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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Student Evaluations: Part 2 of 2
December 20, 2012 - 5:07pm

Read Part 1.

This teaching evaluation-related story haunts me a little. Thinking about it conjures a mix of frustration and shame…frustrame. While I stand with those who feel too much weight is put on these metrics, I think it also illustrates how they can be a useful tool for self-reflection. I still think about this one every semester.

It was my first year at Clemson, and I was teaching technical writing. This was a 300-level course of ingenious design by my late, and much missed former colleague, Summer Taylor, and involved a complicated group project spanning several assignments with many moving parts. By design, it required significant coordination amongst group members, rather than being something where they could successfully divide and conquer. The students loathed the very thought of the project, but often – not always, but often – would express great appreciation by the end, particularly when their final product turned out well.

This particular student I’m thinking of was a graduating senior with a straight-A average to that point in her career. She was justifiably proud and protective of this accomplishment, particularly as it had come in chemistry or physics or one of those so-called “hard” majors.

To assemble the groups, I used a method lifted from a former colleague of mine at Virginia Tech, Cory Hickerson. (He now teaches at James Madison.) Prior to class, I had the students write a quasi “job letter” where they discuss their strengths and weaknesses as a worker and group member. Some were confident writers, while others enjoyed working with data or had a flair for design. Some felt comfortable as leaders, while others were happy to follow. They also shared their class and activity schedules since experience told me that the fastest way to derail a group was to make it impossible for the group to meet.

During the class period, the students circulated desk to desk reading each other’s letters, and at the end of the process, they wrote down three people they’d like to work with, as well as one person they’d rather not work with.

Using this feedback (which the students were not privy to), I’d assemble the groups, trying to pair everyone with at least one person they wanted to work with, while keeping them from the person they didn’t want to work with.

In her letter, this student made her goals clear. She wanted an A. She also declared a strong interest in leading the group. In class, we had talked about good v. dysfunctional group dynamics, and I had discussed how leadership styles need to reflect the culture of the organization, that there was no one right model or behavior. We may think of autocratic leadership in a negative light, but if an autocrat is grouped with some willing minions, the resulting project can turn out quite well.

This student was in search of those minions and she found them in four competent, but somewhat passive students. Because I keep digital records of all this, I can see that on their cards, they all identified her as someone they wanted to work with. She had identified two of them as her preferred partners. (Interestingly, she was the 2nd most often named person as someone others didn’t want to work with.)

As a group, they developed a good project and solid plan. The assignment required them to find a client that needed some kind of significant piece of technical writing. In this case, they’d identified a campus organization that needed a manual of procedures, a big job requiring both individual writing work as well as significant coordination. It was perfect for our purposes.

In the planning stages, I think it became clear to the group leader that her colleagues, while not total slackasses, were not as driven to get an A as she was.

As the information gathering and document drafting got underway, in class, I could see her seize more and more control, assigning herself twice the number of tasks as everyone else. She labored mightily on the final project, allowing her colleagues to engage in some research and data collection, but endeavoring to write, revise, and edit the entire 55-page document on her own.

It was a B+. It was very good, but had noticeable flaws in organization, proofing, design…just about everywhere I looked there was something that could’ve been sharpened, or tightened, or improved. For primarily being done by one person, it was actually sort of amazing, but it gave evidence to my early-semester contention that the assignment couldn’t be completed to excellence without group coordination.

I handed the assignment and grades back in a team conference during finals week, congratulated them on their strong grade and wished them well.

The team leader wanted to meet me in my office.

She’d already done the math. The final document was 25% of the grade, and all that remained to calculate her final mark was her participation score, 10% of the semester grade. She knew it was going to be very close and she’d come to lobby for the A.

Part of the participation score was at my discretion (attendance, class participation, quality of peer reviews, etc…), while another part was based on feedback from her group members. Participation grades are not arbitrary, but they can be subjective.

She asked me what she was getting for the semester, and I said I didn’t know and couldn’t say until I calculated the participation scores, but she was obviously close between an A and a B. She asked if I could calculate it at that time and I said I could not because the bulk of the information was at home. She asked me to guess, and I said I wouldn’t. I fell back on my mantra when it comes to grading, “the math is the math.” I told her that if her class average fell short of 90%, she would get a B.

This is when she explained how I was being unfair if she didn’t get an A. Her first argument was that she had done all the work. (Which was basically true.) I countered that part of the assignment’s design was to assess how effectively the group works in collaboration, so this wasn’t actually an argument in her favor, and besides, the amount of effort doesn’t always correspond with results.

She explained that her colleagues had been incompetent and she’d been forced to take control. I disputed the incompetence label without getting into details that would reveal her colleagues’ grades. I also reminder her that she’d had a certain amount of control over who she worked with. She reminded me that she was a graduating senior with straight A’s in a “hard” major and that she’d left this required English course for the end of her career because she wanted to take it easier he final semester, but she’d worked harder on this course than any other.

I said I appreciated that, but I couldn’t change the grade, whatever it was going to be.

That’s when she got angry and kind of mean. She accused me of various kinds of incompetence, the most significant evidence being that a student like her might get a B. The course was too hard. The group project was overweighted in the total. She said that my course wasn’t as important as her others, so a B wouldn’t be fair.

I got kind of angry too. I hope I didn’t get mean. I said we had to let the chips fall where they may.

As it happened, one of my officemates, a sage and experienced instructor, was present, and silent, for the entire discussion. After the student left, he turned to me and said that this had trouble written all over it.

I went home and calculated this student’s grade. My part of the participation grade was an A-. Her colleagues gave her a B+, respecting her effort, but dinging her on the “collegiality and cooperation” metric. I still have the spreadsheet with all her grades, 89.8.

I had a strict no-rounding policy to prevent the inevitable slippery slope because I can be softhearted on this stuff. It was a B.

I recalculated. Still a B. I thought about the fact that I was in my first year at Clemson and had yet to be renewed for the next year, and that this student had all but promised to take any grade dispute up the ladder. I’m a sort of incorrigible commenter when it comes to feedback, and the assignments were the department’s, so I felt good about my case if it went that far, but then I remembered my officemate’s warning.

When it came time to enter the grades into the system, she got her A. I told myself it was justifiable, and it was. While the peer feedback was a small part of the grade, her colleagues bumping her up even a fraction would’ve tipped the balance. Either grade was completely justifiable, but I knew that in a vacuum, it would’ve been a B, and I knew the thing that tipped me over was fear of being a squeaky wheel who wouldn’t have work the next semester.

When the student evaluations came back over the summer, I knew which one was hers by the written comment under the question about the amount of work in the class: “What Mr. Warner does not yet understand, is that Eng 314 is not as important as other courses.”

It’s the “yet” that sticks with me, the presumption that someday I would learn the truth, that my course isn’t “important.” Yeah, I was pissed. I can still feel a little of it all over again just thinking about it. I wanted to write a rebuttal.

“What this student does not yet understand is that straight As in physics or chemistry, or whatever, doesn’t mean she automatically deserves an A in English 314.”

It’s that “yet” that let me know she might’ve benefited from the experience of getting that B. In hindsight, I’m disappointed in myself, for being too chicken to have the battle, though that same hindsight shows that I can’t imagine choosing differently at the time, even as I’ve never made the same choice to reward the undeserving in that way again.

This student must be close to 30-years-old now. I imagine she’s very successful. I hope she’s happy.

Seven years later, I haven’t “yet” come to understand that English is less important than the hard majors.

I wonder when she got her first B, and how she handled it.


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