Mercy, Justice, and the Academic Effects of Covid

Last January, a new professor wrote with a little conundrum. A student scored a 27% on his final, realized that he might fail the course as a result, and called the professor three weeks later to plead for mercy - a second chance - so he could pass the course. The student explained that he had been sick, his dog had been sick, his aunt had been sick, and he thought it would be enough to write a good term paper, so he didn’t really study for the final.[1] Would the professor let him study more thoroughly for the exam, take it again, and let that result stand? What, the compassionate new professor asked, should I do?

Give him the F he earned, I replied.

I wasn’t quite that blunt. I commended his compassion. I told him it’s his call, since he is the professor of record. But still, if the student earned an F, let his grade show it. There are practical reasons for this, but the theological basis is simple. God is both compassionate and just. He is merciful, but he does not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6-7). For the Christian parent and leader, discipline is essential. We love people too much to let them think that irresponsibility is “no problem,” that every error will be forgiven and the consequences erased.

Actually, consequences rarely disappear; they simply shift to other people. In this case, student irresponsibility transfers to the professor. The second chance requires the professor to write a new test, arrange for the student to take it, then grade it, and take the necessary steps to change his final grade. The professor will be fortunate indeed if the process is completed within three hours and with fewer than ten emails.

But there are other considerations. The consequences of Covid and online education continue to rattle through the academic ecosystem. The greatest issue is the shift to an asynchronous education. Students listened to lectures whenever it suited and, mindful of all their disruptions, profs began to let students turn in their assignments whenever it suited too. We also live in the age of anxiety (possibly caused by social media) and the age of distraction (probably caused by social media and the barrage of distracting text/email notifications). Students were too anxious about their work to finish it, too distracted to concentrate to the end.

Professors everywhere noticed the surge in urgent requests for mercy, for extensions, commonly presented days after an assignment was due or graded. For several seasons, faculty showed great patience and compassion. At length we realized that the virtue of compassion had become the vice of indulgence. Instead of showing patience, we were enabling irresponsibility. Further, when a student claims he can’t turn in a paper due to anxiety, we feel compassion, but we also know that we don’t relieve anxiety by permitting late work, we increase it, as the burden of unfinished tasks lingers and lingers.

So we record a D or an F when students earn them, even in grad school.

Why? First, we build compassion into our courses. We have office hours and tutors and an easy pathway to an incomplete in case problems arise. We ask one thing “Tell us you’re in trouble before you miss the paper deadline or fail the test.”

Second, let’s face it, when a student earns a 27% on a test that starts with a handful of multiple-choice questions, followed by several “can’t miss” questions, the student probably learned next to nothing during the semester.

Third, professors should not drop unprepared people on the businesses, hospitals, schools, and churches that need qualified personnel. One element of preparation is the ability to show up and perform one’s tasks well and in a timely manner.

Fourth, teachers have an obligation to attend to their most strategic tasks. For a seminary professor, that includes preparing future classes, public lectures, and sermons, as well as researching and writing articles and books. The procession of time-consuming requests thwarts the work of preparation and research in every field. Finally, teachers have families and friends who deserve their calm attention.

When I first became a professor, my department chair, a profoundly compassionate man, told me that when the semester ends and grades are in, courses are closed. That gives us peace, he said, and it teaches our students responsibility. His thinking was biblical. God never says people have infinite time to get things right. Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on if a town ignores their message (Matt. 10). Paul told Titus to warn a contentious person once and twice and then to reject them (Tit. 3:10-11). So we are compassionate when unforeseen problems arise, especially in students who have been faithful. But when someone writes a month after taking the final to say “My canary died and a distant uncle died, so I decided not to study for the final. Can I have another chance?” we should reply, “Yes, sign up for class next year.”

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.

[1] Details have been modified to ensure anonymity. If you think I’m writing about you, the alignment of details accidental, even as the substance remains.


Dan Doriani