Thursday, February 19, 2015

Things I Don't Miss

I've been retired from my most recent career as a college professor for almost two years now. Every so often someone asks me if I miss working. My response is usually along the lines of "I miss the interesting stuff - the research, and working with good students. But I don't miss the other 80% of it."

One aspect of 'the other 80%' is dealing with students who are dissatisfied with their grade. That's why I read with interest the following article.

Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve
Children today grow up believing it’s their effort that matters. Everyone gets a trophy, and everyone deserves to be praised just for showing up...  plenty of professors have told me that when many of their students get to college, they lug into the classroom a sense of academic entitlement—a belief that their papers and exams should be graded on how hard they’ve worked, not how well they’ve mastered the material. When they don’t receive the grades they think they deserve, many take the matter up with the graders.

When that happens, one thing becomes clear: Their feelings about the quality of their work often don’t match the reality of their performance... Pleas to re-evaluate work can draw professors into annoying confrontations—or force them to explain the mechanics of grading to students, and sometimes angry parents, department chairs, or deans.
Yes, I have had irate parents call me regarding Little Johnny's grades. When they didn't like my response, they called the department chair, and in some cases even the dean. I was fortunate enough to have administrators who, for the most part, backed me up - with one notable exception. I won't name names, other to say that if you know a young person who is incapable of or unwilling to do college-level work, send him or her to the University of Texas at San Antonio. That place is nothing but a degree mill that puts for-profit online schools to shame.

But I digress. Back to the story. Here's how a few other professors respond to requests for re-grades.

Response #1
Thank you for your email requesting that I review your paper to determine whether you should have received a better grade. My policy for re-examining your work is as follows:

Please write a short letter outlining why you believe you have been graded harshly. Make your case for the higher grade. It is perhaps possible that I failed to consider the evidence supporting your thesis properly, or that I misunderstood the nature of your claim. Your case will be strengthened by rebutting the comments I made, incorporating them into your response. If your appeal for reconsideration merits a further examination, I will be happy to do so. Please be advised: I am often too generous rather than too stingy. Thus is possible that when I re-examine your paper your grade might be lowered.
My stock reply was something along those lines. It's amazing how few students follwed through.

Response #2
It always amazes me when students feel like their grades should be based on effort... Get out of here with that, my friend. Your working hard should be a given. You’re in college, not kindergarten. Every single person on this campus’s default is to work hard.

You, my friend, have the audacity to send me a sad, tired little email asking me to reward you for breathing in and out and taking up space in my classroom? A place where geniuses are birthing themselves into existence every single day, and not a single one of them is asking for the “I worked hard” epidural to make this journey easy. I have officially laid my head on the desk, which is the universal signal for “I’m done.”
I wish I had the cojones to say that to my students.

Response #3

I can't change your grade because you have provided no verifiable evidence that you have put more than minimal effort into this paper. At the very least, you should have accompanied this email with (a) a videotape of your doing research for, and writing, this paper, in real time or (b) a sworn, notarized statement from one of your roommates indicating exactly how much time you spent on the paper.

In the absence of such evidence, please do the following so I can reassure myself that you have actually worked hard and I will consider raising your grade: Resubmit your paper with every incomplete sentence rewritten; with at least five new secondary sources and two primary sources; and with an annotated bibliography critically evaluating all your sources.
Again, this puts the burden back on the student. Those who are sincere will spend the time and effort to justify their regrade. And I am sure that the professor will be equally sincere in regrading their work.

Response #4
Are you, by any chance, related to the student who failed my class and asked that I give them an A because they “liked the class so much?” I’m just asking because this question you’ve posed is just as silly as that one.

Pursuant to the detailed rubric provided for the assignment that we reviewed in class, the work you did on this paper was questionable. What you turned in was riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and formatting inconsistencies. Your paper didn’t respond to the prompts for the assignment at all and didn’t even reference the provided course content, let alone go beyond it in any meaningful way. The grade you received is reflective of the fact that what I got was a mash-up of poorly constructed sentences and last minute fooleywang.

And for real, I need you to focus less on the grade and more on the learning. Here’s the thing: had you focused on learning and on effectively completing the assignment, you would have gotten an A. Instead, you’re out here so focused on the grade that your submitted work was well below my expectations and your abilities.

Get your shit together. Please and thank you.
Another ballsy response. But I do like the emphasis on learning vs. grades. It's quite easy for both students and faculty to lose sight of the fact that universities are places to learn, not just to get a piece of paper. Well done.

Response #5
While I completely understand your frustration at working hard on something and having it not result in the grade that you desired, you should know that grades in college are based on performance, not effort. I know elementary school teachers, coaches, and your parents told you that all that matters is that you do your best. Unfortunately, they all lied to you. In the real world, of which my college classroom is a part, trying hard does not count for squat. Demonstrated mastery of the material, no matter how much or little effort it takes to achieve it, is what is important.
Ah yes, the 'real world' card. Well played!

Response #6
We work hard on many things in life; however, sometimes our efforts do not merit the product that we envision. That is, hard work does not necessarily equate to excellence. Sometimes working hard really does result in an average product. Nonetheless, per your request, I have reread your paper.

I want you to know that I worked really hard to assess your paper taking into consideration your hard work, too. I imagined you working on the paper while you equally worked hard at monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram updates. I imagined you checking your instant messages and email on your smartphone every few seconds while you were working hard on your essay. I imagined you drafting the paper in the midst of many distractions and then deciding that you had a final paper. I worked really hard at seeing you submitting a paper that had been outlined, drafted, proofread, and edited. I worked really hard at this.

Therefore, I want you to know that I worked as hard at assessing your performance as you did at writing your paper. I apologize for my error. I see that your paper does not meet the minimum requirements for this assignment. I am going to have to change your grade to a D.
Ouch. I bet that left a mark.

I could wrap this post up with a pithy commentary on the student-as-a-consumer model of today's so-called institutes of higher education, or a scholarly analysis of grade inflation, but instead I think I'll defend the students. It's not entirely their fault. They've been taught all their lives that effort deserves reward, regardless of outcome. Couple that with a public school system that actively discourages failing students, or even giving them poor grades, for a variety of reasons. That is even carried over to colleges, where budgets are determined at least in part by graduation rates (in other words, reward the diploma mills and punish colleges with high standards).

Our entire education system, from kindergarten through college, is in drastic need of an overhaul. All I can say is Thank God I'm out of it, and that my kids and grandkids are just about done as well.


Old NFO said...

That it is... Back in the dark ages (70s) they would have been unceremoniously flunked...

Randy said...

'fooleywang' never heard that one before, but I like it.

The local school districts are responsible for much of this. Can you say hooked on phonics? That one is just pure idiocy.

CenTexTim said...

NFO - my teachers never heard about 'social promotion.'

Randy - there's plenty of blame to go around.

DoninSacto said...

My daughter was in a Criminal Justice class and one of the students asked the teacher why he got an F on the paper. He thought that it deserved an A. Her reply was yes it did deserve an A and that is the grade she got on it when she wrote it five years before. Oh, by the way, you have an appointment with the Dean.

Bag Blog said...

I always made two tests - mixing up questions to deter cheating. After a simple test, a young lady stomped up to my desk and slapped two tests (hers and her friend's) on my desk and demanded to know why she had failed when her friend had passed, because they had the same answers. I was able to reply, "Because when you cheated, you copied the wrong test." She snatched both papers and stomped off. I was lol.

After report cards came out, the basketball coach and a parent came to ME, because their star player had failed MOST of his classes including mine. They wanted to know what I could do for the boy - how could I "help" him. I handed them my grade book and said, " Here, put whatever you want." They were both aghast saying they could not do that. I replied, "Isn't that what you are asking me to do?"

CenTexTim said...

Don - that's a great story!

BB - I also used to make multiple versions of the same exam. It's a great technique.