Dear Student: You Deserve Better

It was with grim and teeth-gritting patience that I read Stacey Patton’s recent Chronicle Vitae piece, titled: “Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve.” While normally a passive consumer of Patton’s writing, this piece held my attention, and I found its tone troublesome. The piece collected the fictional responses for a grade change from several educators. With the exception of one or two, the responses were condescending, dismissive, and intellectually assaultive.

As an educator, I empathize with and understand the problems regarding grade changes. We could discuss academic entitlement until the academy crumbles; however, from my perspective, such discussion normally ends in educators bashing their own students rather than offering advice on how to improve said students’ learning environment and attitude. What struck me as particularly offensive about the responses contained within Patton’s piece is they reinforce the public’s charge that the academy is elitist and disconnected from the community. I’m not suggesting that the educators who wrote said responses are actually elitist or disconnected; however, the tone of the responses seem to reflect that charge.

The question of a student “working really hard” but still receiving a C is arbitrary. Who am I to challenge the notion of “hard work?” I grew up in a working class family. I’ve done various types of “hard work,” from laying brick to landscaping to dishwashing. I’ve worked equally hard during my time in higher education. So, the question I put to my colleagues is this: Which work is harder and how do you measure it? Does it really matter?

I view every opportunity with a student as one filled with challenging and rewarding work. I sometimes become frustrated with students: I become irritable and short and consider aloud if a student is indeed attentive. But, those moments are fleeting.

Perhaps most interesting is that the question posed to the educators in Patton’s piece is the exact question I would love to receive from a student. I want students to reach out to me and inquire about my evaluation of their work. I declare, “Yes! Get involved and concerned about the quality of your work! Do it!”

Even though this criticalness comes only from a place of love, perhaps I am too critical. I approach every situation with a student as one with the potential for liberation. If a student’s inquiry into my evaluative approach is part of that liberation, I welcome and encourage it.

Despite my rebuke, the core issue contained within the question of “working hard” and receiving a C is the concept of the grade itself. Grades are disingenuous, dangerous, and corral students into formulaic ways of thinking and being. Their focus often becomes the grade instead of the learning, which doesn’t provide students any lasting concern. I have never been a fan of grades, but the responses in Patton’s piece reaffirmed my disapproval with the entire idea of grading.

The responses in the piece seemed to argue that grades reflect mastery of content, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Grades don’t reflect mastery of content. You don’t need to master content to graduate from college, so how important, really, is mastery or grades?

I don’t teach my students solely so they can master content in 15 or 16 weeks. It would be impossible. But, I do teach them how to identify content they want to master and how to do it. I teach them the process of learning. I teach them the process of discovery. These are the important aspects of any course. You don’t need to teach a student mastery of content in 15 or 16 weeks. Instead, you need only teach them how to continue on the road toward mastery when they’ve left a course.

Recently, a student remarked that I have a reputation in that I don’t approach grading or coursework like some other instructors. Indeed, students suggest, “It’s hard to fail one of Kays’ classes. You really have to work to fail.” I love it. I create a learning environment where learning is the focus—not grading.

I’ve been accused of giving out too many As, of being an easy grader, and, therefore, of not promoting enough “academic rigor” in my classes. Perhaps, too early in my own education, prominent educators I admire, like Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Peter Elbow, Donald Murray, and others influenced me.

I don’t always change grades when requested. A student needs to make a persuasive written or oral argument as to why they deserve such a change. I do, however, provide an open revision policy in my courses, so students can revise their work as many times as they want until the last day of class. I provide extra credit opportunities but only if a student has turned in all their work (otherwise, it wouldn’t be extra).

I’m happy to be labeled an “easy grader.” It is a much better label than that of one who condescends and dismisses a student’s appeal of working hard. It’s easy to dismiss a student’s challenge, it’s easy to condescend to a student, and it’s easy to be unkind in speech to a student. These are all easy things, but, more so, these are all unproductive things.

I implore my colleagues to not waste students’ time with demeaning behavior. It’s vapid and unworthy of their precious little time. If you cannot generously answer a student’s challenge on the evaluation of their intellectual work, then perhaps self-examination of your pedagogical strategy is in order.

Our students deserve better and so does our profession.

2 Comments:

  1. Jesse Stommel, the professor who posted “Dear Chronicle: Why I Will No Longer Write for Vitae” to his website on Feb. 28, 2015, has a right to his opinion, but I disagree with his characterization of Vitae’s “Dear Student” column. What he sees as “student shaming,” I see as good satire.
    Although I’m not in academia (I’m an independent writer/editor), I do read The Chronicle and Vitae from time to time. I recently read the “Dear Student” column featuring the “killing off grandma” stories. First, not all of the column’s entries were mean. They were varied in tone and substance — yes, some were sarcastic, but others were by turns empathetic and funny. And I enjoyed reading each of them. Why? Because they rang true!
    “Keeping it 100,” as an undergraduate, I never killed off my grandma, but I did conjure up an illness for a close relative once. My Econ 101 professor listened to my spiel (there was no Internet in the 1980s) and took me at my word. He also allowed me to take a make-up midterm the next week. In retrospect, he probably knew that I was full of B.S. I wasn’t a callous 17-year-old, just an overwhelmed, shy and immature freshman who hadn’t yet mastered her study skills. So the column had me laughing in recognition and feeling empathy for professors who must navigate this rite of passage.
    “Killing off grandma” is the college version of “the dog ate my homework.” In fact, a professor friend of mine — who is beloved by her students — says she half-jokingly tells them that she knows every excuse they can throw her way because she likely tried them. She has also shared with me that each semester a few students who haven’t done their work all semester have their parents call her to change their final grade — I’d classify that as wanting to be coddled.
    Stommel states in his piece: “The word ‘entitlement,’ used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled — to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the ‘Dear Student’ series.”
    In reality, however, a sense of entitlement can be a personality trait of a student matching any and every label. Barring usage of the word in The Chronicle and its platforms won’t change that. (In another context, this line of thinking reminds me of the myth that racism is “illegal” in Brazil because it wasn’t codified in legal language in the same manner as in the United States. But racism runs rampant in Brazil, and the murky, official language surrounding it, arguably, makes it harder to name and redress.)
    Stommel also states: “This series is not effective satire, not a useful kind of venting. This series plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force ‘unnecessary,’ ‘contingent,’ ‘adjunct.’ The ‘Dear Student’ series turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.”
    I assume his stats, above, are accurate, but what sweeping generalizations he makes! They suggest that a professor who uses satire to describe what is a commonplace experience in a column can’t also be a compassionate educator who (using Stommel’s words) “advocate[s] for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.” The two are not mutually exclusive.
    I don’t know how Stommel defines “least privileged,” but as an African-American woman who’s earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, I’m aware of the varying ways that students meet disrespect and discrimination in academia, including patronizing attitudes and being put in a box, one-size-fits-all. I imagine, however, that some students fitting Stommel’s idea of “least privileged” are bright enough to recognize satire — even bad satire — for what it is. Rather than having their fragile egos bruised, I imagine them reading the “killing off grandma” column and laughing aloud in recognition of their or a classmate’s hubris.
    Lastly, I find it interesting that Stommel is quitting his column and refusing to continue it unless Vitae cancel another column. That seems like armchair grandstanding. Rather than trying to silence another voice, I wonder if he’s considered less draconian ways — on the front lines of his cause — to advocate for the academic environment he seeks? His “my way or the highway” approach strikes me as a virtual temper tantrum.
    P.S. I also wonder on which side of the recent Charlie Hebdo debate Jesse Stommel landed.

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