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The Strangest Moment of My Teaching Career

Here is an interesting question that I sometimes get asked, which brought to mind one of the strangest things that has ever happened to me in my now 34 years of teaching at the university level.

 

QUESTION:

As you teach your students the material, how do you handle those students with an evangelical or fundamentalist background that refuse to accept your findings?

 

RESPONSE:

This is a great question, and I was all set to answer it directly, when it suddenly brought to mind a *related* question that I’ll address first.  (I’ll save this specific question to answer in a later post.)  This other question is whether I’ve ever had parents of students from evangelical or fundamentalist background call me to complain about what I was teaching their children.   That must happen a lot, right?

As it turns out, the answer is no.  It never happens. Ssince I started teaching in 1984, I have never ever had a parent call to complain about what I teach — or about misleading their child, or promoting the doctrines of Satan, or anything else.  Never.   That seems weird, even to me, but it’s true.

In fact, in all these years I’ve only had one call from a concerned parent.  And it led to the weirdest moment of my career.

It was about 25 years ago.  It was the Spring semester, and I had been teaching my Introduction to the New Testament course with about 350 students.  I had six teaching assistants.  I would lecture to the class twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then on Fridays each teaching assistant would lead a small group discussion with their “recitations”:  the TA’s all had three recitations that met for an hour each, with about about twenty students per recitation.   The TAs were each responsible for doing the grading for their sixty students – midterm, final exam, weekly papers, and so on.

.  We had just finished the semester and posted the grades, and I got a distressed call from the mother of one of my students, a woman that I didn’t know (I hardly knew anyone in the class, since there were 350 of them and only one of me).   This mother had a thick Western North Carolina accent, and said “Dr. Ehrman, I just want to talk to you about my daughter in your course” (you have to imagine this with the accent).

“My daughter just received her grade, and she failed your course.  And that means she’s going to flunk out of college.   Dr. Ehrman, I’ve been askin’ Jesus that you would change her grade so she can pass.”

I told her I was sorry to hear that her daughter hadn’t passed the class, but I couldn’t simply change a grade because a parent would like me to; I couldn’t even change it if I myself wanted to.  It wouldn’t be fair to any of the other students or to the school itself.   I told her I wished I could.  And she said, “Dr. Ehrman, I’m just prayin’ to Jesus that you will reconsider and change her grade.”

We talked for a bit and it was a very sad situation indeed.  This middle aged woman ran a road side vegetable stand in western North Carolina for a living.  She had saved up her entire life to afford to send her daughter to college, and now, because she had failed the class she would be dismissed, no college degree.

My heart sank when I heard the tale, and I asked the woman to wait a second while I looked up the grades her daughter had gotten throughout the semester just to see what the deal was.   I got out the grading sheets, and saw that all together her daughter had received a final grade of 56 for the class.  She needed a 60 to get a D- and pass.

And so I got back on the phone and told her mother what the situation was, and repeated that I was very sorry but I couldn’t simply add four points because I wanted to do so.   And she repeated, “Dr. Ehrman, I’m just praying to Jesus that you will see it in her heart to change her grade.  It would mean so much to me and would allow her to stay in college.”  But I felt that there was nothing I could do, and told her I was very sorry.

It sounds harsh, but at the time, I didn’t see a legitimate way out.  Everyone wants to pass, of course, and every parent wants the best for their child.   Earning a college degree is very, very hard for some students, and some simply aren’t cut out for it.  For the system to work, there have to be standards, and if everyone would pass simply by showing up, that’s not fair to other students who do all the work and put in the hours and … and so on.   Not even prayers to Jesus could change that.

I was a bit upset about the whole thing, but didn’t see a legitimate solution.   I decided at least to look into it a bit more, to see what the fuller picture was with the student’s grades – what she got on her weekly papers (worth 30% of the grade), what she got on her midterm (another 30%), and on her final exam (40%), to see if I could figure out exactly what the problems had been.

And something occurred to me.  The teaching assistant this student had had was one of my best – really bright and destined to be a contributing New Testament scholar.  But he wasn’t very good at math.   And so I re-crunched the numbers he himself had provided for the student on his grading sheet.

He had miscalculated her grade.  He was off by four points.

I called the mother back and told her, “I don’t know what kind of prayer life you have, but…..


The Broader Significance(s) of Contradictions
If the Bible is Contradictory, How Can it Be Authoritative?

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Comments

  1. godspell  July 1, 2018

    That’s a very funny story.

    And, whatever prayer life she has, a very good mother, advocating for her child to get an education.

    And a good teacher, I might add.




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  2. jhague  July 1, 2018

    That’s a great story. I bet the mother was in tears!




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  3. cmdenton47  July 1, 2018

    Ah, “Jesus saved our home from the fire when the rest of the subdivision burned to the ground!”




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  4. Silver  July 1, 2018

    That seems to me to be a worrying situation. Do you not have a moderation procedure to check grades which are on the borderline? Did this episode cause you to recheck the maths of other candidates graded by this TA?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      Yup, I have a different system now. Never a math problem any more!




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  5. Wilusa  July 1, 2018

    Great story! I assume you told your teaching assistant what he’d almost caused? He must have been horrified!




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  6. epicurus
    epicurus  July 1, 2018

    I’ve heard of parents calling jr or senior high school teachers to complain about what they are teaching children, but it seems odd a parent would call a university prof. as the kid is supposed to be an adult now, going to college or university. I’m not in the US, maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe I just need to get out more.




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    • Eric  July 2, 2018

      Unfortunately, not anymore. They are called “helicopter parents.” Although a daughter failing out of college may be a justified reason, the prototypical helicopter parent calls to find out why an A- instead of an A. At the college level.

      I think cell phones have a lot to do with it.




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  7. NancyGKnapp  July 1, 2018

    The story had a happy ending. Some would say it was due to lucky coincidence.Some would say it was an answer to prayer. The Holy Spirit put it in your heart to check the figures. I have seen many such things over the years that defy explanation. It makes me wonder if sometmes we are on the same wave length with a higher consciousness.




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  8. jrhislb  July 1, 2018

    What the story does not tell is that she failed her next course instead.




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  9. rivercrowman  July 1, 2018

    A Bible question Bart. It’s about 1 Corinthians 11:27 (partaking of the Supper Unworthily). What do you think these brothers and sisters in Corinth were doing wrong that prompted Paul to write this verse? Thanks!




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      The wealthy folk were coming early and getting all the food and wine; poor folk were showing up later (they had to work) and getting nothing.




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      • HawksJ  July 2, 2018

        Bart, regarding the ‘supper’ referenced above, given your explanation (eating all the food and getting drunk), the event hardly seems to resemble any modern communion or “Lord’s Supper”, but instead more of what we’d call a ‘fellowship meal’.

        In your opinion, what type of ‘mea’’ was the writer referring to and how does it relate to the “Lord’s Supper”? Similarly, is the ‘Breaking of bread” in Acts 20:7 referring to a fellowship meal or the “Lord’s Supper”?




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 3, 2018

          More like a pot-luck than a sharing of a sip of grape juice and a wafer!




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          • HawksJ  July 3, 2018

            That’s what it sounds like, but my question is, were those events in any way associated with the ‘Lord’s Supper’?

            I’m particularly interested in your take on Acts 20:7, as a lot of churches base their weekly observation of it on this verse.




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          • Bart
            Bart  July 5, 2018

            Yes, their “Lord’s Supper” was a weekly meal they had together. Acts 20:7 speaks of “breaking bread,” but that usually simply means “havng a meal”




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  10. fishician  July 1, 2018

    Great story. Unrelated: I’m reading Orwell’s book 1984 again (I think he was off by about 40 years). In one passage he used the word “palimpsest!” I thought only you scholars used that word. Of course, he used it in reference to erasing and rewriting history, not just a document.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      Great book, and timely. I reread it three years ago, and so a play version in London.




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      • stevenpounders  July 7, 2018

        I saw the same London production of 1984 four years ago; and an odd thing happened in the middle of a scene. A cellphone started ringing in the row before, and the owner of the phone rudely answered and started a loud conversation as he walked out in front of me blocking my view. I looked up to scowl at the man and it was Stanley Tucci!

        I’ve always liked him as an actor, but he lost a bit of my respect that day.




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 8, 2018

          Youch!! I didn’t think the play was great (that’s when I saw it too) — but it was fun to see on stage. But Stanley Tucci?!? What was he thinking??




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  11. ardeare  July 1, 2018

    Such a great story. I’m impressed that she didn’t accept the first *no*. She was persistent.
    “Dr. Ehrman, I’ve been askin’ Jesus that you would change her grade so she can pass.”
    “Dr. Ehrman, I’m just prayin’ to Jesus that you will reconsider and change her grade.”
    “Dr. Ehrman, I’m just praying to Jesus that you will see it in your heart to change her grade. It would mean so much to me and would allow her to stay in college.”

    This is where I believe prayer has it’s power. It gave her the confidence to become the only parent to ever call you. It gave her the hope that she could make a positive change for her family. It gave her the courage to pursue her goals even though most would have quit after hearing the number 56. As it unfolded, it must have given her even greater faith and who’s to say, maybe a higher power is creditable for providing her with that extra nudge.




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  12. forthfading  July 1, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    That is an awesome story. I really enjoy hearing about your students and what it takes to become a true scholar. Could you share an interesting story about when you were a PhD student?

    Thanks




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  13. nichael  July 1, 2018

    What a great story.

    But I know what you mean. When I’ve had teaching jobs one of the worst parts of the job was listening to a truly sad, sometimes tearful, appeal to change a grade, when you know there’s _absolutely_ nothing you can do about.

    (Perhaps the only thing worst was having to sit there and listen, with a straight face, to what I knew was a completely –and obviously– BS excuse for a missed assignment or project, or a bad grade. The extra, most painful, twist came when it dawned on me that the excuse no doubt sounded just as transparently lame when I had used it ten years earlier.)




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  14. Franz Liszt  July 1, 2018

    When you have your classes with new students, what percent of them do you think know a little about you and your work already? I’ve always thought it strange that fundamentalists wind up in Bart Ehrman’s classroom without knowing who he is or that they will probably hear things that don’t mesh well with their faith. I’d imagine there’s at least some who’ve already read your popular books and maybe have a bone to pick.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      These days they almost all know something about me, and about what to expect from the class. Some conservative Christians take it because they want to challenge what they learn head on, but most want to hear a different side to the story.




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  15. ask21771  July 1, 2018

    Is agriculture still as important to Rome now as it was in ancient times




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking. People still need to eat!




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  16. stokerslodge  July 1, 2018

    Bart, a thought crossed my mind: is it possible the teaching assistant miscalculated the grades of other students also? Perhaps there was more than one miscalculation made by that same assistant, with serious consequences for some unfortunate student or students? Who is at fault here?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      Good questions! These day we have software that takes care of it all to prevent mistakes.




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  17. ask21771  July 1, 2018

    Why are cattle and sheep mentioned in the list of items in revelation 18: 12-13




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  18. anthonygale  July 1, 2018

    Is your grad student a Christian? Maybe they were all in cohoots to try to reconvert you.

    Seriously though, that is a fantastic story and it reminds me of a book I read called When God Winks. The author suggested that when you experience coincidences like that, it is God’s way of communicating to you (even though for some reason he doesn’t do so more directly). The rational side of me says that things like this will occur by chance. You must have taught thousands of students over the years, so thats plenty of rolls of the dice. But, for me at least, because I still have emotional inclinations to believe/want to believe, momemts like that make me skeptical of my skepticism.

    Do you ever doubt your athiesm when things like that happen?




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      Not at all. If God was concerned about grades, he would certainly be concerned about massive starvation.




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      • anthonygale  July 5, 2018

        Sadly, many people I went to school with cared much more about their grades than much else, including world hunger. They were too concerned about getting into grad/law/med school/the post grad program of their dreams/published. In some cases, I think it was just an ego/insecurity issue. Has anyone ever addressed the problem of suffering by suggesting God was an academic? Or a narcissist? Personally, the idea of a God who demands worship has always baffled me. Does an omnibenevolent being allow children to starve to death, make things right by allowing them eternal bliss that child molesters who accept Christ may also receive, all of whom ultimately share in the role of telling God how great he is for all eternity? It’s an odd utopia.

        Still though, that is an amazing story. I hope your student went on to great things and her mom is very proud of her.




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  19. Hon Wai  July 1, 2018

    It was a miracle. God answers the prayer of an earnest mother of humble background.
    As to university grades, I thought students always have at least one chance to resit, redo, resubmit materials for a failed module.




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    • Bart
      Bart  July 2, 2018

      Nope, not in any university I’ve ever been associated with.




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      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  July 3, 2018

        I suppose it varies from university to university, but when I have a student who is in danger of failing, whether it be for a grade or absenteeism, I have to report it by midterm. An intervention person then reaches out to the student and attempts to resolve whatever the problem is in order to prevent the student from flunking out.




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        • Bart
          Bart  July 5, 2018

          Yes, that happens at my place as well, though I’ve never understood it. If a student got an F on the midterm, surely they understand they are making an F. I sometimes think we don’t treat students as adults….




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  20. Lilly
    Lilly  July 1, 2018

    Thank you the wonderful smile I was wearing after I read your post. Do you know if this woman might still be available for outside consulting and prayer ? 🙂




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