Where science and tech meet creativity.

It’s T-6 class days and counting until final exams start at SIUE. Spring is in the air, and students have cast away their winter cloths to frolic in the sun in shorts and T-shirts as they try to cram in as much of college life as they can before disappearing for summer. Yesterday, while walking from the science building to our student union for lunch, I was taken by this sudden “this is a movie set” feeling. There was hip hop music playing and students dancing in one direction, the blood mobile doing its vampire thing in another direction, and everywhere else my eyes wandered, their were students at booths promoting outreach and inreach. The ROTC students were trying to recruit. One of the frats had done a “These Hands Do Not Hurt” display, and they were handing out information on their frat and on domestic violence. It was an array of colors and noises and even smells – some of the booths were giving out food, and cotton candy mixed in the air with popcorn.

The chaotic moments in the quad are one of the things I love about state schools. There is room to spread and make noise and attract attention without making anyone feel they are running a gauntlet. At Harvard, students crammed into the narrow area in front of the Science Center, and I had to “No Thank You Grrr” my way into the building every good weather day as I was attacked with handouts and people asking for donations. At SIUE, the students sprawl their happy little tables over a couple acres of cement and grass, and we can move freely and approach or not approach at will. I love seeing my students be civically minded, and I feel morally obligated to buy baked goods from the science clubs, but I like to see them at a distance when I’m running for lunch.

Along with the life in the quad, the End of the Semester also brings student panic (and professor panic), as we all realize OMG OMG OMG I only have how long to finish all my assignments (grading)?!? On Tuesday, I actually made the classroom announcement, “There will be no panicing. Panicing about grades is not allowed today.” This doesn’t really help – I teach physical sciences for elementary ed majors this semester, and this is one of the last classes they take before applying to get into the highly competitive elementary education program. While my class isn’t intrinsically hard, everything seems 10 times harder when you know your grade will significantly determine if you get the future you want. As an instructor, one of the hardest things I have to do is fail a student. I never want this to happen, and I try hard to keep students abreast of their projected final grade. The problem is, there are times when a C in a class is really an F, and a B in a class really is worth crying over.

It is hard, and it is something my colleagues and I talk about a lot. Sure, 1 C in college (or even 1 C and 1 D, as I received) probably won’t lock you out of your future, but every bad grade has to be balanced with something else that makes a student special in a good way. For instance, if I’m reviewing applications for a summer internship, I will pull into my short list students with A/B averages (3.5 on the 4 point scale) who have experience and are noted as being creative independent thinkers in their rec letters, and I’ll pull out the 4.0 students whose rec letters say “Student works full time and could really use this break.” I know that it isn’t possible for most people to balance a job, extracurricular activities, and academic excellence. Something has to give, and often it’s sleep that gets lost in the shuffle, and a grade gets dropped here or there, or the extracurriculars get thrown out the window as students strive to earn rent money, gas money, food money, and, well, tuition money. Unfortunately, when faced with an A/B student who doesn’t have that “This kid has this amazing wow factor” mentioned in their rec letter, I just don’t know what to do. And as the prof who sometimes has to give a B or D or worse to the student who is working 40 hours a week, going to school full time, and trying to raise two kids (this is at least 10% of my students), I know that my grade has consequences, and it hurts. As the prof who sometimes has to write rec letters for these students, I struggle to find the way to say, “This student worked so hard, they tried so hard, and there just weren’t enough hours in the day for this student to be competitive against someone else who doesn’t work and doesn’t have a family.” I’d never phrase it that way. I know the right words for rec letters, but that is what my heart is saying.

The academic system really is designed for 18-22 year old students who are single and either affluent enough or who have enough loan/scholarship/grant money that they don’t have to work. These students can fully embrace unpaid research opportunities, be leaders in the student community, and still have time to study, go out drinking with friends, and run home for special events. These students can attend guest lectures, and go to plays and musicals. As a professor, I know our system works against the students who work and have families, but I don’t know how to fix the system.

And now, at T-6 class days and counting, I see in my classroom a mix. There are the happy, family-free 18-22 year olds, panicy about grades, but able to pull all nighters at will to get things done. Then there are the students counting the days until classes are over and they can spend more time with their daughters and sons. There are the parents and spouses worried they won’t make it into the next step, and that all the money going into tuition won’t help to raise the family’s future income. And then there is me, looking at the grades, wanting all the kids to be above average, but knowing sometimes, someone has to fail.

It is spring. The flowers are out. The students are sprawled across the quad dancing and proselytizing people to join their favorite causes. The trees are leafing out, and some of the students are quietly freaking out. Meanwhile, the profs are in their offices thinking, How can I be fair to everyone and guarantee everyone has a fair chance to succeed?