Teaching, Ethics, and the “F”

In almost a decade of teaching freshmen and sophomore level college courses, I have had to give “F”s on a regular basis. It’s one of the hardest things about being a professor.

I (almost) always feel that giving an “F” is somewhat immoral and unethical because it tends to assume success and failure can be measured without error, everyone starts in the same place, and everything happens in a vacuum. 

Transcripts don’t note that one student earned a higher grade because he/she had time and resource to attend tutoring. Or that one student failed a class because he/she graduated under the assumption they received a quality education. 

Public schools continue to graduate students who are not prepared for the emotional demands of college or the kind and amount of work. I have a few students each semester who specifically recognize they were not prepared for college in high school – this is an important step. 

When thinking about grades, I often go to “students can always at least take advantage of offers of help.” But it is much more complex. Students who have been required to essentially sit still for 13 years while learning to take standardized test have been acculturated, socialized, and even re-programed per se. They are not necessarily even able to ask for help. We we say “ask for help, if you need it.” They hear something completely different.

Also, given the expensive of college and books, and the all-too-common pressure from employers on their employees to work more hours, finding the time and energy and even “permission” to study is hard.

Many students also seem kind of burned out. They need a break from being told what to do. They need a chance to live and to breathe. Yet society requires they have degrees. And we have strong desires to share the love of our subjects and the love of learning and thinking and to enrich lives in various ways. 

But still we all teach and learn within the system, a system that has many, many strengths. Giving grades is part of how our system runs and how we communicate. When we are forced to give grades, especially failing grades, they have to be a reflection of performance, for sure, but we need to keep in mind that grades are much more a reflection of society than of the individual

See also, Emotional Demands of College


Not always true but makes important points.