The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."....  ...Robert Heinlein.

Commentary of the Day - April 27, 2006:  Just Tell Me I'm Wonderful and Give Me the A!  Guest commentary by Tina Blue.

I have been teaching freshman and sophomore English at a state university since 1972.  For part of that time (18 years), I also ran a home day care center; and, I also worked as a substitute teacher in the local elementary schools for a year while continuing to teach at the university.

One of the reasons I closed my day care center in 1999 was that the children who attended were so unsocialized that it became not just difficult but often unpleasant to deal with them for many hours each day.  I quit working as a substitute after just one year for a similar reason.  The students in the grade schools were so unsocialized that it was difficult to maintain enough control to get through the lessons that I was supposed to teach.

In addition to being poorly behaved and difficult to control, most of the children had also learned that no one was ever supposed to criticize them or to say anything to them other than how wonderful and special they were.  Their self-esteem had been bolstered not by their having acquired any knowledge, not by learning to manage their own impulses or to develop any skills or accomplish anything, but rather by indiscriminate praise and a total absence of constructive criticism or honest evaluation of their performance at any task.

During those last few years of daycare, and during that one year as a substitute teacher, I often thought to myself (with more than a little dread) that these children were in the pipeline and we would be getting them in our college classes soon.

I met in my office yesterday with a student who has been coming for conferences a twice a week for the past two and a half weeks.  He didn't start coming in for help with his writing until then, just three and a half weeks before the end of the semester.  But he wants a good grade (i.e., better than a C, and preferably an A), and he finally realized that it just wasn't happening for him, so now he is coming to see me.

Or at least he was coming to see me.  I doubt he will be in my office again this semester.  Five minutes into our conference yesterday he snatched the draft of his paper out of my hand, stuffed it into his backpack, and stomped out of my office in disgust.  He sent me an email last night saying that the reason he cut our conference short in such a rude way was that no matter how hard he tries I keep criticizing his writing.

I have to admit I have contributed to grade inflation, not willingly, but because of overwhelming pressure from all sides.  I don't hand out As and Bs like candy, the way so many teachers do these days, but I do tend to pull my punches at the lower end of the grade scale.  I don't give as many Ds and Fs as I used to.  In fact, I often put a C- on a paper that would have earned a D from me twenty years ago.  Giving a student less than a C- on any sort of writing that is not absolutely illiterate has become virtually impossible, no matter what the flaws in the writing are -- especially since even our best college students now make errors of the sort that would have earned a grade school student an F at one time.

This boy actually got a D+ on his first paper.  Let me be honest here: twenty years ago I would have given that paper an F, without any hesitation at all, and I believe that most or all of my colleagues would have done the same.  But even putting a D+ on it was difficult in the current atmosphere, and he was obviously upset by having gotten such a grade. (Not upset enough to come in for a conference, of course.)

His second paper was equally weak, but this time he had taken advantage of the opportunity I offer students to turn in a draft before the paper is due, in order to get feedback on it before turning it in for a grade.  After seeing the corrections and comments on the draft, he finally decided to come in to see me for help.

During our first few conferences, I went over each sentence to explain in more detail his grammar and usage errors and his stylistic missteps.  I also showed him where paragraphs were not developed or where coherence was not maintained within a paragraph or between paragraphs.  You know, all the things we are supposed to be teaching students in a composition and literature class.  Each time he came in, he would bring another draft of the paper, and each draft would show some improvement over the preceding draft.  In other words, our conferences were helping.  He was improving his writing.

By improvement I mean that he was writing papers that would get grades within the C range.  Remember, his papers were originally bad enough that they would have gotten Fs 20 years ago, and his first paper had gotten a D+ even now, with grade inflation in full effect.  But he wasn't happy to hear that he was working in the C range now.  He doesn't want a C in the course.

Unfortunately, he also doesn't think he deserves Cs on his papers. He believes he deserves As, and since he has never gotten below an A in any English course or on any English paper, including those he wrote for English 101 and English 102 here at the university where I teach, it seems obvious to him that he is in fact an "A writer," and I am just an unreasonable, hypercritical harpy.

I know why this young man has always gotten As in his English classes.  He is very cute and very charming -- that is, as long as you don't cross him. Cross him and he gets pretty nasty.

I have another attractive, charming student in the same class who is also getting Ds on papers, though he has now begun to come in for conferences, and we are making very good progress with his writing.  It is late in the semester, so I don't know if he will manage to get better than a C in the course. Frankly, I doubt it, though there are still two essays and the final to write, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that he could pull through with a very low B, especially since I do give credit for obvious improvement, and I do count later work a bit more heavily than early work.

But this boy also tells me that he got an A in English 102 and a B in English 101.  His writing did not suddenly become terrible between English 102 and English 210 (my class).  It always was terrible. But he was still getting mostly As in English courses, with the occasional B.

How can we teach these kids if they believe, first of all, that we have no right to criticize them, and second of all, that they really deserve all those As they have been getting despite their decidedly substandard work?

And then there is the expectation that we are never supposed to even say anything slightly negative to them about their work (e.g., "I'm sorry, but this paper has too many grammar and usage errors to deserve an above average grade”), but they feel they have the right to treat us rudely, snatching their papers from our hands, stomping out of our offices in a rage, if they are not delighted with the grades we give them or the fact that we actually require them to do their work.

Think about his complaint, "You criticize my writing no mater how hard I try."

How else am I supposed to show him what is wrong with a paper or what isn't working, so that he will be able to fix it or improve it in his next draft?

Of course I criticize his work when it is not good enough.  That's what teachers do.

© 2006 Tina Blue.
Tina Blue teaches English at a large midwestern university.  She also publishes the Teacher, Teacher web pages.

The IP responds:  The IP understands the both the frustration that Tina Blue feels with the students that she writes about, and the frustration of the students themselves.  Far too many of today's college students have difficulty writing a simple declarative sentence let alone a coherent paragraph.  However, one should not jump to the conclusion that all college students are that inept.  In the IP's classes perhaps a third of the students can write decent prose.  Another third can write sentences that can be understood with a little imagination on the part of the reader.  However, a good third of the students write so poorly that it is difficult to understand what, if anything, they have on their minds.

At the same time the IP can sympathize with students who feel frustrated when they finally encounter a teacher who has high expectations, and who will not give high grades for substandard work.  After all, for years these students have received A grades for C work.

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