If Students Got What They Deserved

This week’s NY Times article on student entitlement has been flapping around Paragraph City’s faculty spaces nearly as much as it’s been linking around the teaching blogs. It’s not exactly news that students feel more entitled to high grades, but the blatant expressions of it from the students the article quotes rocks faculty back on their heels a bit.

College faculty share some of the blame if they do not make it clear just what students are going to be graded on, and just how the grading dance is choreographed in their classes. Come on, prof, put those colored footsteps on the dance floor that first day of class. The U Cal Irvine students who expect Bs for going to class, Bs for doing assigned reading, should be told what a B means and what activity is likely to result in one. Students are free to expect whatever they want, but unless the disconnect with reality is pretty complete, most will modify their expectation if they read, “Coming to class is essential to success in this class, but whether you come to class or stay away, attendance does not directly influence your grade.”

But the fantasy expectation of students isn’t what interests me so much; it’s the wish that students have to be graded on effort. The U Maryland senior says, “I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade…What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

Now that is interesting. It sends two trains of thought chuffing out of the station: one on the track labeled Deserts and the other on that familiar route called Be Careful What You Ask for Cause You Just Might Get It.

Be Careful What You Ask For: Now the syllabus thing would help here, too. How about, “A terrific essay that doesn’t meet the assignment will not earn points for you. None. Zero.” I give students fair leeway in my writing assignments, but if they ignore a component I make clear is necessary, or they reshape the assignment into something new, they need to know I’ll give them no credit. Meeting the assignment is the ante; without that you get no cards. One good reason is that the polished, off-target essay suggests a plagiarized essay. Another is that level playing field thing.

But beyond that, how does our U Maryland student expect us to measure effort. RPMs? Petunia has four kids, a drunk husband, no internet, and works 30 hours a week. Rose lives with Mom & Dad, has two computers, gets three squares a day, a BMW for her birthday, and has been told since she was four that she can be or do anything she sets her mind on.  I guarantee Petunia’s effort will easily triple Rose’s just to get the computer turned on.

Or compare the effort these students put into writing an essay with the effort  their profs expended as students writing the same essay, trudging to the library, searching articles in the Reader’s Guide, taking notes on 3×5 cards, thumping away on pre-white out, electric typewriters. This concern with effort demonstrates a common student misunderstanding of grading: really hard work = really good grade. But what if you’re working really hard polishing the silverware on the Titanic?

Effort is individual, inner-defined, felt. We can’t measure it in foot-pounds or watts, and it’s tightly wound around who we are. We don’t speak of calories burned, but rather how hard I tried given my personality and obstacles and strengths and just how hard I usually try at things. In a sense, then, students who want to be graded on effort want to be graded on who they are rather than what they do. That’s what any privileged class wants, while the unwashed masses without the benefits of pedigree would rather be measured by merit, accomplishment.

That may be one reason I don’t find the student desire to be graded on effort so prominent among community college students as compared to the Pricey U students of the Times article. This does bring me around to deserts, though.

Deserts: I worked really hard so I deserve a really good grade. Give me what I deserve. Personal rule: never ask for what you deserve, ask for mercy. As I’m going all Elizabethan on you, think of The Merchant of Venice’s Prince Aragon, pursuing one of my favorite Shakespearean women, Portia, via the process of chosing the casket which contains her portrait. He selects the casket labeled “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” and winds up, as you may recall, with a “portrait of  a blinking idiot.” I’m not sure what grade that would be, but probably not the grade students imagine their effort earns.

Hamlet, who wanders out of his cubby on my desk now and then, usually looking for Yorick, has reminded me that he said it better. When Polonius says he will house the recently arrived players “according to their desert,” Hamlet pops a “God’s bodkin” and instructs “Use every man according to his own desert and who shall escape whipping?” Good point.

So, the solipsistic U of Maryland lad asks, “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?” Nothing, if you are the be-all and end-all of your universe. But if not, perhaps there’s the evaluation of a flawed but learned thinker, who can react to what you’ve said, encourage you to probe a little more deeply in a few parts, let you know what you’ve provoked him to think about, and then reluctantly tag your work with a grade that has some relation to a standard he told you about when he assigned the paper. In the best, that is, of all worlds.



2 Responses to If Students Got What They Deserved

  1. Carl says:

    I mostly managed to stay out of this particular version of the kids-these-days poo storm, and I have you to thank for nailing a lot of what I think early on so I had no burning feeling of urgency.

    “That’s what any privileged class wants, while the unwashed masses without the benefits of pedigree would rather be measured by merit, accomplishment.”

    This is one of my favorite lines in the post. It points out at a sociology of education barely glimpsed by the usual someone-think-of-the-children types. But I’m not sure it’s quite right yet.

    The notion of ‘work’ as a way to measure and assess performance is actually very working class. It’s a wage kind of standard where you go home when the whistle blows (or expect overtime, ‘extra credit’, if you stay longer), as opposed to a salary standard where you stay until the task is done. No one knows better than the truly privileged how much more, and less, than personal effort is required for distinction.

    If this is accurate, what’s odd about the current entitlement is how far down the class scale it’s pushed. These are kids with working class sensibilities we’re talking about, and they’re treating college like it’s a union job. This is progress, in some sense – and a nice ironic beware what you wish for thang.

    “Meeting the requirements is the ante” is also a great line. I used that in class before the last paper and about half the heads (boys, mostly) snapped around and started nodding.

  2. Dale says:

    Yes, I think I see just what you mean. I suspect a good number of my students would feel more comfortable if I had a timeclock by the door that they could punch in/out with timecards in a rack nearby. I have an affection for working class models & metaphors and often find more truth in them than the staid academic structures left over from the 1920’s – but this working class model gives me shivers.

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