It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

But it is not, I would argue, an age of wisdom.  No, it’s increasingly becoming an age of foolishness.

In my last post, I wrote about time.  Time, as we know, is a resource.  But it is also, as I noted, the precisely wrong way to think about pursuing a college degree.

In that vein, I want to tell the tale of two students.  Both students are right now concerned about time, albeit in two very different ways.  And both students – students who have emailed me with their concerns within the past few days – are misunderstanding what I think should be the proper relationship between education and time.

But before I continue, I want to note that I do not blame these students for their misguided views.  This is not a post about how students “don’t get it.”  Rather, it’s about how these students precisely do “get it,” and that’s the problem.  It’s not that students misunderstand the relationship between education and time; it’s that they are forced to understand that relationship in a very specific way by their institution.

Student A is upset that she is not graduating “on time.”  This student is not graduating on time because she did not earn the grade she needed in the last course she took for her major.  This student spent two years taking courses at another institution, then came to SUNY Potsdam for two years.  For four years – at two different institutions – she took a full-time course load.  And she will not graduate “on time” because of a grade for one class.

She emailed her professor, and asked if there was anything she could do for her.  Was there, in other words, any way to give her the grade she needed to have that course count toward her major?*  The professor was unyielding, and stands by the grade.  The student is considering appealing this grade.

I use this student as an example because of what she wrote to me regarding her possible appeal.  Among the reasons she gave for why she is considering an appeal is that she attended all of the classes for the semester, spent “a lot of time” on all the work, and turned everything in on time.  I have no reason to believe any of this is untrue.  However, I also don’t see how it’s relevant.

My concern with this potential appeal is that at no point in the student’s email to me did she note that the work she turned in deserved higher grades than she was given.  At no point did she argue that her work was better than it had been judged, or that the grades earned were in any way unfair.  Instead, her entire appeal seems to be based on the fact that she put in the proper amount of time (both in class and outside of class).  Though I can only speak to the emails I have received (or been copied on), this student’s primary concern seems to be that she is not graduating “on time,” and this is unacceptable because she put in the proper amount of time.  She gave the class the appropriate amount of time, and now deserves a grade to earn the degree that she has also put the proper amount of time into.

In short, this student put in her time, and now expects to be awarded a degree.

Now, I know some readers will be tempted to think that this student is wrong.  Hell, based on my last post, I was initially inclined to assume this student was wrong.  Time, I was tempted to write to her, has no bearing on whether or not she deserves a degree.  Credit is awarded to those who do the work, not just the time.

But then I received an email from Student B.

Student B was enrolled in my Introduction to Literature class last semester, and wants to have her money refunded.  She stopped attending classes early in the semester (I do not know why), and is arguing that she stopped attending classes early enough that she should get her tuition refunded.  The university (as I’m sure most do) has a policy: if you stop attending classes by a certain date** then you can have your money refunded.  To determine if a refund is in order, her professors were asked for the last date she attended class.  That’s an easy request to fulfill.  But it’s also completely misguided.

The university is not interested in how well this student was doing in the course, how strong her work was, or how much she learned.  None of that is relevant to the university.  I’ve posted before about my thoughts on the economic transaction between the student and the university, so I won’t rehash that here.  However, it is relevant as the student is asking to have that transaction voided.  Essentially, the student is claiming that she did not partake of the product, and deserves to have her money refunded.

Regarding this transaction, the only fact that matters is her last date of attendance.  If she stopped coming to class before that date, she gets her money back.  Plain and simple.  Or, to put this another way, the university only cares about whether or not she spent enough “time” coming to class.  If she didn’t spend enough time in class, then she gets her money back.  As far as the university is concerned, the “product” can be boiled down to amount of time in class.

I would like to tell the university that, during her time in class, she was an engaged student.  She spent more time participating in discussion in a few short weeks than some of classmates did all semester.  She took more notes, and asked more questions outside of class, in those few weeks than many of her classmates did all semester.  I can’t speak to how much she learned in those few weeks, but I know for a fact that she learned more than one of her classmates, who learned nothing.^

(I know better than to make this argument.  Not only would it be pointless, but I also do not want to get in the way of the student getting her tuition refunded.  I don’t know what happened, but I hope things get worked out and she can return to school next fall.)

Anyway, anything that the student may have learned is incidental.  And the university simply doesn’t care how much work she did, how good that work was, or whether she learned anything or not.

And Student B is exactly why I do not blame Student A for her concern with time.  Student A has learned, after four years at two institutions^^, that a degree is the reward for time served.  Student B, as a freshman, is just now learning that.  I have no idea what her thoughts on the matter are, but I do know what the university thinks about her situation: check the time card, and see when she clocked out.  The university could decide that she spent too much time in classes, and is not deserving of her tuition money reimbursed.  They won’t care if she didn’t do the work, or didn’t learn anything.  The work – the knowledge – is not the product.

Her classmate who was tied to his cell phone “bought the product.”  As far as the university is concerned, he received the product.  His financial transaction with the university has been fully honored, even though he didn’t learn a damn thing, and subsequently failed the class.  And sadly, neither party in that transaction seems dissatisfied.

As I noted above, I do not think that Student A will win a grade appeal.  But that said, it’s because I’m concerned with the quality of the work that was produced.  And as Student B demonstrates, that is not at all what the university is concerned with.  And maybe, for that reason, she should appeal that grade.  Because she can demonstrate that she has fulfilled her financial transaction with the university according to the university’ values.

She put in her time.

And increasingly, I’m wondering why – as an employee at the university – I should have values that differ from my employer.  As a functionary of the institution, shouldn’t my values reflect the values of the institution?

*At SUNY Potsdam, students must earn a 2.0 (C) in a course for that course to count toward the student’s major.

**I have no idea what this date is.

^Nor did he want to.  Most days, he sat down, put an ear bud in his ear, and quietly played on his cell phone.  And that’s fine, because he didn’t bother anyone else.  I have no idea why he thought my class was the best place to play his games, but I also don’t really care.

^^Once again, I will not even attempt to address financial aid here, but only because I know so little about how it works.  I pay my student loan bills, but I won’t pretend to know anything about how complicated it has become for students today.  But I do know that some students need to finish in four years because after that, they no longer qualify for financial aid.


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