“I’m Failing by One Point–and I May be the Target of Discrimination”

Posted by on Mar 20, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 14 comments

When a game is lost by one point, that's a bummer. When a student is one point away from failure, that's a potential crisis. What should you say?

When a game is lost by one point, that’s a bummer. When a student is one point away from failure, that’s a potential crisis. What should you say?

(Some personal blips kept me away from my blogging longer than expected. Writing is my whole heart and when I miss it, I really miss it. Spring break is upon me soon and my hope is to get back on track for at least my weekly posts!

A couple quick updates: While I was away, my third piece in USA Today College published: 6 Things You Should Say to Your Professor. Very proud of this one because obviously, the topic is my whole heart. Read it and grab two pocket phrases to sound ultra-professional in most pesky classroom situations!

On to a difficult subject, one that has layers of complexity, but requires sensitivity and care. This comment was posted on my old Blogger site recently. I feel it is incredibly important for all of us. Although this was technically a public note, I’ll still change some items for anonymity. Please, please comment and add your thoughts and please forgive on the length!)


I was wondering, in your estimations, how common is it for a student to fail a course by exactly one point? It recently happened to me and I suspect my professor of foul play. My professor has no idea how hard I’ve worked and how much I’ve learned this semester. It would be redundant for me to take this class over, I am very confident about that. I am one point away from a C and a D is considered a failing grade.

I am a minority (anonymity here) and believe my prof is intimidated by my appearance. There is another student of the same race/ethnicity (again, anonymity) in class, but we come from different walks of life. We don’t dress the same, and the prof treats the other person well. The professor never makes eye contact with me. When I say hello, I get ignored or the prof seems like a nervous wreck, like they’ve had a bad experience with someone like me.

I’m not a thug. If I was, I wouldn’t be a senior. I think it’s time that America starts to understand that someone’s fashion in their culture and their style has nothing to do with the way we live our lives.

Thank you for your time.



There may be other students out there who feel this way and may not perceive an outlet to talk about it. So let’s talk about it.

Dear Student,

There are complex issues to tackle, but I want to first express compassion for the way you feel. I hope I can give you some tangible advice.

The initial question: Have I failed someone by one point? Rarely. I first examine the overall points and then where the individual breakdowns occurred. If I can justifiably round up to salvage the situation, I will. If the student hasn’t met the minimum standards and I believe that a retake of the course is necessary, then, yes, failure of one point would happen. With that slim margin, I try to look at the situation from a qualitative perspective (Did the student attend class? Regularly engage in discussion? Show improvement in any areas?) and see if the D accurately reflects what the student earned. A D does plenty of damage to one’s GPA. An F can be monumental, as well as a class that requires a retake.

As to the bigger issue at hand: The one point and discrimination. Let me try and deconstruct:

-I have no doubt that students who fail or receive a D may have learned a ton. In my currently ending term, I have some unfortunately low grades due to the written work requirement in one of my classes. I know that each of these students learned far more about our topic than what their grade reflects. As much as I want to grade on effort, I can’t. There are mechanisms in my grading scheme that allow some wiggle room for these students (some freebies, if you will), but beyond that, my grading is based on set standards and prescribed requirements.

Because the discrimination issue is not quickly or easily addressable, but the grade problem has a finite shelf life, could you go to your prof for an “all business” conversation and say, “I need to discuss my one point gap with you. I am between a C and a D and the D will mean I need to retake this class. Here are my assignments and proof that although I missed the mark on several occasions (tests, etc.), I am asking you to reconsider the point”? Show any documentation you can in addition to the assignments/exams i.e., notes that you took, etc. It may not help, but can’t hurt.

If you cannot go to the prof because of the interpersonal discomfort, I don’t blame you. A division chair would have to get involved at this point, which I’ll explain in a second.

I have to be honest: Proving that the “downgrade” is due to discrimination is going to be nearly impossible (though that does not mean you should ignore your concerns about either). What I’m saying is that unless you can showcase stellar work that was downgraded for no reason, the work is what is going to be in question.

I am speaking from experience: A student once wrote an outline and delivered a speech about an aspect of his/her culture. The student received a C, which was justified because the main points were disconnected and the sources lacked quality. The grade probably should have been lower. This was in ’08, so I’d been teaching for nine years. Prior, I taught at an extremely diverse community college in Vegas and then in the Deep South for four years where I was actually a religious and racial minority.

I had never before been accused of racism. The student contacted HR, the VP… everyone, certain I hated the speech topic about his/her culture, which is why I gave that grade. The subject had nothing to do with the grade, but rather the disorganization and source problems. The accusation never went anywhere–the work spoke for itself.

I just want to make a side note here: It was incredibly easy for the student to blame me for the outcome, rather than examine his/her contribution to the outcome. So putting the other issues aside, I ask you–with respect and care–to please think about what led to the outcome of your D. Was it the subject matter? The prof’s teaching style? The fact that you felt uncomfortable in the class? Looking at this honestly will be critical to you moving on. Also, you may have to debrief this situation within yourself because you may not be able to “process” the real issues with your professor.

-On to the heart of your concerns: The discrimination. What you have to know and probably do is that your professor’s behavior has zero to do with you personally. I know from the behaviors of my somewhat racist Jewish grandparents (I’m sorry… it was true!) and the fascinating discussions with my students in the Deep South where cultural tensions still run high, often, these reactions are deep-seated and instinctive. The behavior that you describe in a diverse public classroom, however, is inexcusable, regardless of personal beliefs. Students should be comfortable, regardless of  clothing/ appearance (within the Student Handbook rules, if there are any…) or your race, religion, etc.

Whether or not you’ve resolved the grade issue, you need to express your concerns to a division/department chair. I would say, “I have been in X class. I admit that I’ve been struggling and my grade is not as strong as I would like. My experience has been unusual and uncomfortable because my professor seems very nervous around me. I realize this is a serious accusation, but my prof’s behavior (describe your experience and be specific) when we’ve interacted makes me question if there is something about my appearance or my ethnicity/race that bothers him/her.”

The chair may ask what outcome you seek. If you met with the prof over the grade issue, which is the ideal, then you could say that you would like the chair to speak with the prof and look into the matter. If you didn’t meet with the prof, say, “I’m between a C and a D by one point. As I said, I’ve been struggling, but I can’t help but make a connection between the way the prof has treated me and this one point difference.”

Remember: The interpersonal issue–bad as it is–and the grade problem are likely going to be treated separately. The division/department chair will hopefully speak to the prof. Discrimination is a serious accusation and it should be investigated, particularly to see if the prof has had similar complaints.

Some other options:

-You could tell the division chair that you would like a Student Affairs officer involved. You can go to the Student Affairs administrator independently, but there is a hierarchy on a college campus, and you want to respect the hierarchy as much as you can. People will take you more seriously if you do.

-If you’ve read my other posts, you know that I recommend the counseling center a lot. Speaking with a campus counselor would enable you unload your thoughts, and this is another person on campus who would know about the situation.

-Your Student Senate may be able to help you file a formal grievance, or certainly you can do this yourself. The Student Handbook or your Student Affairs office should be able to help. Hopefully you would not have to go that far.

I hope you achieve resolution on the grade issue, as well as your concerns about this professor. And, of course, I agree with you that appearance has no bearing on the way someone lives their life. This is an incredibly challenging situation. I know it is going to sound cliche, though I mean this sincerely: Be reflective about the interpersonal dynamic and the academic piece. They will both offer you huge growth opportunities far beyond college.

I wish you well.





  1. Great, well-reasoned answer. I hope he appreciates the effort you put into your response.

    • Patrick, thank you for commenting. This was a challenging one, for sure. I wanted to make sure I tackled everything… and I bet I still missed some things.

    • I feel like students don’t understand the weight that their claims place on us. On a whim, they make accusations – they feel entitled, barely can believe that maybe, possibly their work isn’t that good. This generation would rather blame than take responsibility for their own work.

      • With the situation I mentioned, what I didn’t say was that this happened on my last day before I was going to have a C-section with my son two days later. So, I could not have been in a more physically and hormonally weakened state. I remember when the call came in. I was devastated. Beyond that, I had to spend hours that night writing up my justification and showing all of my grading of this student’s work. No one really took the claim seriously because my record has been exemplary, but because the student had complained so far up the ladder, there was a ton of documentation. It was not the way I wanted to end that term. :-(

        • That stinks, Ellen. At least it turned out okay. You shouldn’t have had to deal with the stress so close to your section. Hopefully it’s all good now. :-)

          • Yes, fortunately that it didn’t go anywhere and my son just turned five :-) .

  2. @chattyprof – we have all be in situations where students aren’t pleased with grades they have received and it is tricky if said student makes an accusation of “foul play”. No one wants to be accused of discrimination, especially when it is baseless. Students need to be ready to make their case as you suggest. No one wants to be in this position, teacher or student, but there is a reason students find themselves there… minimal effort, or not following directions or missing the point. I love what you wrote in your letter and the advice you provide for students to come in a less combative tone and bring evidence. I say the same thing when report cards are distributed. They shouldn’t track me down at the end of the day. They should cool off. Write me an email to set up an appointment and they should be prepared to show me why the grade is inaccurate. I don’t want to hear, “why did you fail me?” I didn’t fail anyone, the student’s work didn’t meet standards and therefore there wasn’t a passing grade. It is NEVER personal. The work and the growth and progress is what is graded… By senior year, I can’t look at “effort” as part of the grade. We need to assume effort as a part of what serious students contribute

    • Hi, Starr,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I totally agree with what you are saying about the effort issue and also owning responsibility. Even without a discrimination element, I certainly get that all the time: “You gave me that grade.” There seems to be a disconnect that we don’t draw cards or throw darts to figure it out–there IS a connection between the quality of the work and set standards.

      In this student’s case, I can empathize on the discrimination piece, even without necessarily attaching that to the grade issue. Let’s face it: Faculty are human beings. But some of us come with “cultural baggage.” Heck, it may not even be cultural baggage: Sometimes, we are notified of sex offenders in our class or we may have students who just trigger us in a particular way. I could easily see a faculty member acting equally uncomfortable around any type of student, though I am NOT saying the behavior is justified. But I do leave room that it can happen and that this student’s perceptions could be correct in that the prof felt uncomfortable–for whatever reason.

      I’d love to know if the student addresses the situation. I hope so. It will be powerful and important for the future, in my opinion.

      I’m glad we are connected, Starr! Thank you for this thoughtful comment!!!


      • I’m glad we connected too. Seems we can be great resources to each other. So thank you for sharing.

  3. To the student: I admire your courage in asking for help.
    It is a tough situation and it seems you are trying to stay clam and level headed before proceeding.
    If nothing else, that (keeping a calm level head) may be something you can take away from this experience, for the rest of your life.

    As for a solution:
    Unless there is either physical or previous evidence of the professor discriminating, it would probably be very difficult to prove.
    So it would require some serious thought before you went ahead with those kinds of acusations.
    If you can’t prove it, it may cause a lot of trouble for you after wards, whether you are right or wrong.
    It’s sad but true.
    I say it’s sad because if the professor is discriminating, and getting away with it; well that’s sad, and it does happen in our society.
    A good idea would be speaking to a counsellor and explore your own feelings and mind talk first.
    Often, when people feel something, it’s more about what’s going on inside yourself, as opposed to what the other person said or did.
    This may be another growth opportunity for you.

    I try to look forward and hopefully find solutions.
    One solution may be to ask, “Is there anything I can do to make up the one point?”
    I don’t live in America but I often hear about extra credit.
    Maybe you could ask how you can gain a point via extra credit.
    Maybe another project or assignment.
    Please excuse me if I’m badly off track here.

    Well done again for expressing yourself in a constructive mannner.
    Just take a little time to clear your own feelings and head before you proceed.

    • Hi, Daniel,

      I really appreciate your thoughts and it sounds like a lot of our advice was very much on-target. If the student were to go to the division chair, the student could request that the concerns be confidential, but ask that the matter is investigated. I think that would be reasonable without any kind of fallback on the student.

      Your idea about the extra credit is also perfectly valid. It does happen in some instances, as does the bump-up of one point if a student is between two grades. Profs often take these things on a case-by-case basis.

      Thank you so much for commenting.


      • Thanks for your reply Ellen.
        I think you make a good point requesting that the concerns be confidential.
        Something I missed.
        A very interesting case :)

  4. A wonderful, thorough answer to a really tricky situation. This is complex because of the layers of both the grade and the potential discrimination.
    There’s not much I would add, except to reinforce that sometimes that one point can make all of the difference. There has to be a cutoff somewhere. Like you, Ellen, I look hard to see if there is anything else that can sway the math, but sometimes there just isn’t. It is difficult for some students to understand that college grades are seldom based on “effort” or even “learning” if that learning can’t be demonstrated. It’s human nature to want to find a reason behind the less than desirable grade.
    Bravo for tackling this difficult situation in a way that helps both the student and the rest of us to explore our thinking.

    • Vicki,

      Thanks so much, as always. I had this comment on Twitter: “When in doubt on the border you bump the student up because there is error in measurement…. O = T + E.” I have a tough time with that because if there is strong alignment between the objectives and assessment, the measurement should accurately reflect what the student is receiving. What do you think?

      In nearly 100% of the cases, when I see the student’s final grade, I believe that grade for the subject is correct. I agree with you. Sometimes the math needs to stand and the student needs to retake the class.

      Look forward to our next interaction!


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