How Fear Might Affect Grades

October 15, 2015

In the second meeting of my first graduate seminar at the art school in Chicago where I taught for more than two decades, the students became so enraged with one another over the interpretation of a story by Franz Kafka that bits of wadded-up paper began to fly about the room while I watched blissfully. I plotted when and how to redirect the students toward verbal expression, but I knew that they cared.

A few years later, at a large West Coast university where I was a visiting professor, I was hurrying through the halls to class clutching an armload of freshly graded midterm exams when my department chair detained me briefly.

"One of your students just spent the last half-hour in my office. He seems extremely angry at you." He told me the student’s name and, as I continued on my way, added, "I think he might be armed, so please watch out."

I’m not a very quick thinker. None of the possible rejoinders occurred to me: Not "Why do you think so?" Or "If that’s what you think, would it be appropriate to call the campus police"? Or at least "Should we maybe cancel class?" The only question that did come to mind I kept to myself: "What would it mean in this context to ‘watch out’?"

I decided what it meant as I somewhat shakily rifled through the stack of midterms for a clue. My strategy for coping was to begin class with warm congratulations to all on so many really interesting answers given to the essay questions on their midterms. I started reading snippets of some of them chosen "randomly," including one from the intimidating student’s C-minus paper. I edited it only slightly.

Ordinarily I don’t do this kind of thing, and most students probably thought I was crazy. No doubt the target of my performance failed even to notice it. But no guns went off, and after class I was unharmed and able to rush straight to the office of my neighbor. I leaned on her door for a moment before knocking.

Because of a shortage of office space, my host department housed me not in its own quarters but in a nearby building that was home to history-department faculty as well as miscellaneous support staff. Having often noticed students entering the office next to mine in great distress and emerging with peaceful looks on their faces to the warm strain of grateful murmurings — "you’ve been such a great help!" — I surmised that my neighbor was a psychological counselor and most likely quite a gifted one. Correctly, as it turns out.

I sat in her office while she looked up the student’s academic record, mostly C’s and D’s. Further research showed a file strewn with his complaints: about his teachers, his major, his fellow students. The department chair of nearly every one of his professors had been treated to a conference similar to the one my own chair had just had. The psychologist thought it unlikely that my student was dangerous.

I did not believe he was dangerous either, but it was nonetheless comforting to think that by the time the final grades became available I would be halfway back to Chicago. The student could get an F if he earned it, although in the end he got a C.

Now some states wish to extend the opportunity for an experience like mine to ever more professors by allowing students to carry guns on campus. But some of those teachers may not live long enough to recount it at faculty get-togethers. Some of their responses may differ from mine because they will have had time to prepare.

Perhaps it would be astute to return midterms with gun already drawn.
They might respond by packing heat themselves; to "watch out" might mean to be ready to fire directly into the middle of a class of students, hitting only the one drawing the pistol and not the one in the back of the room on the Internet ordering a present for his girlfriend, or the one in front anxiously taking notes and worrying about how a B-plus in a design-history class might look on an application to law school, or the one hunting for Kleenex in a backpack or trying to listen to the lecture or any of the other students who by now are firing at one another seeking to save the situation and countless lives and be the hero of the day. Perhaps it would be astute to return midterms with gun already drawn.

I fear it would be ill-advised to issue a gun to someone like me or most of my colleagues, but I wonder about an increase in responses like my own. To face down a possibly dangerous student by complimenting the entire class may become more common as professors become more frightened.

I wonder whether, if my walk through the hallway had been longer, I might have used the extra time to change some grades. Surely it would be unfair, however, to reward one student for toting a gun if it would mean shortchanging other, better, students without guns, so I wonder whether on armed campuses we will see a dramatic rise in grade-point averages all around. Grades, after all, are among the few weapons in the arsenal of most professors. Students, for their part, can throw spitballs, or fire guns.

And I fear that, were I to teach on such a campus, I should have to reconsider assigning an author as controversial as Franz Kafka.

Margaret Olin is a senior research scholar at Yale Divinity School.