The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Education is when you read the fine print.  Experience is what you get if you don't."...  ...Pete Seeger.

Commentary of the Day - January 24, 2003:  Grade Complaints at the Speed of Light.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

One test of how quickly the world of cyber-space works is to gauge how  long it takes certain  students, disappointed by the grades they've  received in my courses, to inform, via e-mail, of their disappointments. In the old days, such students would show up during the first days of the new semester and stammer out their complaints about the C- or D+ they received for work done in the semester just completed.  Most of the time, however, they manage to "get over" whatever grade initially struck them as unfair.  After all, with a new semester gearing up, who has time to rehash the one that's over.  No doubt some of these students bad-mouthed me to anybody willing to listen, but at least I was spared the gory details of how-and-why they nodded off in class or turned in their final paper four days late.

No longer. The internet has made things on the here's-my-bitch front much easier.  At my college students can access their grades with a few well-aimed key strokes, and if their  grades  are low enough (anything below, say, an A-) they take to the airwaves, blasting sharply worded messages to professors across the disciplines.  I happen to teach in the humanities where sour e-mail is the exception rather than the rule.  Occasionally a student will write to say that he "worked his ass off" in my course or that she wonders how I came up with the grade I did.  But my friends in the sciences tell me that the e-mail blitz they face  is much worse.  After all, what hangs in the balance of an organic chemistry mark is nothing less than medical school itself.  In most cases, students lobbying for a grade change do so as  the flags of deference fly, but even the nerdiest science geek is not fooled: these students hate the professor whose grade causes them to grovel over the internet.

I guess what bothers me most about these knee-jerk responses via e-mail is that they are no substitute for the learning that might happen when a student  rounds up the information he or she needs, thinks about  it carefully, and then, if need be, arranges for an office conference.  The result will probably not change the grade in question -- mathematical mistakes happen, transcription errors occur, although not often -- but it might lead to a better student performance in future courses.

At my college, the whole point of continuing to be "small" is that students and faculty members have ample  opportunities to share a cup of coffee at the snack bar -- even if the professor in question  happens to be a hard grader.  A snide piece of e-mail might feel like a good move at the time ("I hope that you have a nice Christmas knowing that you have ruined mine. . ."), but a hard look in any convenient mirror reveals otherwise.  Staring back is the person who made a series of bad decisions and then blamed somebody else for the consequences.  It is not a pretty sight, but real learning begins when you accept that there is a difference between what one earns in a college course and a new sweater with machine oil on the sleeve.  You can take the latter back to Macy's and complain; as for the former, however, tuition dollars buy something far more complicated, and far more precious.

That's why I tell students that it's never a good idea to compose an e-mail that demands justice.  You just might get what you ask for, only to discover that your C- is now a D+.  Much better, I tell them, to plead for mercy, and moreover, to do it in a humane, face-to-face setting.  Everyone, including the professor in question, wants mercy, and who knows, you just might spin out a tale that moves him or her to tears.  Don't count on it, of course, mostly because it's hard to come up with something original.  The good stuff, I'm afraid, has already been used up in literature courses.  Besides, it's easier -- much easier -- to apply yourself in such courses from the beginning rather than to wait until only a magnificent story can save the day.

Why am I sharing what are clearly a series of crochets?  Because I used to feel that I was the only professor in the college who had unhappy students in the days -- now minutes -- after I submitted my final grades.  It turns out that I had lots of company, something I should have figured (but, alas, didn't quite) from hundreds of novels.   Others, I hope, can take a bit of solace in the space between semesters, when relaxation mingles with putting together syllabi and nudging a piece of scholarship forward.

©2003 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Humanities Professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

The IP comments:  The IP was a bit surprised when he first read Sanford's commentary about grade complaints via email.  The IP's experience here at Krispy Kreme U. -- a large public, comprehensive university -- has been quite different.  He has never had a student complain about a grade via email, although some have used email to request a conference to discuss their final grade.  The great majority of the students who did requests conferences wanted to examine their final exam, and wanted more information about where they stood in the class -- obviously hoping that if they were near the cutoff for a higher grade that I might be persuaded to nudge that line a bit to help them out.  With a few exceptions, they accepted the inevitable with candor and resignation.  Few were as "demanding" as the students that Sanford describes.  But, this may just reflect the differences between students who attend elite private institutions, and those who attend the more plebeian public campuses.

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