One thing that keeps me from getting in trouble with my employer on account of this website is that I strenuously avoid any discussion of or references to specific things that happen to me "on the job." When I do talk about teaching or the university environment I keep things as vague as possible, withholding specific references to a class, colleague, or student. I'm going to try to keep this rough set of guidelines intact today. I like teaching to the point that it barely feels like work. So it's fair to assume that an angry teaching moment is overdue.
In my current assignment I am not in control of the standards to which the students are held. I legitimately despise the prevailing school of thought at the average Big Public University (since this obviously isn't an isolated problem) that grading undergraduates must be done according to what I like to call "Special Olympics rules" – just show up and everyone gets a medal. Quality and/or success are optional.
Grades should, of course, look something like a normal distribution, with the majority centered around "average" and smaller numbers at the high and low ends. The average grade for subjective work (essays, papers, essay exams) in a large class should be a middle C (75%). I have accepted the fact that here at Specific Big Public U the expectation is more along the lines of 78-80%. That is, mean/median grades should be on the B-/C+ borderline. A slightly exaggerated mean is fine with me, as it largely rewards students who try hard but for some reason don't end up with good results. In other words, it doesn't affect the A's or the F's – it largely turns a 73-75% into a 78-80%. Fine. Whatever. Doesn't bother me.
What is troubling is the occasional not-so-subtle suggestion that the distribution needs to change, and specifically that too many people are in the F range. Like, gee, that's a lot of students who are failing…shouldn't some of those F's be D's? Don't a lot of those D's look like C's? The message is clear even if the implications are ignored: no one should fail. Everyone who hands in all of the required work should pass. Failing grades are reserved for people who don't hand in the research papers or don't show up for one of the exams. It's OK to fail them. Everyone else gets a Participation Trophy.
Perhaps I am not yet jaded enough, given a scant five years' experience, to see the logic in giving everyone a passing grade for enrolling in the course and (intermittently) showing up. But the fact is that students perform exactly to our stated expectations. No more, no less. If we reward people for handing in shit, they will hand in shit. If we demand that they hand in something of good quality in order to get the A's and B's, most of them will do it. At the very least they will put in a good effort even if the results remain mediocre.
When people tell me "You have to go easy on them, they're just freshmen!" I like to note that they are college freshmen. They are not infants. Yes, they went to high schools of variable quality. No, they cannot be expected to hand in research papers that are New Yorker-ready masterpieces of literary style and substance. Here's what we can expect of written work, no matter who or where we teach:
A clear topic or thesis statement. The paper has to be about something.
Cited research. Don't plagiarize and don't write about your opinion.
A rough approximation of correct English grammar, spelling, and style.
Is that so fucking hard? Is that unrealistic? A paper that does the bare minimum – the mean/median grade I talked about earlier – does these three things. To get into the A or B range requires going beyond this; the argument in the paper actually makes sense, the research is particularly in-depth and shows initiative on the student's part, and the grammar/style are free of all but the most trivial errors. My experience is that a plurality of students – 40 percent – can do more than the Three Basics, hence the A's and B's. Another 40% do the bare minimum and no more, hence the "median" grades in the 70-80 range. The remaining 20% fail to clear one of these three incredibly difficult and unreasonable hurdles that I have thrown in front of them.
Why is this fair to expect of any undergrad regardless of high school preparation or academic experience? Because these things will all be done for students who seek the help. The campus writing center will proofread your paper and fix the grammatical Hindenburgs. Your professor will help you formulate a topic and structure a simple argument around it. A librarian or your instructors can help you figure out how to do basic research in a library or online database. Based on this we might conclude that anyone who fails to do the Three Basics is simply lazy, too lazy to seek out any of the resources that would have done it for them. But we would be wrong.
Laziness plays a role with some students, but it is also learned behavior. The student does not go to the campus writing center for proofreading because all of the illiterate crap he has submitted in his academic life has been rewarded with a good grade. He feels no need to figure out a topic/argument because he has handed in dozens of papers about nothing and received B's in return. The expectation is that I will not upset the status quo, that if the assignment is "write a 10-page paper" then everyone who hands in 10 inked pages passes. I am expected to put a C on papers that tell me that campaign finance laws are "straight bullshit" (actual quote), to accept papers about how presidential candidates routinely "fake the funk" (no, seriously) or to read sentences like the following without stabbing my pen through the paper:
Many people in high federal office trying to raise as much money that they can help pad themselves to have as much as possible for their quest for the presidency.
With all professional respect toward the students, we don't owe them a fucking thing in terms of outcomes. What we owe them is an open door and the willingness to help them – whether it takes 5 minutes or 5 hours – understand and meet/exceed the requirements of the course. No one is entitled to a particular grade just by showing up. Sorry. Even as a young Padawan Learner in this profession it is apparent to me that I am going to have problems throughout my career on account of my attitude on this subject. So be it. We need to be a lot more willing to tell students, many of them for the first time in their lives, that horseshit isn't good enough. My brief experience is that saying "This is crap, you have to do better work" results in most students doing better work. Most of them can and will.
College students are adults and they do not benefit from coddling. If they fail to meet the bare minimum of academic standards, one of two things is true. Either the students do not realize they are doing poor work, in which case they should be told the truth, or they knowingly submit total crap and believe that it entitles them to a passing grade, in which case no amount of jading will ever lessen my desire to disabuse them of that notion.