Grading and the 21st Century Professor

September 3, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place, The Simpsons (movie), September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws –  low resolution.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prominent periodicals have been talking about the precarious rise of grade inflation for more than two decades now. Article after article and story after story has shown professors at elite and public institutions lowering their standards and bending into advanced yoga positions to give students higher grades than they’ve earned. All to ensure a minimum of contention over grades and maximum scores in student evaluations of their courses.

But what of the many professors who don’t want to lower their standards but so far, who can’t ignore a student’s lack of attendance or participation, their late assignments or attempts at plagiarism? For those college instructors, they can expect more grief and stupid ass excuses from students, not to mention lower evaluation scores.

Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand by David Cerney (1997), Prague, September 2, 2012. ( Qualifies as fair use – pic has low resolution.

For tenured professors, particularly those at research universities, this doesn’t matter at all. For some tenure-track professors, instructors at teaching-focused liberal arts colleges, and the army of adjuncts that are the majority of instructors at the college level, this could mean the difference between steady employment and homelessness. It’s a sad situation when folks aren’t secure enough in their jobs to actually do the most difficult parts of their jobs, to evaluate a student’s performance accurately and to confront students whenever they violate an academic code of conduct.

It was part of the deal that I made with myself when I began teaching my own sections and then course as a graduate student twenty years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. To be fair and flexible, to be tough when necessary, but to be compassionate when the circumstances called for it. For the vast majority of the 2,000 or so high school, undergraduate and graduate students I’ve taught since ’92, that has been a workable philosophy. It’s even gotten me the occasional praise and recognition for being a very good professor.

Of course, I faced the occasional student who complained to me about their grade. Most of those students were C students looking for a C+ or a B, or a B+/A- student hoping for an A. Really, prior to my current faculty position, I had only had three complaints of any major consequence. One was from a student who managed to never show up for my US History to 1877 sections the spring semester of ’93, who failed the final exam so badly that I let him get away with his attempts at cheating — his cheat notes were that bad!

The other two came from two students in my History of American Education graduate course in the summer of ’98 at Duquesne University. One thought that someone as young (and as Black) as me could give her a grade lower than an A, while another harassed me with emails for a month because her A- in my course ruined her 4.0 average. Though an adjunct, I stood my ground, knowing that I had the support of my department chair.

Since starting my current teaching position in January ’08, I’ve faced a couple of dozen situations in which students have complained about their grades. I think I’ve only taught three courses out of about twenty in the past four years in which I haven’t fielded any complaints from students about their grades.

Most of these complaints have been really ones about me not accepting every cockamamie excuse for a late assignment or plagiarism. Excuses like their Internet or their access to the university’s online classroom platform being down. Or not knowing that cutting and pasting ten pages’ worth of other people’s words for a ten-page history research paper was in fact blatant plagiarism. Or that their jobs, last-minute deployments (which were hardly last-minute), children (who in many cases were teenagers), three car accidents in two weeks or other life challenges managed to get in the way of them submitting multiple assignments on time, even with extensions. But somehow, when I’ve held these students accountable and assigned an appropriate grade, I’m the bad guy.

That the students I teach these days are technically adult learners (I say “technically” because they don’t act like adults when they complain about their grading) actually makes this matter worse. Whether in the military, married with children, or working a full-time job, these students in their twenties, thirties and older tend to complain, beg, threaten me and then beg again. It’s exhausting to constantly have to persuade students to read my syllabus in order to make them understand that the rules and rubrics I’ve laid out are the reasons for their F, D, C or B.

But no matter the vitriol I provoke from assigning a grade, I also have to be careful in my language, emotions and tone. That is the reality that is teaching in many higher education institutions today. It is unfortunate, for there are many students who don’t understand that being a student requires being a responsible and ethical adult. Whether seventeen or seventy, whining, complaining and threatening your professor for a higher grade is completely unacceptable, and deserves at least a little sarcasm in response.


March 18, 2011

The first class I ever taught was as a guest lecturer my first semester of grad school at Pitt. Larry Glasco, my advisor, had me take charge of his History of Black Pittsburgh course one November Thursday in ’91. It was a task made easier by the showing of the documentary Wylie Avenue Days during the two-hour and twenty-minute class. With about a quarter of the class composed of adult learners, including several who’d grown up in the Hill District during the time frame covered in the documentary, it became a real conversation about experiences with racism and inter- and intra-racial relations in Pittsburgh in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It was a great introduction to teaching.

In the two decades since, I’ve often wish that all of my classes had the kind of intellectual balance that my first class possessed and I as instructor helped provide. Sadly, many times in my journey as a teacher, instructor and professor, I’ve had students who showed as much interest in discussing the hows and whys of history as Glenn Beck of FOX News Channel has in science and the truth.

These students, about one out of every six I’ve taught over the past two decades (about 300 in all) have taken up an amount of my teaching time. They’ve groused about the assignments I’ve given them to do, the exam questions I’ve created to assess their knowledge. They’ve gnashed their teeth about my grading, about how tough I supposedly can be in assigning grades. With papers, short-answer exams, multiple choice tests, even fill-in-the-blank quizzes. There’s been no pleasing this group of students.

Until now. It occurred to me about a year ago. I was watching yet another episode of Jeopardy, and it swung to a history category, one that I would’ve swept if I’d been on the show that day or anytime since the show came back on the air in ’85. That then reminded me of something one of my Humanities classmates from Mount Vernon High School said to me soon after finding out that I was ranked fourteenth in the Class of ’87. “All you can do with history is play Jeopardy,” he said with derision.

That memory then reminded me of how teachers like our seventh through tenth grade social studies teachers taught us. Whether Court, Demontravel (who I’ll talk about later this year), Flanagan or Zini, the idea was to be able to spit out as many date-connected facts, names and battles as quickly and accurately as possible. With no thought about human nature, empathy with the struggles of individuals and groups, or any attempt to explain the processes behind why something happened, like slavery, Jim Crow or Indian removal, for instance.

To satisfy my students who want a high school version of history, I need to come to class next semester and draw a gigantic box on the chalkboard. In that box, I’ll draw six columns by five rows of smaller boxes within this huge box. In the top box of each column, I’ll write in a topic area, say, “Colonial America,” “Expanding Voting Rights,” “‘Eq’-words,” “Myths & Legends,” “My Founding Fathers,” and “Rebel Yell” (this on the American Revolution and the Civil War) across all six. There wouldn’t be any money values, just number values, from 1 to 5 from the easiest to most difficult questions. Daily Doubles would help struggling students make up points, while Double Jeopardy sessions would help the best students solidify their A’s.

This is a great idea, isn’t it? My least interested students can then pretend that they’re learning history by being entertained and memorizing history trivia. My students who need to learn or sharpen their critical thinking skills will find themselves sorely neglected. And my most interested students would be ready to strangle me.

In the end, it’s not worth it to turn my part in this profession into Sony Entertainment, especially for a minority of the students I’ve taught over the years. Besides, I can’t afford to buy Watson to impress my students, or at least, have someone pretend that they have the artificial intelligence of IBM’s Watson by sounding like a teraflop supercomputer.


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