Teaching

Can I See My Grade?

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.

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

A Poor Desk-Side Manner

A brilliant art instructor at a state university opens up the class for discussion. A returning student waves her hand, is called on and starts to talk about art. Almost seamlessly, she drifts into her experience as a nurse in World War II. After four minutes, students are shifting in their seats. After nine minutes, three students leave to "go to the bathroom." As this lonely, older woman takes the class hostage, the instructor sits and does nothing.

A philosophy teacher who has presided over classrooms at a local community college is talking about Kant. A student asks a challenging question. In an angry tone, the teacher not only belittles the student, but then reels off his list of credentials and publications. Thirty students sit, stunned. As the semester unfurls, they learn to meekly nod their heads and tell him what he wants to hear.

An anthropology instructor lectures. It is obvious that she knows her subject. She then points to a student and asks him a direct question. Unsure, the student starts to answer, then stutters. She immediately attacks him verbally, "I thought you knew this subject. How could you let me down?" It is as though she sees the student's lack of confidence as a personal attack on herself. By the end of the week, two students have broken out crying and left the room. The others sit, shocked by the brutality they've witnessed.

A poetry teacher at a state university sits at the podium, untested. He insists that his students go to poetry readings where his old cronies preside. Should a student ask him a question that even hints of dissent, this instructor will go into an incoherent rant. No iambic pentameter? Out. Not a Shakespeare fan? Out. The final was based on his offhand verbal comments during the semester. Oddly enough, he was absent half the time.

Disappointing desk side manner. It's as bad as getting a doctor who not only won't tell you what you've got, but how to get better. The stories? True. Told to me over breakfast and lunch meals punctuated with disappointment and anger. The past students were happy to unwind their memories and share what worked -- and what didn't -- with instructors that were in charge of
their education.

The problem? Ego? Fear? A deep disappointment in one's job? Too many years behind the podium? Insecurity? It's a complex problem -- but I see a few common threads:

Your opinion doesn't count: This is a hard one. Yes, we instructors are the experts. Yes, we are charged with the job of imparting that knowledge to our students. No, we are not God. This idea of being "better than" may stem from years of teaching undergraduates who don't seem to know the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Years of dragging unwilling general education students through the course load, hoping that one (or two) will actually get something out of it. Yes, it can be disappointing. The best antidote? I think it is inviting comment. Yes, limiting input, but inviting other opinions.

Once in a literature class at a business school, a student piped up with an idea about the text we had been reading -- Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. His offhand thought changed the way I thought about that play. Yes, I had to fight feelings of inferiority (hey, why didn't I notice that?), but I just took a breath as he was speaking and considered content -- not the position of the person who was giving his opinion. I realized that his opinion, though not based in years of study as mine was, was valid. And I was going to run away with that insight and incorporate it into my next few classes. For a moment I might have felt insecure, yet I was the one that walked away with more -- and my future students would be better off for this one student's insight. I thanked him during class. It cost me nothing.

I want you to like me: It's strange to think of teachers as people who need encouragement, kindness, or a listening ear. But some in our field are afraid to take control of the class. For non-tenured faculty, there may be a backlash here. Softening the curriculum and allowing the students to run rampant can result in complaints from the students who came to class hoping to listen. But the flip side is that those without security on campus may feel compelled to "play to the class," knowing that not making demands on students will result in a "feel good" evaluation at the end of the semester.

I have overheard students in the hallway complaining about an instructor who refused to address disruptive behavior -- I'm disappointed that everyone's chance to learn has been spoiled. I have actually watched a colleague struggle with a course. A trio of students in the front row whispered and giggled; a set of lovers in the back completely ignored her lecture. At break time, half the class disappeared and never returned. I felt embarrassed, yet I realized I was witnessing a painful lesson. If it is more important to be liked than to take lead, the students will walk all over you.

When given the chance to take her class for two days while she had surgery, I leaped at the opportunity. I walked in, confident in stride, class list in hand. I looked left, right, back and front. I made eye contact with every student. And then I began. The two that couldn't keep their hands off each other? They settled into their own seats. I drafted the ones in the front row to pass out handouts; humiliated in their new role as "teacher's pets," they immediately became quiet and attentive -- if a bit sullen. Before the break, I announced that I would take roll after the break and anyone who was late would score a "tardy" in the book. Surprisingly only two came in late with sheepish looks on their faces. The difference? I had already decided that these students were not my friends. I did not care if they liked me or not. What I did care about was that they leave that class with the ability to write varied sentences with a minimum of error. Everything I did that night was backed with that idea. And they responded with a degree of respect.

The areas where I find that I do care what others think seem to be when I am in contact with other colleagues and administrators. They can teach me a great deal -- and their opinion of me matters. I work to bond with them. That is where the friendships should be. And over time, I have developed a friendly yet firm style with students that relieves me of the ache to be liked by each and every one. What a relief.

I'm the boss: This is almost the antagonist to the people-pleaser. Not only is he or she unable to take criticism, they must belittle and browbeat to feel important. This is the most dangerous kind of
instructor. They may not be physically violent, but they will suck the curiosity out of students faster than a new-age bagless vacuum. I have known experts in my time. Many, many teachers that knew years, even decades worth of information that I did not have as a student. But they never lorded their credentials over me. In some cases I only found out a teacher had a doctorate when I visited their office or saw their name on class materials.

Why browbeat and vent on a bewildered student? For some, this ensures simplicity. They will no longer be questioned. Their midterm and final will be easy to grade. No dissenting opinions will mar their syllabus. They can teach until retirement without the mess of having to take into account other's opinions. And at least in the classroom, they will be the authority.

Sad, but true, some of these instructors may just be misguided. Others may feel small because of some history or some circumstance. Made fun of because they had glasses, were shorter than others in their class, or had braces on their teeth, they find themselves in front of a captive audience -- and without noticing, they have become the tyrant. Students wither under this kind of rigid, authoritarian training. Some drop; others pretend to agree and just get through the semester; still others writhe under the thumb of the instructor, coming into conflict again and again. The antidote? Check your evaluations. If other instructors have heard about you -- or your dean has heard complaints, check to see if you're carrying baggage into the classroom. Maybe it's time to see a mental health professional off campus -- or take the summer off to evaluate. Observe friendlier, "softer" instructors who score high with students and keep an open mind. Maybe you'll balk, thinking that they're playing the clown to the students, but watch and wait. You may find a style that is in-between that will work for you.

Teaching is difficult. It's difficult to prepare the right thing. Be in the right place. Teach with a style that works for you and the students. It's difficult to find a balance. It was just like my experience writing. In my first year of creative writing at a state university, I started rolling out prose like Hemingway. Later I found myself moving into a florid Henry James voice -- still later a Jane
Austin look-alike. With practice, I finally found my own voice. Teaching is the same. I borrow ideas and small bits of style from others, and strangely enough, with the pressure of teaching, my own
style emerges. I talked to a new adjunct at the departmental meeting.

She asked me how I handled unruly students. As we chatted outside a classroom crowded with teachers, I realized that she was taking bits and pieces from me. I smiled, knowing that I would listen and learn, too. That the chair of my department, dapper in his gray suit, may give me a nugget that I need. Or the reading instructor that runs the lab. Or the woman who is known as the grammar queen. Each is a helpmate, an example, and on a good day, a fine example of teaching.

Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about misguided student friendships.

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