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Can I See My Grade?

Can I See My Grade?
March 4, 2008

It was last official day of the semester. I had just finished recording my grades. Suddenly a wasp wafted into the office through an open window. The reincarnation of a student I had once flunked? No time to jest. What to do? I couldn't leave quite yet, as I regularly used to flee a former office, only to greeted the next morning or afternoon by wasps who had proceeded to take up residence there, until I had to kill them with cans of insecticide. This day, though, I didn't even have a fly swatter.

Perhaps in the closet of the custodian there was something. I left my office, and asked one of the secretaries in the outer office. No key, no luck. But wait. One of my students -- I had just a couple of hours ago decided to give him a "B" instead of a "C" -- chanced to be present. He offered to deal with the intruder for me. I hesitated. This might mean he would feel entitled to ask about his grade. Yet it sure would be nice to get rid of that wasp.

The student accompanied me to the office, spotted the wasp buzzing around the ceiling, took off his shoe, stepped on a chair, and dispatched the insect with one no-nonsense swat. Awhile ago, it had taken much more time for me to decide about his grade. Please, don't ask me now, I said to myself. To the student, I offered profuse thanks as well as nervous self-consciousness about my own fear of wasps.

"Sure, no problem," he shrugged, continuing out the door and then a short distance down the hall. Were we going to avoid the fateful question (with its attendant suspicion that the student had helped only in order to ask it)? No, we were not. He abruptly turned and asked in a sort of plaintive voice: "By the way, do you think I could see my grade?" Damn! I wished I could have taken off my shoe and swatted the wasp myself.

Is there a right way to answer the question? I've hated it since I began teaching, and not just because, at the instant of its utterance, the moments of teaching and learning fatally collapse into grading and being graded. In my experience, any answer is wrong. Tell the truth, and you'll almost certainly get into a squabble about the grade. ("I thought I improved." "I've got to raise my GPA." Etc.) Refuse to tell, and you risk disdaining any student's understandable concern.

What I used to do was make my answer dependent upon the individual. So I always truthfully answered ones who were to receive either an "A" or a "B," unless they had slipped by semester's end from the higher to the lower grade. Then my reply was the same as it was to all the rest: "I haven't finished grades yet." It was almost always a lie. Of course the students never knew. More to the point, they couldn't protest or argue.

Talking about grades was, and is, always rife with potential conflict.

None of it is edifying. Gradually, as if to withdraw further from the spectacle, I slipped into what could be charitably described as a gnomic phase. To the "A's" or "B's" I took to saying, "I don't discuss grades, but you won't be unhappy." They understood, and smiled.

To the rest, I said things like, "don't worry," "I know you tried your best," or, most boldly of all, "it was really hard to decide." Some disliked such words-the last soaked in special pleading of my own, haplessly designed to forestall the student's. Most students just shrugged and went away, figuring, perhaps, gnomic does as gnomic is.

Or else maybe, once an asshole, always an asshole. In my experience, one definition of an asshole is a teacher who says, "I never discuss grades." (And perhaps nowadays one who gives lower ones than "A" or "B.") Period. It took me many years to get to this period. Finally, however, I can report that I have. One size fits all. Don't ask, don't tell. Just read the syllabus. Nothing there about the curiosities of human communication, much less the dynamics of learning, whereby a discussion of one's grade by the student, especially if the grade is unsatisfactory, is almost impossible to prevent, once the grade is uttered by the teacher. There is simply the statement: "grades will not be discussed," because it's virtually impossible to discuss them, as opposed to whine about them.

Once I had a student who thanked me for giving him a "D." (Grades had just become available in the registrar's office.) He expected to fail. I never expected him to. But I didn't mention this, and there was undoubtedly much else neither of us mentioned, including his secret wish for a "C." So it goes with grades. One mere letter (or number) represents many things both to student and teacher. So few of any of these things can be honestly discussed between them that it's better none are, at least in the heat of the evaluative moment. One reason for the rise of the syllabus, I'm convinced, is to dispense with so much as the possibility of what might be described as the Scene of Whining.

A grander, more explicit dream of the syllabus: to remove the subjective moment entirely from grading. On the ideal syllabus, gradewise all is given, from the percentage of the grade devoted to each quiz to the percentage deduced on the basis of excessive absences. Grades aren't "given." They're computed. In the Platonic syllabus, no student ever stops by any professor's office in order to "explain" about that last absence, much less to "inquire" about that last quiz. A student might as well question the institution's stated date for final class withdrawal. Of course it goes without saying that in heaven every student has actually read the syllabus.

Alas, back down on earth there are usually a few in every class who haven't -- or else who are somehow, inexplicably, in denial over the precise intelligence that the syllabus is designed to impart. These students are not necessarily the ones who are most likely at semester's end to ask to see or know their grades. As my own above example illustrates, given the right circumstances, just about any student will raise the fateful question. But paying no attention to the syllabus helps, even if it must be admitted: No syllabus can spell out or guarantee the conditions of its own reception!

Just so, even a description of the most scientifically calibrated grading procedure cannot remove either the presence of a subjective moment or, which comes to the same thing, a student perception that such a moment has not occurred in actual professorial experience. That's the moment the can-I-see-my-grade question either openly addresses or else risks getting caught up in-from which a grade not so much issues as the final phase of a decision-making process but as the naked decision itself, stripped bare of rationale. If you're a teacher, try as you might -- in your heart of hearts (or at least your leather grade book) -- you're never going to free your grades from being perceived by some students in this way.

Especially today, when a further and far more insidious student perception is widespread: that the grade has become a commodity. "You get what you pay for." Who has not heard students blurt this formula, as if on command? In my experience, it's pointless to argue with the ones who do. You may as well argue with the whole culture that encourages them to think of grades, like everything else -- from skin cream to SUV's -- as things to be bought. Besides, are we all not familiar with the phenomenon of, precisely, "grade inflation?" If oil is subject to inflation, why not grades -- only this time, happily, to the advantage of the student "consumer?"

Can I see My Grade? One could argue that at many universities this particular question is now beside the point. Now the point is to get everything online -- students, teachers, course materials, and certainly grades. Some software programs allow students to access every quiz or test result, right to the end, and then see the final grade virtually as soon as it's posted. This might be characterized as a successful example of "customer satisfaction." But wait. What if the customer is not satisfied? Then can-I-see-my-grade becomes comparable to asking can-I-see-my-bill to a "service representative." In each case, the question constitutes the opening move in what all concerned know could be a protracted process of checking, re-checking, speaking to the supervisor, further negotiating, and so on.

If the subjective moment of grading cannot easily be removed from the evaluative process, neither can the subjective moment of inquiring about it. The two seem symmetrical to me. Perhaps this is the reason I've always hated the inquiry. It immediately sends me back to my decision, which I often experienced as agony, and now have to re-experience as if the agony never happened, for it's pointless or provocative -- sometimes both -- to exhibit ambiguity or equivocation to the student, who only desires the happiest, highest evaluative construal of all manner of factors, whether banned by the syllabus or not.

"Can I see my grade?" There's simply no defense against this question. You can reply as Harried Professor or Good Buddy. You can comprehend yourself or be comprehended as Registrar or Service Rep. You can alternate all your whole teaching career, as I have, between resenting the question and trying somehow to comply with it. The only certainty: The question is coming, at the end of pretty much every semester, and not always from the mouths of students whom you could have predicted. What you answer them may well define you as a teacher-for them, even for yourself-as much as how cheerfully you answered questions in class or how jauntily you handed out the syllabus that first day.

And my reply to the particular wasp-slaying student who last asked me the question? I paused, as to decide whether to revert to my initial way of dealing with it; after all, I had decided to give him the higher of two grades and he would not be displeased to learn this. Instead, I just went on emotional autopilot, as authorized by my current procedure, and lied that, sorry, I hadn't completed all the grades yet. The student was disappointed. Would that I could have apologized further, and tried to explain-well, precisely what? That his simple question was not in fact so innocent? "Give me a break!" he'd probably cry. In a sense, this is exactly where we came in.

Speaking of innocent, though, finally, what about the wasp? He -- I'm assuming -- just drifted in for whatever reason. Not instruction of some sort, surely, although I don't know much about wasps apart from their sting. My guess is, wasps, unlike humans, know pretty much everything they need to know from a very early age. In any case, he was collateral damage this day. I wish I hadn't been instrumental in bringing about his death. At least I wasn't obliged to give him a grade.

Bio

Terry Caesar's last column was about the concept of "faculty wife."

 

 

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