13 March 2016

An ode to the real 4.0 student

This week is finals week of my first quarter back since Jonathan was born. I chose to TA for a class on Rome, as it only required me to be on campus 3 days per week, and it's been a great experience thus far. However, thanks to a  few students, I am feeling stretched and poked like a mound of Play Doh (sp??). 

I am quite aware that in many cases where there is a stricter grader and a more generous grader, I will be the former. It seems to me that a student who receives an A should be anything but complacent, and that that grade is for those who have pushed themselves continuously in a course. A 4.0/100% should only be given when exceptional work has been done, as it implies perfection. Unfortunately, we work and study in a time and a country where students often expect to be given a passing grade (read=A) just for showing up and doing a decent job on most of the assigned work. That a teacher would demand consistent study, practice and punctuality in turning in work seems to be a totally abstract concept for many. I'm sorry for this rant, but some of the experiences that my colleagues and myself have had are simply laughable, and continue to confirm the reality that many American students (the international students are usually more open to adapting to regular expectations if they aren't already conditioned to them) expect to be given the grade that they want just for occupying a desk in the university of their choice. 

So, back to me being the strict grader. I am currently dealing with multiple students who think my grades are unfair and several of whom have gone to the professor about it. Now, let me say that this is the first "content course" I have TAd for in 7 years of teaching, and that I, too, had a very steep learning curve as to how to grade essays, in particular. The students had two papers due over the course of the quarter. The first paper took me at least 14 hours to grade, probably more. The amount of basic spelling, grammar and syntax errors was staggering, and, I do admit, may well have caused me to mark some grades down lower than I would have otherwise. Having said this, 15 years ago, that kind of marking down would have been normal practice, I'm quite sure. I was under the impression that part of writing a good paper requires that the reader not have to parse and reorder your clauses, words and letters themselves in order to understand your points, but that's just my humble opinion, and one with which roughly 65% of my students in this course would apparently disagree. I gathered this from the death glares that I received from many otherwise upbeat individuals upon receiving the graded essays. Shockingly, most of the students most upset rarely spoke in class, and don't seem particularly concerned with whether or not they make it to lecture on a regular basis. 

All of this is to demonstrate my reasons for being extremely irritated with the fact that I now am spending valuable time during my weekend and time off trying to make a few average students feel better about themselves by pretending that a book report is an acceptable 4.0 essay and that it's all my fault if they don't get the grade they "need". Now, I'm aware that, apparently, the other two TAs' averages were slightly higher than mine, but I didn't receive specifics and this was something a student shared with me to bolster her argument for more points. It's very possible that their averages are higher, in which case the professor wants us all to adjust our median/curve. Either way, the students complaining are not turning in work that consistently demonstrates attention to detail and some attempt at excellence. I understand not every student is capable of excelling in every course they take, as we are all extremely different in our skills and interests. Isn't that what studying is for? Or a B or C grade? I had a horrible time getting passing grades in a handful of Gen Eds in undergrad, and I'm sure I complained...but I DID THE WORK! 

This, then, is my ode to the students in my class who did receive 4.0's (I DID give several out, along with several other A grades!) and most of whom pursued their questions by getting in touch with me during class or otherwise. Great students are far too often hard to distinguish from the pack of average ones in our current culture of grade inflation, and that is just not fair. This inflation isn't fair for the great students (duh), but it's also unfair for their teachers who are faced with either giving in to or engaging in ridiculous debates with the average/disatisfied students. It is actually NOT true that everyone deserves to succeed identically in every area, and tgis should be a source of richness in a society, because it should allow those that do excel to be recognized for it. What everyone DOES deserve is to succeed at the thing they were made to succeed at. The American Dream didn't start out as the idea that an Italian who was a wizard with pasta should come to America because there he could be a world-famous shoe-maker, or that a French breadmaker could come be a good blacksmith. It was the idea that you should be able to succeed in the area you were made for. First you have to find out what that is, and that requires much trial and error. Many students in US colleges and universities today live as if all you need to do to be successful at something is to check the box next to it for your major.

I'm trying to end this in a cool way but it just keeps going on, so I will just stop! Can we just all be okay with not being the best at everything??

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