On Student Expectations and Grades, And Other Things

A rather brief article in the New York Times today addresses something my fellow graduate assistants and I have been learning this year: our students genuinely expect to receive a good grade (by which they mean an A), and are sometimes simply shocked when you assign them anything less. One common refrain we hear is, “But I get As in all my other classes!” Or the if-I-don’t-do-well-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship (or law school/medical school/etc chances) refrain. Or, as I’ve run into already a few times this semester, the pity card- everything from random tough luck to dead cell phone battery to terrible home life. That, and the complaint that the work is too much and the grading scale is too difficult.

What do I do about it? I’m a first year graduate student; I did a stint last school year subbing in high schools, and had the prerequisite half-day seminar our department requires. That, plus the teaching and mentoring I received last semester, is the extent of my teaching experience and training, so I can’t offer myself as any sort of expert on pedagogical techniques.

Instead, here are some things that I try to keep in mind when dealing with students: first, I genuinely want them to learn and do well. I wish I could do more, I wish I had greater control over things, but I don’t- I’m a teaching assistant. My jurisdiction in many ways ends as soon as it begins. But I do largely control the one thing my students care most about: their grade. That a lowly first-year M. A. student with his own heavy load of work outside of teaching responsibilities is the one in charge of determining whether the nearly sixty students under his tutelage pass or fail is itself somewhat disconcerting, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and are considering attending a large research university/have children you want to send to a large research university, well, caveat lector. But anyway, the possibilities open to me for assigning material and teaching style are very limited. I must follow the guidelines laid down by the professor; I cannot go off and do my own thing. This means I must follow the guidelines- this semester, very strict guidelines- for grading. And therein lies the struggle.

When my students complain of the difficulty of the work or protest for a better grade, part of me thinks: I never did this when I was an undergraduate. Granted, I usually made good grades, but when I made a poor one, I didn’t whine to the professor and demand a better one. I am terribly sorry if you worked hard and still came up short. I really am. But I am not grading you on how hard you worked- I am grading you on performance, on whether you apprehended the material, not just whether you read it.Yeah, I know everyone’s been telling you how special you are and how you deserve the best etc etc- it’s not true, ok? Be glad I didn’t grade you on your real merits.

That’s the nastier, be-glad-you-don’t-have-to-read-850-page-economic-history-tomes side of my internal dialogue. It has its merits, I suppose- it’s true that we’re faced with a culture that teaches our students that they deserve a good grade, that they deserve a college education, and that they are exceptionally smart, and so on. But at the same time, I feel- maybe dirty is the best word?- when I assign a bad grade to a student I know has in fact worked fairly hard, yet is still lagging far behind. I don’t want to assign him a bad grade. I know that the reason this student is probably in college is not because he wants to learn all about the Byzantines and Clovis and the rise of modern capitalism, but because he knows that the minimum benchmark for a decent job is a college degree- that’s the minimum benchmark. He’s been fed the absolute necessity of going to college his entire life, and he really does need to go to college- not because anyone cares about the values of a liberal education (it’s hard to type that phrase without an ironic snicker), but because a degree has become the function equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s the least an employer looks for so as to eliminate other applicants. My hard-working student needs good grades and a diploma because it’s just one more necessary marker in the system. He’s probably taking out loans, because the bait-and-hook “scholarship” he was awarded his freshman year ran out when he couldn’t pull a 3.5. Chances are he’ll end up dropping out, still carrying those loans, but without the degree- just debt. Here I am, a nice quiet cog in the system, happy to have my little stipend and my library card, knowing that I have neither the authority or the time and ability to change anything. It’s one of the most insidious things about the academic system- you very quickly learn your place and the advantages of not rocking the boat.

And then I think about what my students’ educational background is- I’ve done a little time in public high schools, I’ve an idea of things. I was privileged- I was homeschooled, then went to a nice little liberal arts college where I knew my professors and hung out in their offices talking history and politics and life. My average student here probably went to a ho-hum high school, maybe was able to get a few minutes in with his adviser, possibly spoke to the instructor of the present course once because he had a technical problem- that’s it. He’s only other point of contact with the discipline of history is a graduate student with fifty-plus other students he only sees once a week. I will assume a fairly similar experience in other classes- maybe I’m wrong. Still, where in all of this is he supposed to receive hands-on, intensive instruction in the life of the mind, in the skills necessary for really learning in the humanities? I expect my students to be able to read well enough to grasp the material and think about it- how do I know they have ever acquired that skill? What am I to do if they haven’t? Sure, it’s partially their fault- no one held my hand and made me learn- but I wasn’t continually in an anonymous, ho-hum educational environment either.

So. I make no claims in the above thoughts to originallity or great subtletly- nor do I pretend to have any particular answers. I didn’t come into academia expecting roses and candy, to be sure, and I had struggled with the whole idea of getting into academia at all- for the reasons above, and others. I still do. I wonder- should I get out while I can? Is this whole thing right? Is it worth it? I don’t spend much time thinking about these things- Friday evenings are a decent time, I suppose, but one tends to stay occupied (I guess that’s part of the genuis of the system…) with other things filling one’s mind. But those questions shall wait- I’ve ranted long enough as is.

8 thoughts on “On Student Expectations and Grades, And Other Things

  1. paulashley

    I vote that you stay the course, doing what you can. I’d wager that most teachers meet a handful of students they can really help but I’d also think that’d make it all worthwhile.

    The question might be, are you enjoying what you’re doing. Are you seeing your future as a dull one if you stay the course.

    After 17 years of working in a profession I probably wasn’t “built” for, I finally got the gumption to admit that to myself and find something else. Most days now I enjoy going to work, even though in the grand scheme of things, I’ve not accomplished what I used to think I was capable of.

    We can’t save the world, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

  2. So, which do you prefer– strict grading guidelines, or lax grading guidelines? The good news is that you care enough to spend time thinking about the dynamics.

    Students at flagship state schools should have the skills you expect them to have. If they don’t, then maybe they should consider pursuing the job credential elsewhere, at a school with different expectations and different missions.

    Academia is an awfully varied set of experiences. Like any job, there are bureaucratic complications. Those trade offs, however, allow a vocational pursuit of intellectual life that the same bureaucratic and political struggles prevent in most every other vocational option out there, private and public sector. Is it worth it? Is it possible to maintain one’s essential humanity? I’d say absolutely. And, being a cog in an academic machine is a lot better than being a cog in a corporate machine.

  3. Marsha

    You know, I think it’s just great that you actually care enough to spend a Friday evening thinking about their grades. :)

    But I didn’t know you were homeschooled!! As a homeschooling mom, it excites me to meet a grownup, post-educated product of homeschooling. You rock!
    And if you don’t mind saying, what small liberal arts college did you attend? Because that would be my ideal for my girls, should they choose to attend college.

  4. First things first, you are not alone. Everyone finds it difficult learning how to grade. Second, yes, grade inflation is real and expectations have changed from the mythical past in which it was gentlemanly to get “Cs” (I don’t know when that was; it was before my time, and sometimes I rather doubt whether it existed). Third, you do not need to be a b*stard to grade fairly, nor does it help your students (as you rightly realize) to grade them hard just to teach them that, e.g. life isn’t fair and they had better get used to not always getting what they want. BUT it is equally unfair to them to give them false feedback–i.e. grades that they have not earned.

    WHAT YOU DO: all grading is on a curve, by which I mean, all grading is relative to the assignment and to the performance of the other students in the class. Very few (if any) undergraduate student papers are at all anything close to publishable, which, if you think about it, is our unconscious default “A”. Does that mean they should all get “Cs” because what they’ve written is basically an adequate answer to a set question? Of course not. You give “As” to the ones who, of the set of papers that you are grading, have done outstanding work, i.e. work that stands out from the others. You then use the “As” as your standard and grade accordingly. When the students come to you to ask why they didn’t get “As,” you explain what they might have done with the assignment, using as examples (gently, without mentioning names or even that what you are saying depends upon the actual papers you’ve read) the kinds of answers you got from the top 10% of the class. Then you know you are being fair–these are actual answers, not the hypothetical publishable “As”–and you are also taking the opportunity to do what you actually want to be doing with the students who are complaining, which is teach them. They may genuinely have no idea what an “A” paper looks like. When they come to you, you have a rare opportunity to try to show them.

  5. Thanks all for the advice- and please don’t get the idea that I sit about brooding about the struggles and evils of academia (I spend vastly more time thinking about the fall of Rome than contemporary crises…). I really do love being in the academic world, because I enjoy both the subjects I study and teaching, and doubt I would want to work in a different field (though, if I had to, I suppose I could- never say what you won’t do).

    Dr. Black, I think I prefer the looser strictures for grading- a sort of negotiated ambiguity, I suppose- since it does allow for the sort of grading Dr. Fulton describes, that is not simply loose and subjective, but takes into account both exterior standards and the fact of the students’ abilities. Having very strict standards that I can point to is nice in that I can thus deflect blame- don’t get mad at me, get mad at the professor- but this allows for considerably less room to take into account the exigencies of the actual students.

  6. Pingback: Planned Obsolescence » Blog Archive » Teaching Carnival 3.2

  7. Seraphim

    Stick to your guns. I’ve been where you are. The other side of the desk is a daunting place to stand. There is so much subtle power, so much unwanted power in a red pen. it takes discernment to use that power wisely. An honest but less than outstanding grade might be the first real world wake up call some pampered preppy type will ever face. And the same less than desired grade may be the last straw for an earnest but poorly equipped student. Those are hard human realities to face. And it is natural not to want to be the bearer of bad tidings. But if you have graded honestly on their mastery of the subject you have in fact shown them great mercy.

    We live in a dishonest world of hidden agendas, inflated expectations,and a 1000 other distortions of the truth engineered either to stroke or to crush our egos at another’s whim. An honest evaluation is a treasure even if it is a painful one. It gives us a realistic place to put our feet.

    The trick for the honest teacher is knowing when to temper a hard evaluation with mercy. It can involve offering/setting up tutoring assistance if a difficulty is spotted, having some supplimentals assignments available, going to bat for the irritating naif, being a little flexible with a deadline if the student has a lot that is important riding on that grade. There are of course limits and and GA does not have the leeway that a professor has.

    What is important is not to diminish the requirements of subject mastery, but to assist the willing student to reach mastery.

    Don’t worry that you feel the pain of the choices you must make, the earned grades that you must give. If you did not feel that compassion, did not question yourself with regard to what is best for this or that student, then you should not be on the other side of the desk.

    Speaking out of my own experience I had both hard and inflexible professors and very generous ones who went out of their way to be merciful to me without lowering the bar of subject mastery. Both did me good turns.

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