The spring semester recently concluded at the large state university campus where I still teach part-time (even though I am formally retired). The students in my post-calculus, differential equations course – a sophomore math offering taken mostly by engineering students – performed at a level commensurate with what is normally seen in this course. Thus the grades I issued conformed to the usual bell shaped curve and so one saw roughly 10% A’s, 20% B’s, 40% C’s, 20% D’s and 10% F’s. (Alright, I am not immune from the ubiquitous phenomenon of grade inflation – the actual grade distribution was definitely skewed somewhat higher.)
The students who failed the course largely knew that this was the likely outcome before even sitting for the final exam and – since their performance on the final confirmed their hopeless status – I had virtually no blowback from these students. But from the D students, an avalanche of email cascaded down upon me as soon as the grades were (electronically) available. The avalanche is explained in part by the following: despite the fact that D is considered a passing grade, the Engineering School will not give credit for the course unless the student obtains a C or higher grade. Thus, students who earn a D feel that, in spite of the fact that they did “good enough,” their effort was unrewarded and they are resentful that they have to repeat the course to get credit toward their degree.
Here is a typical example from the slew of emails I received – almost all of which matched this one in tone and content:
I am a second year chemical engineer and I need at least a C to pass the course. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. While studying for the final exam I spilled milk on my laptop, rendering it unusable. My father had to take me to the Apple store for repair. This whole ordeal took up most of my study time. I don’t mean to make excuses, but due to these circumstances I had a very short amount of time to study for the exam, and my performance was impacted. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. Considering all the good I’ve done throughout the semester, I think I should at least get a C. I will get kicked out of my major if I do not get a C in the class. Please reconsider my grade or even allow me to do any work to boost my grade. Once again Mr. Lipsman, I am asking out of the kindness of your heart please bump my grade up a little more, please! Please, if there is anything that you can do, I would very much appreciate it.
My typical response is a polite email, which points to the course web site (available to the students from the first day of class) that contains the grading scheme for the course; and then I highlight the specific poor points of performance on the student’s part that account for the unfortunate grade. (Conversations with colleagues reveal similar strategies.) That usually settles matters; but in a small number of cases, a student persists in pleading/demanding/scheming for a higher grade ex post facto. In that case, I turn the matter over to department or college administrators. On (fortunately, rare) occasion, matters can become rather unpleasant.
Even when I avoid such unpleasantness, I find these emails quite disturbing. Such an approach to a professor by a student would have been unthinkable two generations ago. But this kind of plea bargaining/begging for succor phenomenon has become increasingly common over the last decade or so. In fact, I believe this university student phenomenon reflects patterns of behavior that are prevalent throughout modern society. In this regard, universities reflect, as well as inaugurate and instigate various unwholesome features of our current culture.
In order to illustrate, I will identify the main themes that emerge from the email cavalcade that I endured:
- The student claims to have worked hard on the course. In some instances, this may be true; but in many, I know that it is not. Too many students have a warped idea of what hard work actually entails.
- The student is always a victim of some special circumstance (illness, accident, family crisis, poor advice, exceptionally challenging workload, etc.). The victim card is played often and instinctively. “It’s not my fault!”
- The student asserts his “right to pass.” Implicit is the belief that if he is properly enrolled, in good standing and pursuing a legitimate degree program, then he is entitled to be passed through this checkpoint in his journey – regardless of performance. He is entitled to a C merely by his legitimate presence in the course.
- “If you don’t give me a C, my future is in jeopardy.” Not only is he entitled, but the penalty for depriving him of his right will be severe. The resulting consequences for him will far outweigh any moral anguish suffered by me for distorting the legitimate outcome of the course’s process.
- Finally, “You, professor, can fix this.” No notion of personal responsibility enters the equation. The burden of this unfortunate affair lands on my doorstep to correct the injustice. The student inhabits a cosmos in which he is not in control of his destiny.
I propose that each of the above five manifestations of the student entitlement mentality is reflective of patterns present in society in general.
- Admittedly, this might be too heavily concentrated among government employees, but who hasn’t encountered an employee that complains of being overworked at the same time that both his inbox and outbox are suspiciously empty.
- We’re all victims these days; of racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms you haven’t yet recognized. We’re being screwed by big corporations, small businessmen, unscrupulous co-workers, bad neighbors, even members of our family. We are all categorized into boxes according to race, gender, age, geography and so on. And we are certain that those in the other boxes are working feverishly to limit opportunities for the occupants of our box.
- As a victim, my rights are being violated. I speak not of the rights granted to me by the Constitution, but instead those guaranteed to me by politicians. These include my right to a great paying job, a fine home, the best medical care, a secure retirement, an exceptional education – not to mention nice clothes, top notch appliances, a month’s annual vacation and a great set of wheels. To all this, I am entitled because … well, because from FDR to Obama, I’ve been told so.
- And if I don’t have these things, then not only are my rights being violated, but my life is being ruined.
- Finally, it is the primary responsibility of the government to ensure that my rights are not violated and that all the things promised to me by government are delivered to me by that government.
Well, perhaps I’ve engaged in a bit of hyperbole to make a point. In fact, most students are hard-working, conscientious and respectful. But the fact that the number who are not is increasing is troublesome. That they are increasing in number could be a reflection of unhealthy trends in society in general.
Dealing with these societal issues is a topic for another time and place. But the university is equipped to cope with their manifestations on campus. I have communicated to the Department Chair, College Dean and Dean of Undergraduate Education some recommendations to do exactly that. They include:
- It should be explained emphatically to new students at freshman orientation that grades are not a commodity to be bargained for or negotiated over. Grades express faculty evaluation of student performance over an entire course. They are not an opening bid in an auction. They are arrived at carefully by faculty based on specific course performance criteria spelled out in detail at the start of the course. On most campuses, faculty are already obliged to make these criteria known to students at the outset of the semester.
- If a student feels very strongly that the grade he was issued violates the terms of the criteria, he may politely ask the faculty member for a clarification. If, after the reason for his grade is outlined to him by the faculty member, he is convinced that the faculty member has violated his own rules, then the student may file a formal grievance above the faculty member’s head at the Department or College level. American campuses have long experience in setting up structures to administer such a procedure. However, also at freshman orientation, it should be stressed to students that grade grievances should only be filed in the extremely rare instance that a faculty member has manifestly behaved unjustly.
- Students should also be apprised that anyone who files more than one grievance over the course of an academic career will be called in by the Dean of Undergraduate Education for an interview. At that time it can be pointed out to the student how multiple grievances are telltale signs of one or more of the unhealthy societal behaviors outlined earlier. The student would then have an opportunity to confront, evaluate and perhaps alter his cultural axioms.
The university has traditionally played a societal role in converting callow youth into mature and responsible adults. Let us not subvert that role by giving in to immature and irresponsible behavior.
This essay appeared in a slightly abridged version, under the title “Give Me a Better Grade — I Deserve It” in Minding the Campus