Let’s talk about grades. As I go into this below, a couple of the students from tonight’s class are going to recognize their own words. Don’t feel singled out–they are included here because they are representative of a lot of students’ questions over the last few years.
1. So, this is a writing course?
Like many teachers in higher ed, I prefer evaluating students through written work. It struck me as amusing tonight that a student assumed it was a “writing course” because they are evaluated by what they write in their blogs. In one sense, of course, he is entirely correct. I do hope that the students’ writing abilities will improve during the semester. After all, the ability to write clearly is probably the most important skill students can learn in any undergraduate program.
On the other hand, I cannot think of a senior level course in my own undergraduate program that did not require a term paper, and often midterm papers. Sometimes we even had blue-book exams, something most of our students haven’t even heard of. It speaks volumes of our own program that having writing as the major evaluative component makes it a “writing course.”
2. What do I need to do to get an A in this course?
I don’t really care whether my students get As. Seriously. If every student flunked one of my courses, and they hated me, but they learned something important, that’s really fine by me. I totally understand the wish to get an A, and even the desire to get nothing but As, but — to be perfectly honest — I like many of our B students better. I think in Stewart Brand’s book on the MIT Media Lab he notes that the director at the time (I don’t remember who) would only accept students who had an F on their transcript, because it demonstrated that they had something more going on than just getting As in school. Anyway, I’m always a little at a loss.
An A means outstanding work — it is not something that can be met by any single sufficient condition. I have often, in the past, tried to get this across by saying that someone who teaches me something important or who surprises me is likely to get an A; but to be fair, this isn’t always true. It seems to me that a certain degree of originality and creativity is necessary for an A, but so too is a thorough knowledge of the material. Unfortunately, and this can be highly frustrating to some students, I understand, I know an A when I see it.
Tonight, I suggested that if someone had come up with the existential sock puppets (posted earlier) that would likely yield an A. A group after class asked me how long a video would be needed for an A. What we have here is a failure to communicate. It wasn’t the fact that it happened to be a video that made it interesting, it was that it was an original idea, well executed. I suggested that if they created a flash like the current Jib Jab one that has managed to sneak onto CNN, this would likely garner them an A.
This goes along with what must be the question that bothers me the most: how long does it have to be? I often use the Disneyfied Mad Hatter quote (doesn’t appear, to my knowledge, in any of Carol’s stuff: “Begin at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop.” I also sometimes note the infamous 3-page dissertation, but I cannot locate a reference at the moment? Anyone? [Update: A kind reader reminds me that the original is during the trial at the end, and the correct quote is:
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
Anyone want to help me with the 3-page diss? I think it solved a graphics problem, and that it was out of the University of Utah, by someone who later worked at PARC, but some or all of those could be wrong.]
I guess what I am getting at is that there is nothing wrong with wanting an A in a class, or a high GPA. Both of these things are good to have, I suppose. But if you look as any really successful people, they are unlikely to list among their accomplishments a high undergraduate GPA. Why? No one cares. Sure there are some caveats — if you don’t pull good board scores it might help you into a slightly better Law or B-School, but one grade, in the larger scheme of things, just doesn’t matter. Guess how often I wish I were teaching at Evergreen.
3. Are you a hard grader?
This is up there with “Did I miss anything important on the first day?” as one of the dumbest questions ever. What am I supposed to say? “No, I consider myself a ‘soft’ grader; perhaps even lackadaisical”? I grade as fairly as I can. In practice, this means that students get worse grades in my classes than they do in many others offered on campus. Several times, I’ve asked students what they think an “average” grade is. They will tell you, quite honestly, that they think it is a B or B-. Which leads to:
4. Is there a curve in this class?
Teachers in our department don’t actually curve exams; what they do is offer “saving” curves. And these are, again, usually curves around a B- average. Next semester I am actually curving the exams. That is, if the average on an exam is 90%, that will be a B-. (What did you think I was going to say, a C? Not unless I want my enrollments to plummet. Which, of course, I do, but I can’t let that happen or I will catch hell from the chair and the dean.)
5. Can you talk slower?
No. Seriously. I’ve tried really, really hard, and it is impossible for me to speak more slowly.
6. Can you use easier words?
OK, I can understand such a request from a second-language speaker, but both times I’ve heard this, it’s been from native speakers. I am sympathetic, really, but we somehow have to keep calling ourselves a university, don’t we?
7. Can I get your notes ahead of time?
I don’t have notes, usually. And when I do, you won’t understand them, because they are just to remind me of things (as hard as this may be to believe) that I already know. And I don’t do PowerPoint bullets unless it is absolutely necessary. I got sick of students copying down the overheads and thinking that they actually had notes to study with.
8. When will we get a study guide?
When they start sprinkling fresh soil on the coffin that houses my dead, cold body.
I actually had someone complain, after I handed out a detailed list of 120 questions from which I drew 40 for the exam, that it was unfair of me not to ask all of the questions. I used to do study guides, now I test more often and hope people will be encouraged to take notes.
9. What does the test cover?
The lectures and the readings. It’s not rocket surgery. (I used that phrase tonight in class, and I’ve decided to keep it.)
10. But this is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. Can’t you raise it just a little?
This should be a relief for you, now that the bar is a bit lower. (With thanks to Don Pember.)
All of this makes me sound like I am the meanest teacher on earth, and I don’t think that’s the case. I just hate the place grading has in the university. I would seriously consider just doing away with grades (As for everyone), and I know people who do this at the grad level, but whenever I’ve gotten close, students seem to lose any motivation for the material. Nonetheless, I may just decide to base the grade on some set of sufficient conditions: if you attend class and complete the assignments by the end of the semester, you get an A. Heck, I might even do that next semester.