

  26. Withywindle says:

    That last is a little snippy; please forgive.

  27. Andrew Stevens says:

    I’ve probably been snippier than anyone else in this thread, frankly, so no offense taken. I certainly don’t believe you do need to go to college to be trained as a teacher. Nevertheless, I believe colleges are where the decline of American education began by spreading half-baked pedagogical theories in their schools of education which then destroyed the fabric of the U.S. educational system. Central to these theories was a distaste for rote learning and the “mere acquisition and recitation of facts,” which had been considered a central component of education until that point.

    You can certainly argue that rote learning is no longer appropriate in college. The problem is that colleges decided it wasn’t appropriate at any age.

  28. Withywindle says:

    I would phrase this as “it’s the fault of the ed schools” rather than “it’s the fault of the colleges.”

    I think there’s a lot of truth to this, but I somewhat distrust the “John Dewey is the Devil” story as a sufficient or even entirely accurate explanation. I don’t actually have all the details at my fingertips, or anywhere near to them, but I suspect there is more to the story than that. E.g., I think some part of the softening of standards was actually due to the G.I. Bill–I’ve caught hints of this here and there, that accommodation was made for a mass of G.I.s who weren’t entirely college-ready, and that this led to a general softening of standards–but no one wants to say the Greatest Generation did anything wrong, so it doesn’t usually get into the partisan polemics.

  29. Andrew Stevens says:

    Well, I certainly don’t believe it was just Dewey, or even principally Dewey, or even necessarily a little bit Dewey. There were a ton of fads and Dewey wasn’t responsible for most of them. The real motivation for doing away with rote learning was because it’s boring for the teacher. The real culprit is probably John Stuart Mill who convinced everybody that innovation was a good thing, even though innovation is actually far more likely to do harm than good. Any time you’re tinkering with something that already works well, there are only a couple of ways you can make it better and about a million ways you can make it worse.

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