No Taming This Shrew


When I'm not drinking with students, I'm ruining their lives

Achtung: I'm on a tear. Woke up on the wrong side of the broomstick, apparently...

Just doing some catching up with the excellent Arts and Letters Daily site (it somehow got bumped off my link list, likely for Homestar Runner, which embarrasses me a lot). Earlier, I had gotten an email from a student from the spring semester, demanding to know why she got a B in Shakespeare and explaining to me how this B will basically doom her to a life of low-paying service jobs. She's a B student, but she's a chatty B student, and she believes that her "enthusiastic participation" (which nearly required a muzzle in one or two classes) entitles her to an A.

I was perfectly ripe, then, for this article by an AU professor about the hazards of posting grades electronically and the HUGE problem of students who argue grades. The majority of profs at AU do a post and bolt, where they post their grades and literally leave town so that no students can get a hold of them.

While complaints from profs and TAs about the outlandish ballsiness of students who demand recounts on grades are nothing new, I was happy to see some evidence of grade inflation noted in the article. You know, the whole bit about how Harvard realized that 90% of its graduates graduated with honors, half the grades awarded there were As... Arthur Levine, who's considered a "grading expert," had this to say about the trend:

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teacher's College and an authority on grading, traces what's going on to the Vietnam War. "Men who got low grades could be drafted," Levine says. "The next piece was the spread of graduate schools where only A's and B's were passing grades. That soon got passed on to undergraduates and set the standard."

And then there's consumerism, he says. Pure and simple, tuition at a private college runs, on average, nearly $28,000 a year. If parents pay that much, they expect nothing less than A's in return. "Therefore, if the teacher gives you a B, that's not acceptable," says Levine, "because the teacher works for you. I expect A's, and if I'm getting B's, I'm not getting my money's worth."

Fascinating about the war, isn't it? It's certainly true about the As in grad school -- a good friend of mine was putting together his dissertation committee and realized he really couldn't put one important fellow on there, because he had received a B in that prof's class. We all nodded fearfully. "Gosh, I don't know what I would do if I got a B! Lord, that would be it!!"

The consumerism is a large part of it, certainly. I have a routine at the beginning of every semester about how Turtle U is not the same as a Safeway or a Target or a bank. They're not buying me or their other professors; they have paid tuition in order to get access to my mind, my experience, and my pedagogy, as well as my rapier wit and fabulous fashion sense. They don't get a toaster with their purchase, nor do they get an A. And they sure as hell don't get an A for "effort." The days of gold stars are over. I'll tell them, good effort, but I'm not grading them for it. (I oftentimes slip in to Woof U speak at this point and tell them they're "running with the big dogs now and need to keep up or stay on the porch." This frightens them thoroughly. I recommend.)

I'm also in a department that holds firm to the old idea of "gentlemanly Cs" for undergraduates. C is average. Did you turn in your homework? That starts you at a C. This is like nuclear physics for students, who presume they're A students until proven otherwise.

After all this (soap box getting unstable??), it's the "you've ruined my future" bit that really turns my stomach, because I think they really believe it. They think that they really deserve the higher grade even if they don't work for it. They think that they're supposed to go to business school, even if they're dumb as buckets full of hair. Alas and alack. You can dislike or even have trouble with Shakespeare and still be a fine doctor, but you really have to be a dink and lazy to fail my class. But failure is never an option. No learning from mistakes. And certainly no respecting the meticulous efforts, spreadsheets, and very generous grading of their instructors.

The prof who was running my big Shakespeare class got an email from my student, too, and he basically said "she didn't earn an A. We'll let her say her piece and then move on." God bless him for it. I've taught for profs who just roll over because it's far easier. I'm still all dewy and idealistic, I guess. I also busted my chops (pardon me, am STILL busting my chops) to achieve excellence in academia. Poor children are in for a long haul. Gold stars all around.