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Justice and Mercy 

by Dana Mackenzie

      Bob McLeod was the oldest mathematics professor in the Ohio college where I taught. He passed sixty years of age and thirty years of teaching at more or less the same time, and the rest of the math department observed the occasion with the only present we could think of giving him - a college tie. Tall, formal, and reserved, he stood in front of his classes like an American Gothic figure. In conversation, it seemed to take an effort of will for him to speak: the words would come out one by one, careful and precise and ending with a full stop. Teaching a one-hour lecture must have been, for him, like a turtle running a steeplechase. From what I heard from the students, it wasn't any more pleasant for them. The dryness of his lectures was outdone only by the severity of his grading.

      Thirty years of teaching had left Bob with few illusions about student nature. While the rest of the faculty, in Lake Wobegon fashion, seemed convinced that all the students at our midwestern college were above average, McLeod judged them according to the same standards he had used for their parents--and, by those standards, half the students were bound to receive a grade of C, D, or F. These letters were decidedly unpopular with the students of Generation X, who avoided enrolling in his classes whenever possible.

      Like the other young teachers in the department, I subscribed more to the Lake Wobegon view, seeing our students as budding scholars who would surely, with a little more nourishment and a little less pruning, blossom into true mathematicians. The nourishment we offered was a new course in mathematical reasoning. In theory, it would turn our majors into independent thinkers instead of passive note-takers. The proof of our theory was to be the "Senior Exercise." In place of the old comprehensive exam after the senior year, we believed that math majors should demonstrate their newly conferred independence by presenting an oral report based on library research. As the new mathematical reasoning course became the norm for our majors, we expected to raise our standards for passing gradually higher.

      The system worked well enough for a couple years to sustain our Lake Wobegon fantasy. Some students wowed us, others barely squeaked by, but everybody passed. In the third year, though, our new evaluation system was put to the test. Alex, a handsome, red-headed kid with mischievous eyes, was above average, all right - in confidence, charm, and laziness. Alex missed most of his meetings with his advisor, who was supposed to help him prepare his presentation, but promised that everything would be ready come October 31.

      Alex gave his lecture in the only attractive classroom in the math department's basement bunker. A converted lounge, it had wood-panelled walls and space for only twenty people. For most of the student presentations, the lack of space didn't matter - the room was big enough to accommodate the six faculty members in the department and a half dozen or a dozen of the student's close friends. But on the evening of Alex's presentation, the lobby was as crowded as for a theatrical premiere. Most of the waiting audience consisted of Alex's fraternity brothers. Five minutes before curtain time, Alex's advisor unlocked the door to the classroom. The fraternity brothers crowded in; those who couldn't find chairs leaned against the back wall. The room began to heat up, and somebody opened the windows to let in the cool Halloween evening air.

      It took Alex fifteen minutes to get through his "lecture," which consisted mostly of wisecracks. As I recall, Alex had written an freshman level computer program - a program to figure out the day of the week of any date. After he explained how the program worked, Alex took dates suggested by his fraternity brothers and converted them to days of the week. July 4, 1776 was a Thursday. The brothers were impressed. After half an hour of examples like this, they applauded, and slapped high fives with him as they filed out of the classroom.

      After the students had departed, the room seemed chilly and quiet. Finally the chairman started the conversation. "Did you tell him this wasn't substantive enough for a Senior Exercise?" he asked the advisor. "I told him. Heck, this was an assignment in his freshman computer science class." "Did Alex do anything in his project that he didn't talk about tonight?" inquired another professor. "Not that I know about. I think he just read two pages about the method in a book and wrote the code." "There's no mathematics in this project more advanced than dividing by seven," I pointed out. "This is exactly why we agreed to the tougher standards for the Senior Exercise," seconded another. "If we pass Alex, the standards mean nothing."

      Bob McLeod didn't say anything, as usual, but the vote was six to nothing. Alex had failed his first attempt, and would have to take an old-fashioned comprehensive exam in the spring.

      Six months later, it was the same story. Good-natured, charming Alex just could not be persuaded to take his "comps" seriously. His advisor was worried. Together, the six of us wrote the easiest comprehensive exam we could devise, heavily weighted towards introductory courses, with problems no harder than the computer program he had written. We decided we would only require a score of 50 percent to pass. And we held our breath.

      Alex himself was unfazed by the test. There were no tears as he turned it in. "That was one tough exam!" he grinned, almost conspiratorially, as if to say: I know the rules. You're supposed to scare me. Then you're supposed to pass me.

      The six math professors remained behind in our gloomy fortress and graded his work. Each teacher graded each problem separately, no one saying a word until we had all finished, so that we would not influence each other's judgement. Then we gathered in the reading room to tally up the scores and to second-guess ourselves. We had given him grades ranging from 41 to 48 percent. Once again we looked over his answers. With the grim determination of scholars analyzing a text in some long-forgotten language, we scrutinized his confused scribblings, trying to discern whether, just maybe, he had written A but had _meant to say_ B, which might be worth a couple more points of partial credit ... It was a futile struggle. Every one of us knew in his heart that this was not a passing exam. Now, facing each other around the oak table in the reading room, with the late afternoon sun slanting through the blinds and beckoning us home to dinner, we had to decide what to do about Alex.

      It felt like the weightiest decision in the world. At our college, a student who failed to graduate with his class faced an undeniable social stigma. What would it mean to Alex if we told him he couldn't graduate? How would he explain it to his fraternity brothers? What would it mean to his family? Maybe his grandmother had bought a new dress for his commencement. Probably his parents had made plane reservations. Alex was a student that some of us genuinely liked, and nobody wanted to see him fail.

      Back and forth went the debate. Alex had not measured up to our Lake Wobegonian expectations. On the other hand, should we really keep him from graduating just because he came up two points short? It wasn't just the two points, some replied--it was his whole attitude, the fact that he didn't even try. But why not give the kid a break? Surely we had made our point. What good would it do to tell him to try again next fall? Wouldn't we just find ourselves in the same quandary? Yes, but it was a matter of principle. This was push coming to shove. This was the time to prove we were serious about raising our standards.

      After all the arguments had been argued, the six of us were still sitting around the table, no closer to a consensus than before. Finally, we took a vote. Alex's advisor abstained. Two of us voted to pass Alex. Two, including me, voted to fail him. All heads turned to Bob McLeod, who had said little during the debate, giving away no clue to his intentions. The American Gothic farmer in the neat coat and tie had kept his own counsel until the last, not attempting to change anybody's mind. Still, it seemed obvious to me which way he would vote. Bob spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully, his face betraying no inner conflict, his voice soft but unwavering, as if he were reading from the Bible: "In this case, I think we should choose to temper justice with mercy."

      After that, there wasn't much more to say. After an hour of debate in a closed room, we were eager to get out, out into the sunshine, or home to dinner. The chairman stopped off in his office to fill out a form for the dean, reporting that the mathematics department had approved Alex for graduation. I went back to my office in shock, certain that something important had happened, something I could learn a great deal from, but not quite sure how to decipher it.

      A few months later, McLeod was involved in another closed-doors debate, even more sensitive than the one before. The same spring that he had become Alex's secret benefactor, McLeod had flunked ten students in a calculus class of twenty. The students were outraged, and one of them had organized the others to protest the unreasonable grades. In an inspired move, they bypassed the faculty subcommittee delegated to deal with such things and marched straight to the president's office.

      This was not the first time, in seventeen years as president of the college, that Phil Jordan had heard grumbling about McLeod's grades. Jordan was also an old-timer, a historian by specialty and, even more, a shrewd businessman, whose proudest accomplishment had been an unblemished record of balanced budgets. He knew who paid the college's bills, and he had once lectured the faculty on the need to be more consumer-conscious. Not long after the students paid their visit to Jordan, McLeod received an edict via the academic dean: change the "F" grades to "Withdrew Passing." But here, McLeod did an inconvenient, not very consumer-friendly thing. He refused.

      Over the summer, the academic dean, demonstrating her stubborn Midwestern spirit even though she had lived there only two years, took matters into her own hands and worked out a deal with the protesting students: if they took the course again, their old grades would be wiped from their transcripts. In the fall, the matter ended up before a committee I served on, the Academic Standards Committee. We were not to reconsider the dean's decision. That, she assured us, was irrevocable, a done deal. The question was whether the same opportunity should be extended, for the sake of fairness, to all the students in the class, even the ones who had not protested their grades.

      The committee worried about the precedent this would set: did it mean a student who wasn't happy with a grade could keep taking a course, shopping around for a professor who would give him the grade he wanted? The dean assured us that this case was not a precedent, but an "exception." McLeod had a history, you see... I thought about Alex at that point, and wondered how I could tell the committee that they should not always believe in reputations. The "exception" argument seemed just a bit too convenient for the dean, a good way of covering up for a poorly considered decision. But the rest of the committee seemed to buy it, and I bit my tongue. The committee probably would have considered Alex's story to be irrelevant to the case at hand. They agreed to send a vaguely worded letter to the other students inviting them to discuss their grades with the dean if they were dissatisfied.

      After that, there may have been a gentleman's agreement between the administration and the math department chairman that McLeod would not be expected to teach introductory calculus again. I heard also that the student who had organized the protest re-took the course with another teacher, worked very hard, and got an A.

      McLeod retired the following year, one year earlier than expected. Everyone knew about the college's early retirement option, and lots of the older faculty members joked about it, or talked seriously about it, or even chose it. The odd thing was that McLeod had never said a word about early retirement until the day he announced his decision. We had just assumed he would always be there, sturdy and reliable as a fence post until the day the wind blows it over.

      At each commencement, it was the college's custom to bestow honorary degrees upon retiring professors. This was often a climax of the graduation ceremony, a time when students and faculty alike would give a rousing ovation to the beloved elder statesmen of the campus, frequently upstaging the more famous guests who had been flown to campus to give the commencement address. But McLeod again did a not very convenient thing: he refused to receive an honorary degree or even attend the ceremony. I didn't ask him why, but I thought I understood. If the college treated him behind closed doors as an incompetent, he was not going to let it assuage its conscience by lauding him in public.

      Teaching, especially the grading and evaluating part of it, is a constantly changing balance of justice and mercy. Every teacher must learn to balance the scales in his or her own way, and with every student the balance is a little bit different. Before the McLeod incidents, I thought the scales balanced the same way for everybody, and I would not have acknowledged a difference between showing mercy and selling out. It's still a line I cannot draw with any reliability, but I can now name a few landmarks between which it must pass. Mercy is giving one student a chance, one time. Selling out is erasing history for a whole class of twenty. Mercy is looking deep into your own heart and the heart of the person whose fate is in your hands, knowing the two are inextricably bound. Selling out is deciding on convenience and hearsay. Mercy is the flip side of justice. Selling out is no coin at all.

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