Prof. John Kenneth Mensah

Senior Lecturer

Dept: Chemistry
Chemistry Department
Private Mail Bag
Kumasi, Ghana

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Research Areas/Interests

Bio-organic Chemistry where research interest is at the intersection of chemistry with biology....~more

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Just One Mark Sir

Hers was a rather feeble knock on my door but it triggered my usual response.

“Come on in.” I belted across the room.

She entered the office, and tried clumsily to close the door after her. I strongly objected. As a rule, I talk to all female students in my office with the door wide open.  My method is corny but it has unparalleled efficacy in keeping adherents out of avoidable trouble.

She refused to sit and with her head bowed, she muttered a feeble “Good morning Sir.”

“What’s your story?” I requested without bothering to respond to her greetings.

“What story?” she responded with the common perplexity that afflicts nearly all students when I ask them my trademark question.

“The story of you in my office at this momentous time and with your head bowed as if the weight of the entire university is hoisted on your shoulders. What’s cooking in your pot? What’s driving your shyness?” What’s stirring in your heart? What is causing you to lose sleep? Who are you? What can I do for you? The answer to these questions will be your story!”

She spoke with nervous intensity and as she got into her story -one with a stubborn recurrence- her voice became tinged with sadness.

“I’m in your first year Organic Chemistry CHEM 153 class. You gave me a 39 on my result and I am here to ask you why you gave me 39?

“Really!” I responded with mock shock and proceeded to recite my tried and tested slogans.

“I gave you 39 because you scored 39. A 39-that’s what you earned. A 39-that’s all there is. A three nine, nothing more, nothing less!”

“But Sir, since 39 is almost a 40, I am just wondering if you could add the one mark to round it up to a 40. Out of the depths of your heart. It’s just one extra mark, Sir. You can simply make it 40 out of kindness.”

“Listen carefully to me because what I am telling you now comes from the bottom of my bottomless heart. What do you think constitutes the borderline for magnanimity and who is the final arbiter to decide whether 39, 38, 37 or even 35 should be converted to a 40 or not? Towards what end? For the sake of lightening the load on the poor listless, unmotivated Ghanaian child who thinks the university is just an expansion of high school. Shouldn’t an extension of the same argument you’re advancing force me to change a mark of 30 to 40 to brighten the smile on a lazy student’s face? In an overall broader sense, why not argue as some have done in the past that a perfect lecture attendance should qualify for a pass mark. Contrary to popular student beliefs, nothing about exam score is that simple. And adding just one extra mark to an academic board certified and approved result is not as simple as it appears to you.”

Yes I concede that many of my positions on exams scores are actually self-gratifying and simply not credible as real university policies. I maintain this complex view on exam scores because it presents me with many openings for critical condemnation of university exams policies. Oh what a delight it is for me to rail against the machine (aka the University), criticize the system (aka College of Science) and fulminate against the man (aka the Vice-Chancellor) about everything exams. And the best part of my criticisms are that the large scope of exams score complexities easily releases me from the burden and the obligation that compels a good critic to offer viable alternatives to existing policies. I think my sense of my own importance in this institutional behemoth has been boosted by my many unbridled denouncements of all the processes associated with the compilation, discussion and approval of exams score.

But there is another angle to my self-righteous posture. In this perennial post-exam encounter with students, neither the substance of one’s position nor the language of its delivery was the point. Student rumor mongers prefer narrative over truth. The more sensational the narrative, the better its impact in their alternate world filled with grievances against lecturers. Within the students’ rumor mill the laundry list of reasons that dominate the headlines has a very special contempt for exam-related cases of lecturer cruelty to students. The key point here is for me to avoid pitfalls that will permit worried students to add another nail to the crammed coffin filled with skewed narratives about lecturer meanness and lecturer insensitivity. I plowed on nonetheless.

 “It’s not just one mark that I will adding.” I continued. “Within this one mark is the encapsulation of my hope and aspiration for a batch of students who will rescue Organic Chemistry from clumsy amateurs. The one mark embodies lecturer support for motivated students who assiduously walk the track of scientific, personal, and professional development. That one mark constitutes the facilitation of the academic and degree progress of such students and it signals the intellectual attainment that increases the likelihood that such students will persist against all odds to degree completion.”

I was on beautiful roll, warming myself up with a list of the many trite rhetoric of academic speech but unavoidably, I was also exposing the crux of academic myth.

 “This one mark denotes the boundary of a good student from a bad student. Serves as a barrier for acceptable results and unacceptable failure. This mark will enable your seamless transition towards..”

Then she interrupted me in mid-sentence as I was just speeding through all roadblocks that inhibits one's conviction of the sense of his own bull-shit. Against all good reason, her interruption of my mini-speech to state the obvious was a profound irritation.

“Sir, with all due respect, it’s just one mark. It wouldn’t have hurt anyone if you had awarded it and it wouldn’t have cost you any…”

 “You’ve not been listening to me, have you?” I thundered and continued my sanctimoniously pious preaching.

“I will not lend an aura of legitimacy to the era of inflated grades by giving you this one mark. My grade distributions are religiously patterned along the normal distribution curve which means that often grades are inflated just to get the optics right. In your specific case, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I mean to the basic foundation, I awarded you more marks than you actually earned by merit. And that’s the irrevocable, irreversible fact whether you accept it or not. Let me tell me this, young lady, your feelings have nothing to do with your exam score. That’s the facts, just the facts, lady!”

I use to think high-mindedly that I derive my power and my durability from my self-adjudged truthfulness and my self-perceived authenticity but I knew that my nuanced but harsh explanation has failed woefully to trigger empathy in her over what I consider to be the raw deal that perennially confronts me after exams. Yes, a flawed deal whose outcome is always a “lose-lose” situation. It seems she only sees the appearance of cruelty from my decision and that probably supports students assertion that meanness has triumphed over compassion among university staff. She wasn’t going to budge.

“Can I see the raw score then and be satisfied in my mind and heart that I had 39 and not 40?”

“What?!” I snapped.

There’s no denying that discourse and policy on exam grades have sometimes grown in pointless complexity-aspects of it has developed into an offense against logic while other parts have morphed into an insult to efficiency and an affront to academic justice. Consider these example. Students who fail the re-sit exam often get a complementary 40% from Biblical enthusiastic lecturers who proudly quote Moses’ biblical admonition to Pharaoh to: “let my people go!” Students who re-sit a lab course are eventually graded only on their score of the written exam. But to see your raw score without filling official documents to challenge the final score will not pass muster for me. It will be a logistical nightmare to have more than 200 students per course lined up in front of my office waiting for a chance to see their raw scores. Perhaps the university has a detailed written policy that clarifies this scenario in one of its many color-coded RECORDERS.

“I cannot show you the raw score until you file official documents to challenge your grade. You know that right?”

“I have heard students who take such official remedial steps by challenging their scores suffer adverse consequences when the official check of the results reveals a score lower than the marks that triggered the dispute.”

“Yeah, that’s life. The Americans say that life is a bitch! And they are right on this count. Young lady, you can’t have things both ways. Can’t have your cake and eat it. Can’t fry your eggs for breakfast and expect chickens to hatch out of it.”

 “Sir, I am willing to do anything, anything just to get this one point.”

What? A cross-section of students always searches for an ulterior motive to lecturer positions and are often convinced that a secret cynicism lurked beneath lecturer lofty appeals to conscience and principle as well as underlie lecturer fascinations on the purity of their courses. Recent media allegations of “grade for sex” has put me on edge, has heightened my defensive impulses against anything that might be misconstrued as sexual advances and has forced me to steadfastly abandon any appearance, however subtle, of favoring female students.

Suddenly, her statement about her willingness to do anything for the one mark struck me like a bolt of lightning and angered me. As a matter of fact, I have been steadily growing weary of the air of national suspicion that now undergirds inter-personal and professional relationship with female students ever since the BBC did a “hit-job” at Legon. And this interaction with this student was the climax that uncorked all my bottled-up emotions. I tried to give a dignified response but my emotions got the better of me.

“Yes! That’s it! You caught me right on!” I am planning to use this one mark as a leverage to get into your pants!”

 I proclaimed without any sense of shame and any inhibition to my worse impulses.

“Look at me! Old, crinkled, baldheaded and pot-bellied. Utterly unattractive! You are my only chance of getting laid. I am just a horny sexual pervert looking to capitalize on your pristine innocence by dangling one point as a bait. Sex for grades-this time for just one mark! Ridiculous!”

“Sir, please that thing is not what I had in mind at all when I made this statement. What I am really trying to say is that I need this one mark so badly that..

My interruption was swift and it cemented the good reasons that educators have when they lump poor grades and lack of effort together as Siamese twins.

“This is a good lesson to you at this early part of your academic career.  That you’ll be much more dedicated to your books in this and in future semesters. That’s my hope. If awarding this one mark legitimizes your poor study practices—refusal to practice on problem sets, lackadaisical approach to lectures and lack of motivation towards your academic goals—then I will come to regret the outcome if I pass you now.”

Perhaps I was banking on the hope that word will get around that I’ll not even give them one extra mark to tip the scales in their favor. Yes, word will certainly get around and I have to do everything to encourage it because that stance is a good thing. But experience has shown that many students at the academic borderline fail to accede to this advice. Consequently, I’ll be badly mistaken if I think that, this example can serve as a bulwark against students lack of motivation and students’ listlessness in my courses. The argument—it will motivate students to perform better in future exams—has a superficial logic to it. Assuming, of course, that the student is dedicated to the singular pursuit of academic excellence. That’s never true. The rhetoric is all a self-fulfilling narrative that reinforces its own importance.

“How did you study for the exam?” I intoned changing the direction of the conversation and steering it from its focus on my lack of charity to an emphasis on her low effort at academic studiousness.

“I had no knowledge of Organic Chemistry from high school. I attended all your lectures but you teach so fast that I was unable to grasp the basic understanding of the concepts and so I fell behind in my studies and never recovered before the exams.”

I felt a certain sympathy for her. But I remained resolute in my determination. I wasn’t going to give her the one mark that she wants. My reputation for stubbornness precedes me to classes. Along my career, I have developed a strong dislike for students who are: whiners, complainers, tribalists, misogynists, loafers, idlers and idle-chatterers, slackers, gamers and sports gamblers, busy-bodies, procrastinators, religious zealots, opportunistic hustlers, football fanatics, infantile social/political philosophers, anti-intellectual enthusiasts, social-media fascists, aluta fanatics, vandals without a cause, false prophets and NDC/NPP duopoly political ideologues. My dislike for plantain chip-addicts, roasted yam and "Koobi" addicts, and mobile-phone addicts are, however, mild. This list of dislikes is fretfully long and pretty much covers just about the entire student body. But that’s OK with me. It’s no good trying to conceal my dislikes because it’s common knowledge. Those dislikes helps me maintain my high academic airs as well. So my response to the student’s excuse was again swift and merciless.

“You know your reasons are just excuses peppered with familiar complains to explain away you lack of enthusiasm and your paltry effort for the course. I can’t stand whiners, particularly those who exaggerate the level of difficulty of the course material to scare others into abject submission to the power of low academic expectations and poor scholarly achievements. As you well know I don’t coddle this generation of over-sensitive, over-pampered and supercilious students so don’t take this track with me now.  There were TAs to assist you; smart class-mates to explains tough materials to your understanding and of course I am available to guide you outside the lecture hall. Why didn’t you avail yourself of these opportunities?”

I didn’t wait for her non-existing answer to my monologue. 

“Were you not told beforehand by continuing students that I will neither listen to you nor change your mark no matter what you say?”

“Yes I was told that my decision to see you will be a futile effort but then again you don’t always tell us what we want to hear in class, and I strongly appreciate it all the same. The way I see it, it’s a 50-50 scenario. So I decided to take a chance.”

“Listen, what is your name? Okay Miss _____, I am sorry I can’t change your score but I like your attitude. So sit your ass down for once this semester and study hard. Cut down on all the time you spend on religious activities and on the many unproductive social engagements to only once a week. Just study hard. Since a lecturer has to evaluate your knowledge for growth and for success, I think “kindness” should not define our relationship. I shouldn’t protect you from this competitive world of academia and industry by inflating your grades even if it is just one mark. You will not benefit in the long-run.”

But when all is said and done what this issue is all about is just one lousy mark. Just one mark. Damn, I thought. I could have given it to her and not suffer any professional and personal consequences. But I didn’t. For the purity of Chemistry! For the sake of fleeting academic standards and for all the self-serving reasons I summoned up to justify the rigidity of my stance. Just one! Holy God! I refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her desire to see her raw score. This lack of acknowledgement of her right to see her raw score justified any statement I made and validated all measures that I took to nullify her argument and to send her away without a sense of closure on why she had 39 and not 40. You’ll have to be a robot to be indifferent to her cause. When it came down to it, neither the veneer of process nor the façade of the redemptive academic rationale for my position can conceal the fundamental cruelty of my stance.

“Please Sir, I brought you a card as a token of my appreciation for the uncommon depths of your concern and the tender care that you display as well as for the high level of encouragement you offer during lectures. I am very appreciative of it.”

“Thank you.” I retorted mechanically, glad to be finally rid of her and thrilled to be free of her silent judgment of my implacable stance.

As she stretched her hand to give me the card, she lifted her head, made eye contact with me for once and smiled broadly. And her smile was gap-toothed.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is the work of fiction. No committees and sub-committees are needed to probe and double-check the contents. Thanks.

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