The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Others pass from hand to hand, sorry brass just struck last week and branded with a wretched brand.."...  ....Aristophanes "The Frogs".

Commentary of the Day - October 20, 2004:  I'm the Teacher, You're the Student by Patrick Allitt.  Guest commentary by Beverly Lucey.

I seem to be in a self-righteous snit at the moment.  The snit causing incident?  I finished reading Patrick Allitt's book I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: a Semester in the University Classroom; and, until Chapter 17, it was quite enjoyable.

Allitt is a professor of U.S. History at Emory University and holds a Chair for Teaching Excellence.  A friend of mine who used to teach at Emory, but left for Notre Dame, tells me that Allitt was his son's favorite history professor.  He's funny, he uses music and literature in his classroom, and he is very generous with his time.  He even trots off to teach an informal night class to bright, eager senior citizens in a nearby suburb just because they asked him to.  The man loves to teach.  He is strong and bright and good.  He is tenured.

Even so, unfortunately, he's a grading wuss.  Chapter 17 is a big bilious blob of rationalization.  His book chronicles a typical semester with a typical cast of characters in one typical intro course.  Anyone who teachers General Education courses knows these students.  If I believed in Bell Curves I'd have to say that the attitudes, personalities, effort (or lack thereof) and occasional weasel behavior described would earn the course takers a few Fs, a couple of Ds, a clot of Cs, a generous helping of Bs, and the awarding of 3-4 in the A range.  That is, if Allitt is historically accurate in his descriptions of his students.  I trust that he is.

We've all met the grade mongers, the ones who, unlike our President, seem insulted by a C.

Why, a C is average.  Are you saying that I am average?  Ordinary?  Not good?

Based on the work done in our semester together?  Yes.  As a human being?  Surely not.

Let's not even think about a person who rarely attends or hands in work but asks for extra credit at the end of a course to bring his grade up.  Up?  To what?

The real thorns are the prickly students who expect an A.  They are ambitious.  Adversarial.  Adamant.  Anxious.  All those begin with A so they must deserve reconsideration from the enemy.  Me.

I became aware of this expectation the hard way.  At an orientation for new faculty at a small college in Georgia seven years ago, one of our deans noted that the students were high achievers.  They expected to do well and they expected to be rewarded for it.  Uh, oh.

I was going to be teaching seniors and graduates who had returned for a fifth year free program for teacher certification in methods and management.  I would also be observing them in real life classrooms.  Most were very bright women and expected their A.  They expected to be excellent in their initial efforts in the classroom.  They expected the students would love them, be fascinated by their assignments, and be orderly gems for Miss _______.  I gave out a few Bs and one C the first semester, in addition to an A or two.  My department chair backed me, even though she received a number of complaints and threats.  Such went the succeeding semesters.  It wasn't that difficult to defend, although some of the last moments I had with students were tense.  On the other hand, I would be writing their recommendations to prospective principals, so I had a bit of a cushion going for me.

Now I teach Freshman Composition at the University of Arkansas in Conway.  Every student has to take it.  Their commitment varies.  The freshmen temptations are everywhere.  Grades reflect this.  It's understandable.  Not everyone enjoys writing.  I get that.  Before, I was teaching students who had picked a career, and were months away from being in The Real World receiving a Real Salary.  Now I teach students just out of high school with wildly different backgrounds.  I also have a sprinkling of older, returning students who have seen the world and want more out of it.  Some are self conscious and rusty, but they hang in there, for the most part.

Our department chair urges us to invite students to withdraw, rather than to receive an F.  I can live with that easily.  Mid-semester usually is  a good time to issue those invitations.  They should concentrate on doing better in their other courses, and should try again next semester. I've had solid conversations with students over such issues.  Telling a student, "It's too late," is often the kindest thing to do.

But every semester, in every class, students will come to see me and say, I have to get an A in this class.

"Why is that?"

My parents expect it.

I've always gotten A in English.

I'll lose my scholarship if I don't.

This course is supposed to be easier. My friends in other sections are getting an A.

I point them to the grade descriptors in the syllabus, tell them I'd love to see some excellent work on their part, and send them on their way.  The end of the semester comes.  I turn my grades in.  I wait for hysterical emails telling me how unfair I am being.

According to Chapter 17 of Allitt's book, they are on solid ground, while I feel the earth rocking under my rolling chair.

Allitt says, "Who's in favor of grade inflation?  Nobody.  Who practices grade inflation?  Everybody.  It's an example of Gresham's law.  Bad (inflated) grades drive out the good...

...Look at the students I've been teaching this term.  In an ideal world I would give about a quarter of them Fs.  Why?  Because they have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, they don't want to do the necessary hard work, they skimp on the reading, and can't write to save their lives.  That's grounds enough for an F, surely.

Will I give them Fs?  No.  Most of them will get a B- and a few really hard cases will come in with Cs."  (pages 218-219)

Wait just a minute here.  A B- from Emory could mean the student deserved an F?  I'm rather shaken up this side of the Mississippi River.  I could imagine a C+-ish student with mitigating circumstances, but the man has gone public saying he and everyone else he knows (and doesn't know) does the same thing.  Argh.  Gack.  Must.  Get.  Air.

"I've always found it difficult to stand up to their browbeating.  I'm the teacher and they're the students, admittedly, but it doesn't quite feel that way.  Students of both sexes are equally good at making this professor, at least, feel sheepish and mean-sprited -- they make me wonder if it really was spite or insufficient appreciation for their greatness that caused my pen to write a B+ in the box where the A was supposed to be."  (page 222)

"Twenty years of teaching, including Berkeley, and tenure, only to sound like Harvey Fierstein in 'Torch Song Trilogy'.  'I just want to be loved.  Is that so wrong?'"

Since I like a good theatrical allusion now and again, and Allitt mentions Gresham's Law, the concept is highlighted by the early Greeks.

The passage from Aristophanes "The Frogs" referred to is as follows; it is usually dated at 405 B.C.:

The course our city runs is the same towards men and money.
She has true and worthy sons.
She has fine new gold and ancient silver,
coins untouched with alloys, gold or silver,
each well minted, tested each and ringing clear.
Yet we never use them!
Others pass from hand to hand,
sorry brass just struck last week and branded with a wretched brand.
So with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names.
These we spurn for men of brass....
©2004 Beverly Lucey
I'm the Teacher, You're the Student, by Patrick Allitt (ISBN 0812218876) is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.  Beverly Lucey, in addition to teaching English at the college level, operates Tulip Tree Publishing.

The IP comments: The IP somehow is not surprised by Ms. Lucey's observations.  Unfortunately, grade inflation in academia has become the rule rather than the exception, particularly in those disciplines where grading is something of a subjective art.  Nevertheless, the IP looks forward to reading Allitt's book.  Perhaps those first 17 chapters will make up for Allitt's surrender to the times in later chapters.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.