I suspect that most college professors, even those in the early stages of their careers, have caused at least a couple of students to cry. The thing is, we rarely see it when it happens. Our students sob late at night, when they reach the end of their ropes, or at the close of the semester, when they receive their final grades. On occasion, though, we witness the waterworks.

It's never fun.

My first time came as an A.B.D. instructor. I was teaching a large undergraduate course and had just returned term papers. A student came to me, upset that her final grade had dropped from an A- to a B+. Unsure of my own authority, I sought refuge in formality. "This kind of thing happens all the time," I told myself, "you've just got to play it out and get it over with." I dutifully assumed the role of the rigorous professor, holding fast to high academic standards, and relegated my student to the role of the grade-grubber, pampered by privilege and unable to accept her work for what it was. For 10 minutes, I moved us smoothly through the script, everything playing out pro forma.

Then her lower lip started trembling. That wasn't in the script. Neither were the body-racking sobs that came next. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing. I just waited in embarrassed silence, as if she were experiencing momentary stage fright and simply needed time to collect herself before we could continue our performance.

But the script had been blown up. Her raw emotion had exposed the artificiality of the little drama I'd been trying to direct. Those sobs were an eruption of humanity in what was supposed to be an impersonal interaction. They took us out of our assigned roles and compelled me to respond authentically instead of objectively.

In the end, I did not change her grade. But I did change my outlook. Subsequently, I made a concerted effort to care. Rather than hiding behind grading rubrics and course syllabi, I sought to deal with student concerns particularly and compassionately, trying to react in the way that would best promote the student's intellectual development.