Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grade Expectations

Hmm. This NYT piece and Michelle Cottle's follow-up both seem a bit overwrought to me.

Yes, of course, grades are earned by performance, not deserved by effort. And, yes, of course, "I showed up for class and did the reading" doesn't count as spectacular effort anyways; that's the beginning of trying, not the end.

On the other hand: in any field of endeavor, "But I tried very hard!" is the first response to being told that you didn't do a good job. It's not strictly speaking relevant, but it's part of how a person defends him- or herself, and tried to redeem his or her standing in the eyes of the other person. If you really make it the grounds of an appeal of a grade, of course, that's a silly mistake. But the mere fact that you can find some undergrad sentences that express a sense of desert and entitlement doesn't mean that there's some new crisis wave of such things. I can "kids these days!" with the best of them, but Professor Marshal Grossman's complaint that "Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before" is utterly banal and trivial. Of course they do. Of course college is a new experience and there's a shock to the system compared with high school. Of course that's especially true for a college with competitive admission, when high schools are basically just admission-by-geography. The perennial condition of the 18-year-old college frosh does not make for a deep anomaly to explain in terms of the last generation's parenting skills, etc., etc.

Grossman and Cottle are both saying the sorts of things professors say to each other all the time, but it's trivial-level grumbling, on a par with saying "hot enough for you?" in the summer. (See also: Rate Your Students, passim.)

Maybe I'm undersensitive to such things, because the truth is I've experienced *very* little grade-grubbing during my academic life, despite being a medium-hard grader. I do believe that women faculty get hit with grade appeals more often than men, so at least on that front I've been unfairly insulated from the problem to the extent that there is a problem. And I have some other reasons to think that my experience isn't totally representative. But at the end of the day: I like undergrads, and in my experience they try to do well. To the extent that they don't understand what it means to do well, I think they respond well to having it explained to them. Making fun of them, by name, in the pages of the New York Times doesn't seem to me like the way to go. Neither does the Allan Bloom/ Harvey Mansfield approach of elevating "Kids these days!" into social criticism.

(I'm sure that there have been other days in my scholarly career when I would have written a "Go Grossman!" post. But the mood passes-- and grownups are supposed to know how to let a mood pass without committing it to print at other people's expense.)

8 comments:

Wayne Norman said...

Bravo. I have seen very little of this in 21 years of university teaching. You might also have mentioned that at least one of the quotes is interpreted extremely uncharitably (especially given that the kid was named):

"I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B."

I could see myself reassuring students that if they do the readings and attend class, then YES, they should be able to achieve at least a B. Namely, because that will prepare them well for their exams and papers...

Jacob T. Levy said...

Right. That doesn't convey desert; it's a probably-reasonable prediction. "Should be able to achieve" =/= "am entitled to," and there's no good reason to have construed it that way.

Paul Gowder said...

Perhaps Stanford kids are more spoiled? I've seen a good amount of grade-grubbing whildst TAing, including from some very good students. (One kid complained about an A- for the reason "I want to go to law school." Shockingly, that did not convince.)

Bryan said...

I remember as a TA at your alma mater, Brown, a young student who came in to complain about his B+ on a paper. He started off by suggesting that it seemed as though I had not been able to understand him properly. I stopped him right there and explained that if that was the case, then it was either because he hadn't written clearly enough or because I wasn't smart enough. He quickly backtracked and the conversation ended quickly.

But you're right. In my experience, the "entitlement" thing is pretty overblown. I suspect its prevalence as an academic urban legend stems more from professorial insecurity than anything else. So some student wants a better grade - is that so awful? They might sometimes be right...

Vladimir said...

I've been told that there more attempts at negotiating grades at American universities than Canadian. Could it be that somehow paying large tuition fees and then receiving mediocre grades just seems unfair to students?

Jacob T. Levy said...

Most of my teaching experience is at high-tuition US private universities.

Will Roberts said...

Just wanted to express my agreement with and appreciation for the position you're taking here, Jacob. Students' expectations are formed by their experiences, and their experiences are with other teachers. To the extent that any of us up in front of the lecture hall is perturbed by the expectations our students seem to have, it seems that the natural object of his or her critical judgment ought to be his or her fellow professors and teachers, and indeed his or her own teaching practice, no?

Decrying the expectations of easy grades and capitulating to and reinforcing those expectations are two sides of the same coin--what Lenin would call kow-towing to spontaneity! And so I would like to modify a line from What Is To Be Done?:

"Kow-towing to spontaneity seems to inspire a fear of taking even one step away from what is 'accessible' to the students, a fear of rising too high above mere attendance on the immediate and direct requirements of the students. Have no fear, ladies and gentlemen! Remember that we stand so low on the plane of teaching that that the very idea that we could rise too high is absurd!"

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying this is always the case, but where I work my colleagues who most grouse "kids these days!" are the ones who least like teaching and most see it was an imposition on what they really want to do, which is research. Since I'm not tenured and these are people I work alongside, I'm leaving this comment anonymously.

I think much of the time what students are trying to say but aren't articulate enough and experienced enough to put clearly is "I did the assignment as you described it to me with what I took - based on what you said and did not say - to be the effort required to succeed. Now your feedback tells me indicates that I did not succeed. I am unsure based on your feedback if this is because I misunderstood your instructions, if I did not do enough or the right sort of effort, or if you have some other criteria which were not previously stated which I need to know about."

I think all of that is really quite reasonable on their part, particularly given that final grades really can have consequences for students' lives. At least some of the time with my colleagues the emotional energy behind "kids these days!" is in my view largely a reaction against this implied statement from the students, which is a criticism of the teacher. My colleagues I'm thinking of respond along the lines of "who are these kids to criticize me?! don't they know who/how talented I am?!" I think as a rule it's a good idea whenever students screw up for teachers to ask "what is my contribution to creating this situation?" I think it's rarely *just* the teacher's fault but also rarely just the student's fault.