Friday, November 30, 2007


It is shocking to me, the way students think that effort entitles them to good grades. Or maybe it's not so shocking; they are the victims of a pervasive individualist ideology that suggests they can achieve anything if they work hard enough.

Anyway, I received a hysterical note from a student who got 60% on an assignment in my first-year class (which she's taking although she's a fourth-year student). To date, she's been receiving grades in the high 70s or low 80s - her grade is probably around 80%. She is hitting the roof about the 60%. The assignment was graded by the TA, and she has asked me to look it over. I have looked, and 60 is an appropriate grade - she did not do the assignment correctly. I am not worried about this being my fault for not instructing the students properly, because the vast majority of students understood what was being asked, and did it.

We parted ways after class yesterday, I with her essay in hand, saying I would look it over. A mere three hours later, before I'd had a chance to do anything, she sent me this histrionic email, freaking out about it. It reads, in small part:

"My marks mean alot [sic]to me, as I am trying to get into grad school [If you want to go to grad school, learn to write "a lot" correctly. - Pissed Off and Snarky Ed.], and these types of marks are just not acceptable to me. If I had spent little time on this assignment, I can absolutly [sic] understand a 60%, however I put a great deal of effort into this assignment and I feel my grade is a poor reflection of this. I had to drop the second part of this class because I cannot afford to be graded like that, and as I have 80% or higher in everyone of my 5 classes this semester besides [Name of my Discipline - spelled incorrectly, btw], and I think focusing on other areas of study would be my best and only option at this point."

(She says later, "I just feel like I can't win in this class." This is why her emails rings hysterical - she has had an 80% average before this!)

I am sorry, but WTF? Her grades are "unacceptable"?? What the hell kind of language is that? Unbelievable. And this notion that she spent a great deal of time on the assignment and therefore deserves a high mark, no matter that she did it incorrectly? Insane.

Obviously this originates from the belief that effort equates with entitlement. And this rhetoric of "unacceptability" comes from the conviction that I owe her a good grade as good customer service. Ugh.

I just wish students realized that the more they communicate in these terms, the less inclined we are to respond generously. As far as I'm concerned, her email is "unacceptable."


dbm/gaa said...

I get this attitude a lot (I also see the horrid "alot" a lot too!) and have received a fair number of histrionic emails in my time, too. The one you quote from is dead-on one I received about three years ago from a student who had also confused effort/time spent with her entitlement to an A. She also used the grad school argument and the whole "unacceptable" language. I sent her a brief email stating why she had done poorly on the particular assignment and pointed out no one is entitled to good grades unless they do good and correct work and left it at that. She seethed for the rest of the term but what else could I do?

Many students do have the idea that if they work hard enough they can acheive anything, but I'm not sure they know what hard work means. Many times it seems to come down to hours of effort, doing what I'm not quite sure. I have one student this term with some serious writing issues and she has worked hard to overcome them and see it as part of a long-term process of learning. For her working hard means meeting with a writing tutor once a week, sending drafts of every assignment to me and coming to my office hours for help almost every week. She takes the comments that I and the tutor give her seriously and incorporates them, her final drafts are significantly different from her first drafts in ways that improve her work to a large degree. She also does the readings and asks questions about them in class and in office hours, this has greatly increased her understanding of the material and this is reflected in her work as well. Her strategies are what hard work and effort are, and I don't think many students know this; if more did I would have more than this one student in my office every week and I don't.

If you email your student back point out that ONE poor grade on ONE assignment does not constitute 'not winning' in terms of the whole class and to get some perspective. And perhaps a dictionary.

Hilaire said...

This is *such* an excellent comment, you know, about perceptions of the nature of hard work. So true. I'd like to be able to address this in class some day, actually.

I did reply to her email and I did call her on the "I can't win" comment, laying out the grades she's received so far. Of course, I also gave her a rationale for the grade she received. She wrote back, having become a complete pussy cat, saying she appreciated everything I said. Wow - I was expecting pissiness.

Anonymous said...

I'm sick of these kinds of email, too, especially the poorly spelled ones from kids claiming their goal in life is grad school. I tend to point out that grades are not everything, even to grad school admissions committees, and that taking care with their work, even on "minor" issues like spelling and grammar, do more to convince me of their effort than any reckoning of time ever will. I have a sophomore on the verge of flunking this semester, who has made no effort to do anything to raise his D, aside from two very brief office visits. Those visits were spent explaining to me how difficult it is for him to fit his schoolwork into his social life, but when he does do work, "I really work my ass off, man, to hand something in." Yeah, that's the way to impress a prof!

dbm/gaa said...

It sounds like she freaked out and overreacted, maybe she has learned something from this!

adjunct whore said...

ok, i've left two messages on your blog lately, both have not appeared. have i been banned?

Hilaire said...

Wot?? I have not banned you!! No!! I saw message from you in the below post. Did it not stay?? What the heck? Oh dear. I don't know.

Fear not - I love thee! I will look and see if there's something weird with my settings!

Earnest English said...

OY VEY! I love the whole "but I worked hard" discussion. I got this from one student, along with a lot of wheedling of the "please accept my project late" crap. I think some of the "unacceptable" language comes from what students have heard from teachers (oh how it would read differently to me if they said: "this grade is unacceptable to me and so I'm going to figure out how to do better") but I fear most of it comes from the idea that they are consumers paying for a service.

On the one hand, I realize that students do work hard -- that it takes a certain amount of work to figure out what is necessary for each class and to go back and forth between five different classes that all assume different facilities and knowledges. On the other hand, sometimes I think some students

must be just plain dumb (or maybe they think of themselves as children), for instance, when they send emails to professors where they demonstrate themselves to be unrhetorical, immature dorks.


Only a couple more weeks. Just slog and hope, slog and hope.

Bardiac said...

A timely post! I hate that students think I'm supposed to grade their "effort." Seriously, I'm not sitting with them at 2am to decide if they're working hard on something.

Psychgrad said...

I can totally relate to this post. I've had students outright blame me for taking away their future. I agree that this sense of entitlement stems from the individualistic nature of our culture, which I believe is often fed into by parents who act like their children are rare gems. In a previous post, I wrote something to the effect of : "I know your parents love you and think you can do no wrong, but that doesn't mean you're going to get an A in my class".

I think the "I worked hard and therefore deserve an A" is based both on the assumption that students know what "hard work means" (as mentioned above) and that they have the underlying level of skill necessary to get an A in the course material. So - if both of these aspects are in place, then it must be the professor's/TA's error in judgment. I tried and I'm smart, so it's not possible that I didn't do well. In terms of cognitive dissonance -- it's easier to blame the professor than to redefine their beliefs about their own intelligence/capability to do well in a course.

dbm/gaa said...

I should mention that the incredibly hard-working student that I wrote about above is NOT going to get an A in my class, and she know that and is cool with that. She also plans on going to grad school at some point.

adjunct whore said...

oh good, what a relief!

you're tagged....

Andrea said...

I get this too. What i say is, "You are absolutely right. This grade is unacceptable. I was very suprised you did such poor work and now that you tell me that you worked hard to do this I am even more suprised at the poor quality of your work. Perhaps you need to work smarter and not harder. Let me piont out agian what was wrong with your work so that, hopefully you will not hand in another unacceptably poor paper."

It often makes them rethink what they are saying. And when it doesn't, it at least makes me feel better. ;)

medieval woman said...

I've said it a million times to my students: "I don't *give* grades; you *earn* grades" - it's all about their masking their complete passive-aggression with words like "unacceptable" and "effort not being rewarded" - and the "I just can't win" is hilarious. What's the prize? A fucking education or a grade????

Grrr on your behalf.

Maude Lebowski said...

hmmm, i see adjunct whore has tagged you. i tag you, too.

Belle said...

I'm lucky in that a number of students in every survey class (where I hear the effort comment most) are performers of one stripe or another. So in my routine patter I tell them I don't give grades, they earn them based on their performance. Performance they understand - and they know that in any kind of performance, they have to shine to get on the floor/stage/whatever. Since this has worked so well, I'm careful to remind them frequently over the term. My dancers are the most frequent whiners, as they'll lose their scholarships if they don't perform well - in my class as well as in the dance program. So my 'if I ask for a ballet and you give me a well-done jazz number, you have to expect a ballet-based grade.' They get that.

On the other hand, I am mid-grading a bunch of essays, and second paper in I found a blatant case of 'oh boy this isn't your work' on a paper. Student is a) my advisee and b) a major and c) kid of univ employee. I know in my heart and mind that it's plagiarized, but am having trouble tracking down the proof. So I'm going to have her talk me through it, and explain what she thinks 'psychologically authentic' art is. She uses the term, she'd better be able to articulate it. But.... ick.

Hilaire said...

Gosh, thank you all so much (i.e. MW, Belle, Andrea) for great ideas on how to frame and explain this idea of "hard work" and "performance" for them. Damn, I love blogging for this reason.

Belle - Condolences on the plagiarism. That is the WORST feeling - when you can't find it, yet are certain it's plagiarized.