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.
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?
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…..