20 November, 2013

He Couldn't Let Go

It was all so bizarre. I'd say surreal, but it was very much real - reality unfolding with all of its usual brute force. And I think of it every semester as exams approach - like now.

It began as your typical final exam in your typical sophomore-level course taught by a typical professor. One by one my students finished, and although faculty are required to allow students the full two and half hours of the exam period, rarely do I have a student take longer than 90 minutes in this course.

That was pretty much the case this time, but I had one student who was lingering. The next to the last student finished a little before the 90 minute mark, but this student kept fidgeting and sighing and occasionally writing.

We arrived at the two hour mark, and there was more fidgeting and more sighing and occasionally more writing.

Finally the required time was up. Had there been an indication that the exam was harder than I planned, I would have allowed more time, but all others had been finished for over an hour. I moved toward the student's desk and asked for the exam paper.


Wait, what?! I began to use my command voice. Calm, assertive, louder.


I reached down to take the exam from the desk.


But in the movement to keep it from me, I thought I saw a crib sheet, and the reluctance to hand it in now made sense. The student had stayed too long, and as the only focus for my proctoring, the student had no way to dispose of the evidence without detection.

I grabbed the exam, but the student refused to let go. I can state unequivocally that this was the first time in over 40 years of teaching at the college level that I have had a student refuse to turn in an exam.

Now we were in a tug of war over the test booklet. I'm sure you're forming a mental image of this, and if it weren't so sad, it would be hysterical. It was getting louder as I alternated between counseling the student about what was in his best interest and trying to command a surrender of the materials.

Although late in the afternoon, a few colleagues emerged from their offices upon hearing the commotion and asked if I need help or campus safety. I explained the situation to them and asked someone to call for two campus safety officers to respond.

Now the student started to panic and stood to exit the room - still hanging on to the exam. As was I. Since I had not let go, the student was basically dragging me toward the stairs which were only about ten feet from the classroom door. And a new image just popped in your head, I bet - exam tearing in half, me being dragged down the stairs, etc. At some point I knew I had to let go, and when I did, the student took off running with the exam - down the stairs and out of the building, exam still very much in hand.

I received a tearful and apologetic phone call not too long after that. It didn't much matter. With a zero on the final, there was no way to pass - which was what I was telling the student earlier. With an F on the final, it was still possible to pass but not with a zero. He had done well on all of his earlier work. If there were cheating, of course, there would be an automatic F, but that was yet to be determined.

The student blamed it all on having taken too much Adderall to get "up" for the exam. Perhaps, but if there were a crib sheet in the exam, it would have been evidence of cheating. As a student-athlete, the student would have been thrown off his team, and the student quite rationally decided that this was a fate worse than the zero and the resulting F for the course. Even the admission of drug abuse was not as problematic as cheating for this student.

It didn't have to be, but it's a day I'll never forget. I try not to judge my students, and this was a student with whom I had a good relationship. That they sometimes do foolish things doesn't make them fools. It just means that their education is not yet complete; I know mine isn't. At the same time, one's sense of honor ought to be stronger by the time one is twenty. Whom do I ask about that?