Bargaining for Grades: College as a Middle Eastern Bazaar

Student Behavior as a Poor Reflection on Societal Trends

“I … worry about the moral health of our undergraduates.” Thus began an email message that I sent recently to several senior administrators and faculty colleagues on my campus. My email message contained replicas of a slew of messages that poured into my inbox from students in a sophomore-level math class that I taught in the just-concluded spring semester. The incoming messages commenced within hours of my posting the course grades and did not stop for ten days. Just to give the reader a flavor, here are snippets from a few of the offending missives:

I worked really hard in this class and still couldn’t get the grade I was hoping for. Is there any way where my grade can be C-. … Please is there any way. [sic] I studied hard for the final, but the last minute I had a death in the family, and my mom still told me to take the exam the day it was. I thought I was prepared enough to take it, but I had too much going through my head. Please can u do something since I am at a D+. 

I just noticed my final grade for your class, is there any possible way for me to change it? Please let me know.

I was wondering is there any possible way I could receive a C- (passing) for this semester. I know I failed the final but is there anything I can do to show you my knowledge exceeds the 48 [[out of 200]] I received. [sic] Retaking this course will set me a year back in graduating due to the strict scheduling blocks … for engineering. 

In my message, I asserted that “Some students seem to think that the awarding of grades takes place in an arena that is either tantamount to a middle eastern bazaar in which everything is open to negotiation, or a setting in which they are free to make demands purely because it serves their interest to do so.”. Thereby ensued an interesting dialogue – some of whose speculations and conclusions I would like to present here. But first a little context.

Three years ago I retired as Professor of Mathematics at a major state university. However, during my final 11 years, I served as Senior Associate Dean in the so-called College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and as such, I did no teaching during that time. Since my retirement, I have returned to teaching (part-time). Perhaps not surprisingly, I noted that quite a few changes in the instructional environment had occurred over the decade in which I was out of the classroom. Most had to do with the pervasive effects of technological innovation. Numerous aspects of the enterprise – including registration, student-teacher communication, presentation of syllabi and assignments, administration of exams and issuance of grades – had been altered due to the advent of advanced technological capabilities. But the change that most surprised me, and about which we are concerned here, is the unwillingness of too many of today’s students’ to unquestioningly accept the instructor as the ultimate arbiter of their grades. Here is another representative example from the email onslaught:

I thought I had done well, but my final grade in the class is less than I thought it would be. Also, if I did do well on the final, will you please consider raising my grade any bit? I am going to take summer classes to keep a certain GPA, but they are very expensive for out of state students so I want to take as little as possible.

The afore-mentioned dialogue raised two questions: What accounts for this change in student behavior and – presuming it is unwelcome – what can be done about it? Few answers were offered for the second question, but many were suggested for the first. These included: a reflection of how children are raised; emulation of parental behavior; spillover from how people see deals are cut when making major purchases; pressure to always “go for it” and to “maximize options”; being overly task-focused at the expense of seeing the big picture.

While thinking about this behavior and in light of some of the other remarks from colleagues, I compiled a list of eight possible causes of said behavior. I have been contemplating all of them as I focus on methods, which I might employ in the future to encourage students to modify their behavior. But more on that below. First, the causes:

1.      Helicopter Parents. One consequence of parents who advocate incessantly for their children are students who recognize no bounds to self-advocacy.

2.      Family Breakdown. The decay in the structure of the American family is well-documented. A concomitant withering of moral instruction is an obvious consequence.

3.      In Loco Parentis. The university long ago shed its role as a moral instructor of the nation’s youth who are between their parents’ home and their own.

4.      College Cost. The cost of an education is so severely high that every bad grade, which is an impediment to obtaining a degree, is seen as a major obstacle to securing the ticket to increased success and wealth, which, statistics prove, a college degree represents. Thus any failing grade is not only a reflection of poor effort, but also a serious blow to one’s chance at material success.

5.      Teaching to the Test. Official policies that result in instruction and examination based solely on a tool that will purportedly measure the acquired knowledge lead to the following, according to one faculty colleague: “a generation viewing life as a ‘sequence of necessary tasks.’  They are generally willing to do the tasks, but they are a little indifferent as to whether the tasks have meaning. In the case of grades … the students … do not understand what it means to have their work ‘objectively judged’.”

6.      Entitled. We are less a society devoted to personal responsibility than to individual entitlement. Young people are imbued with the idea that they are entitled to a higher education. A failing grade interferes with that entitlement.

7.      Liberty. We are also a society no longer focused in individual liberty, but instead on universal equality. Well if we are all equal and are all to stay equal, then we all ought to receive equally fine grades.

8.      Cultural Heritage. Finally, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, with the change from a relatively uniform Western European heritage into a multicultural society, it may be that the British stiff upper lip is unheard of in vast segments of current American society.

So what might be done about these causes and the unpleasant student behavior that results from them? What can the university do? What can I do? With the possible exception of #3 and #4, these are truly societal or cultural shifts, which the university reflects more than instigates. Regarding #4, there is no question that the cost of a higher education in the US has skyrocketed in recent decades. The university might do something about that, e.g. by: cutting back on bloated administrative staffs; ceasing to build outrageously expensive buildings to house sports or recreational facilities; or by being more selective in supporting the overly extensive academic fields of study that reflect the excessive reach of today’s mega universities.

As for #3, there is again no question that universities have retreated from their historical role – alongside parents and family, church and civic associations, and of course elementary through high school teachers – as molders of the morals of the youth who pass through the portals. Personally, I don’t view this as a healthy trend, but I doubt that it will change anytime soon.

So I am essentially amalgamating #3 in with the remaining six causes, against which I doubt that the university, much less I, will have any influence in the near future. So what shall I do with next year’s students? Well, in the future, on my course web page (which students must consult at the beginning of and throughout the semester), I will explain – as I always have – how the final course grade is determined by a tally that is computed via an explicit formula which comprises scores on in-class exams and quizzes, homework(both written and computer-generated) and the final exam. But I will now also explain in detail that the only way that the grade so formulaically determined can be changed is if either the numerical tally is borderline – meaning specifically within 10% of the cutoff between two grades – or if the final exam score is at least two grades off from the tally. In either event, the deciding factor in determining whether to alter the grade – either up or down – will be completely determined by the quality of the final exam paper that the student writes.

That’s it! No “buts”; no “ifs”; no “special considerations.” Sounds simple and definitive. But alas, as the afore-mentioned colleague pointed out: “Including the narrative may or may not help with the immediate issue; the problem is that the students emailing you believe that the statements in the syllabus are general and do not apply to their ‘unique circumstances’.

The major changes in US society that unleashed the forces, which result in the self-centered and irresponsible student behavior that I have identified, may prove more durable than my feeble attempt to quantify it away. If so, the development does not represent a step forward for the university or for society.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative