My Beautiful Wickedness

Very hard grader
May 5, 2008, 4:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s that time of year again. The time where students who haven’t cracked a book all semester long complain that I’m a hard grader. You know how they know? “She corrects my writing and stuff, I hate this class.” “She marks all my papers up and I worked really hard on it.” “I failed my multi-choice exam she grades mad hard I think she is the worst teecher hear.”

Ok, deep breath. My essays I grade according to a rubric I distribute with the assignment; they know exactly how they will be scored and what elements of writing I look for in each assignment. The essay requirements get more demanding as they gain more experience writing essays and we discuss how and why the bar is being raised. I hold office hours before each paper is due for students to come in and get help. We have a writing center on campus and I give them the contact info for how and where to make appointments. We talk about writing in class — what makes a good piece of historical writing, how do you use citations correctly, how do you craft a persuasive argument, how do you get documents to talk to you, and a lot of other analytic writing pointers. We review the document sets on which their analytic papers are based in class, thinking through various successful and less successful ways to approach material. With those pedagogical obligations met, damn skippy I expect some effort on their part. It pisses me off when I get people turning in academic papers that look like they typed them with their thumbs on a Blackberry keyboard on the busride to school.

The exam? The “really hard” exam I just gave? I distributed every single question on it two weeks in advance, even the multiple choice questions. Every single blessed one. It was a comprehensive exam. Reviewing and studying it on their own is the way to make stuff stick. If a student fails my exams, it’s because they didn’t prepare. Not much I can do if the objective portion is completely ass-backward — it’s either right or wrong (that’s why they call it objective). I take no delight in failing students, but they need to get their heads around what they do well and what they do poorly at the moment because it’s my expectation that they will want to (and can) improve.

College is for learning things and working your butt off, not for being told how great you are. I realize that a lot of this is just 18-year-old magical thinking and immature chagrin, but finals week is the time when I wonder if I would have gone into college teaching had I realized that I would age, but my students would always be 18.

Maybe I need a career change to a place with more non-trads.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I distributed every single question on it two weeks in advance, even the multiple choice questions. Every single blessed one.

I’m not for a second questioning your teaching methods, but just relaying the story of a professor of mine who did that when I was in college. It was Music History and alot of it was (to me) rather dry boring facts. The exam was made up of all the questions we’d gotten wrong on tests up to that point, and he gave us a list of them before hand. There was about 60 questions or so, all multiple choice. Took me about 45 minutes or so to memorize the questions and answers word for word on the day of the test (I have a quasi-photographic memory). I aced the test, but forgot all the material within days.

Comment by dolphin

Yes, I gave that some thought the first time I did this, and if I was only doing obj testing, I would be much more worried that academic bulemia was the case. Then I thought, “If they don’t know it well enough to build an argument with the information, though, they aren’t going to do well on the essays. If they don’t know the material well enough to establish context, they won’t be able to do the document interpretation.” And so I buggered onwards, using multiple measures in multiple places throughout the semester to see if I could catch them doing something good.

Regret to inform, though, that on our campus, the weaker students never learn it in the first place (fail the obj in droves, in fact) and the stronger students have different study habits that lead them to review and retain over the long haul on multiple fronts. These are our majors and I will have all of them again in 18 months; if this bunch is like most of the other bunches, the people who used to know it will be able to recall quicker than the people who never knew it at all. There is some long-term retention going on.

Too bad about the boring Music History class. My Music History course was a highlight of my collegiate experience — a fascinating course taught in a fascinating style by a woman who specialized in keyboard performance. She could lecture flawlessly and play at the same time. Really brilliant. And in a later “small world” note, she turned out to be the mother of my future husband’s first girlfriend. Crazy.

Comment by bridgett

At the CC where I used to teach, 50% of the history final was objective and departmental. The students were told at the beginning of the semester that half the final exam grade would depend on how they defined terms, people, and events taken from a list they were given right up front, which would be encountered and covered in class over the course of the semester. At the end of the semester, the faculty got together and struck from the list any items which any instructor felt s/he hadn’t covered adequately, and the exam was drawn up from those that remained. At least a quarter of the students who took the final would fail it anyway.

OTOH, we would also tell them each year that people would try to sell them study prep guides that had incorrect information in them, and that if they bought the guides and used them to study they would be memorizing incorrect material. Yet at least half of those who failed the final had bought the guide and regurgitated, word for word, the incorrect answers it contained.

And then there was the student at a more elite school who went to the dean to complain that I was making them write a paper on the Song of Roland and that was unfair because it was written in French. I always did wonder how that student thought all the other kids in the class had been able to discuss that French book at such length.

Comment by nm

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my philosophy on assessment is about the same as yours.

It almost seems that with each passing year the average level of my students is going down. The best are as good, or better, than ever – motivated, hard-working, and smart. But I’m going to fail well over one-half of my students this semester (my prediction, but I’ll stand by it) and the biggest reason is simple failure to turn in assignments. I’m also seeing more plagiarism, and more blatant plagiarism, than ever. They don’t care and they don’t try. When they fail it is because I’m being “too hard” or “unfair”.

I’d really rather believe this is just me being a grumpy old guy (“Ahh, these kids today with thier ipods and hoola-hoops”). The alternative is something systemic concerning ethics and personal industry in our society. I really hope I’m wrong.

Comment by Gerald


I would have probably been one of your bad students. I was never much good at writing for anything but my own enjoyment. I did okay on MC exams, but died in the essays (at least until I went back to college for a while in my early 30’s).

A friend of a friend had the experience of inattentive instructors and would frequently put th following sentence in some of his papers

“If you read this, I’ll buy you a drink (at whatever watering hole he frequented). He said he was never taken up on it. Urban myth, perhaps? I turned in two papers that were identical to my english teachers in junior and senior year of HS and got a better grade the second time.

Comment by democommie

Leaving aside the fact that I knew you when you were 18…when you absolutely did 1. Learn stuff 2. Work your butt off and also 3. (Oh, was there a 3. ? I’ll skip that. )

I just freakin’ love this post. (Myself and the caregiver especially love the the “damn skippy” part.)

You’ve explained how to rock climb, given them the rope and the pitons, good safety precautions, and some will not start up the mountain (pout)

You *told them the questions?* so they basically had a framework to go from…. (this isn’t a slam at you, just amazement at them that even with a ladder, they just can’t climb to that roof.)

…and it was ‘really hard?’ Gawd. I’m glad I’m not teaching. Glad Glad Glad.

Comment by imfunny2

You are too kind. I was sort of a fuckup at 18. By 19, I got more with it. I’m a pretty good person (given my horrible first year) to help struggling students.

Yes, it is true that there are some students that seem impervious to all help that you try to offer them. I recently had one misconstrue what I thought was a pretty straightforward handling of Tall Man’s Bluff (you know, closing the distance between you and the professor and backing her towards the corner so that your height and tense aggression over your lousy grade will enhance your non-existent bargaining position). I picked up my bag and backed him out into the hall where the security guard (who is a grad student in my program) could see us as we continued the conversation. His paper was not so great and I tried, best as I could, to steer him toward some improvements on his next work. He was convinced that I didn’t know what I was talking about. His recap of the event on Rant About My Prof let me know that he thought that I was not up to his spec because I wasn’t going to let him browbeat me in a deserted classroom about a sloppily done assignment. (I’m not a servant…I really like being helpful, but I don’t care for the “I’m paying for the service and you’ll serve me whenever and whereever” entitlement thingie. The student’s next paper was a little better, and his next paper a little better than that…but he would have gone farther had he worked harder and wasted less energy on attitude.

Comment by bridgett

Good gracious. I don’t even know what to say to that. It’s … terribly far from my own experience with college. (I can count on one hand the number of classes I took that had any multiple choice questions, and still have fingers left over.)

History was straightforward: we got a one-page syllabus that was just a list of books and her contact information. We read roughly one book a week and talked about it in class. (Hooray for Socratic classes.) Grading was class participation and three papers. There were a range of prompts (sort of), but papers were expected to reference multiple books, incorporate concepts discussed in class, and to tie everything together. And she wanted the grammar, diction, and citation to be perfect. If we didn’t know what that meant, we were supposed to look it up.

I didn’t do exceptionally well in those classes, because a) I wasn’t properly medicated and was having a really hard time with school in general as a result, and (far more importantly) b) she was a farking hard grader. But a good and fair one too, and I absolutely adored her classes even if I hated having to write for her because I knew my work would be picked over with a fine toothed comb.

As far as the papers thing goes… I’m just baffled. I don’t understand. I’m seeing this at work a lot – people with degrees who can’t write worth a damn and don’t seem to understand basic concepts – and I just don’t get it.

When I was in college (god I sound old, don’t I? It was less than two years ago, geez.), we had paper conferences. Not for every class, but for many of them. You turned in your paper and got an assigned conference time. You got your graded paper back and had some time to review it, then when your conference time was up, you spent 10 minutes to half an hour one-on-one with the professor. Professors went over in detail what you did well, what you did poorly, and what you could do better in the future. I had professors take issue with my arguments, pick apart my grammar, and explain concepts I’d missed. It was occasionally embarrassing, but it was also really useful.

I know that’s a) probably not feasible with large classes, and b) a huuuuuuge imposition on professors, but that’s what springs to mind whenever people start complaining about grading. I remember professors with reputations for sending students out of paper conferences positively bawling. (I went to one of the harshest with a paper I was really proud of, just to see what he would say, and even though he wasn’t my professor and I’d gotten a great review from the professor actually teaching the course, I still felt like sobbing when he was done.)

Comment by Magniloquence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: