Saturday, November 6, 2010

Seriously ... snark free thirsty?

OK, like everyone else, I have utilized this space to unload my fair share of snark, venom, passion, and plain ol' poop.

But I come to you, the CM community to ask for your help.

[No, really.]

It once again is major assignment time. I have come to dread opening papers, discussion forums, whatnot. Truth be told, 95% of the work is no big deal. Sure, much of it could be of higher quality and seeing the same mistake made for the umteenth time is annoying. But with a deep breath (and perhaps a dram of whiskey), I am able to plod through the work with a minimum of pain, no fuss, no muss.

Then comes the other 5%.

Actually, today, I was surprised. Of the three EMails I got in response to paper grades:
1) actually apologized for not meeting my expectations (yeah, I know!)
2) was a submission of a revision for basically the same reason as in #1

and then ...

3) "I disagree with my grade. With all due respect ... "

"With all due respect."

I once heard that in the South "bless her heart" was the belle's way of saying "beotch".
"With all due respect" has to be the academic version of "Idiot, don't you realize my brilliance?"

To complicate matters, I am one of the "freeway flyers - online division" -- the adjunct who knows that saying the wrong thing is likely to result in silent termination.

Of late, there have been several posts where people have shared what they WISH they could have said. Believe me, I have plenty of those comments ready to go. However ...

Q: When a student challenges your expertise and authority over a grade, what do you actually say?

A: (post your replies, please)

[doubling that dram while awaiting your responses]


  1. It depends on what they disagreed with. The video in the earlier topic discusses this.

    Was the complaint specific or vague? Was the paper on point? Were there a lot of factual errors? Were the arguments cogent? Was it cited properly (or not at all)? Did it do what was described in the syllabus or in the specific assignment instruction?

    [Some laugh or raise their noses at me about this, but this is why I have a detailed syllabus. It's a contract (or a performance work statement).]

  2. "Dear Student,

    thank you for your e-mail [always thank them for e-mails that really ruined your day. It looks good when the exchange gets reviewed by the appeals committee]. I'll be glad to discuss your concerns with you [really, you're not, but for the sake of the e-mail you are, well, thrilled!]. Let me know when you would like to meet [ball is back in student's court]. For the meeting, please prepare a list of specific comments you disagree with [more work for student].


    Dr. A & S"

    Especially since you're concerned about your employment status, don't create a record of anything that could come back and bite you in the behind.
    I'm with Dr D--hope your syllabus has a clause that states that grading is the prerogative of the professor, or perhaps you have a rubric you use. If not, amend for next semester.

  3. I give the student a numerical summary of how the grade was computed. I grade wholly on deliverables, with no weight given to participation or attendance, although if they miss more than three labs, they get an F for the whole course. (They rarely do, unless they withdraw without filling out a drop slip and get an F in the course anyway.) The only place where they might have wiggle room is on the term paper, but I have well-defined rules that I give to them in the syllabus (16 pages and counting) for how I grade.

    This stops 98% of them. Numbers have an authority all their own: it no doubt helps that so few of them know doodley-squat about numbers. Nearly all of the remaining 2% (that’s right, about 2 out of 100) also don’t understand numbers, and try to argue with bogus logic similar to that of Student #1 in the recent thread, “The Future of Education.” Never once, out of over 2000 students over 12 years, have I ever had a student who was able to argue their way to a higher grade by backing it up with a sound calculation. I have made mistakes and given 2 students Cs when they should have had Bs, but I discovered and corrected these mistakes myself, before the students involved knew about them.

  4. I agree with The Thin Woman -- if at all possible, email back, more cordially than you feel (envisioning your chair/a review committee as a secondary reader), to schedule a face-to-face meeting. It shows concern and accessibility and doesn't create a paper trail.

    If that's hard to do within a reasonable time (I'd say a week) due to *your* schedule (not the student's), then you might write a brief email (re)explaining the grade with reference to your criteria -- basically, repeat, briefly, what you've already said in your comments, in (very) slightly different words. Sometimes that works (with directions, too; I'm not sure whether repetition aids learning or students just "listen" better when they feel they're getting individual attention, but I've had a good deal of success with simple repetition/rewording).

    If you do get into an email exchange, slow it down as much as possible without seeming unresponsive. Don't answer any follow-up emails (other than to schedule a face to face meeting) in much less than 24 hours (but don't go much over, either). If questioned, you can always say that you wanted to take time to review the student's questions, and the work itself, carefully. It also sets a good example for the student (who should have waited at least 24 hours after getting the grade, and have re-read your comments, before contacting you, since a first reading of any document that raises strong emotions is rarely a fully comprehending one).

    And yes, rubrics are wonderful. As a colleague pointed out to me some years ago, they contain numbers, and create number grades, and somehow those are harder to argue with (even though I'm sure all of us that use rubrics have occasionally gone back to adjust a category so that the final number feels like it matches the overall quality of the work).

    Finally, I think I might see traces of the same attitude you report in the first two emails, too. Perhaps a new day is dawning? Let it be so.

  5. Grading is only partially about improving the student's grade. The more important quality of thorough grading is giving enough comments so that you can point to rhetorical questions raised by the work, or to the inability to reach 5 pages, or whatever parts of the assignment were missing. Bring up these rhetorical questions and overload the student with the sense that you were already being benevolent.

  6. Oops -- I missed your reference to "online division," which might make a face-to-face conference impossible. If so, perhaps phone or online chat (our version of Bb doesn't save student chats; if you do need to do a saveable chat, then just keep steering the "conversation" back to what the student can do better -- in future papers for your class or in future classes).

  7. "Dear (Student Name),

    thanks for your email. I'll be happy to go over your paper with you this week and discuss it in detail. If you are not available during my regular office hours (x:xx - y:yy), please email me to schedule an appointment.


    Freeway Flyer"

    You are being nothing but courteous and responsive to student concerns. When the student gets to your office, reread the paper and then point out where it falls short.

    I have occasionally raised a mark on a paper by a couple of percentage points when I've done this, because I was moving too fast when I read it the first time. I have never raised a mark that didn't deserve it. I also offer my students the opportunity, if they continue unhappy, to have their paper re-graded by another member of the department. I warn them that if the other professor gives them a lower grade, that grade will stand. This is a good offer if you can actually do that. (No student has ever taken me up on this offer.)

    That phrase 'with all due respect' means, as you suspect, 'no respect whatever'. But perhaps the entitled little beotch - or beasteard - didn't know that and is just trying to sound formal and legalistic. Either way, ignore the implied lack of respect and treat the email as if it had simply been a "I don't know what went wrong, please can you have another look?" request. Which, let's hope, is what it really is.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I agree with Merely Academic -- although the phrase "with all due respect" is often used, by the linguistically adept, to mean the opposite ("With all due respect to my esteemed colleague, the honorable gentleman from OtherState [whom I'm about to accuse of being dishonorable and generally verbally skewer]. . ."), I wouldn't assume that the student is among the linguistically adept (especially if you've seen evidence to the contrary in hir paper). Sometimes a catch phrase is just a catch phrase. And sometimes the less linguistically adept set off pipe bombs when they think they're lighting birthday candles.

  10. I have a rubric, and I agree with all the advice to respond slowly, and have a meeting if possible.

    If the student keeps pushing, I offer to have someone else mark the essay. Ask for a clean copy, attach a copy of any and all assignment guidelines, and the rubric, and then give it to the biggest asshole of all your colleagues.

    Oh, and when I make the offer of getting a second grader to the student, I say "I will take whatever grade the second grader gives you, so you should be aware of the possibility that your grade will go down."

    Usually they don't take the offer, but sometimes they do.

  11. Lots of good advice here. As an online instructor myself, I know how vague and hard-to-gauge e-mail can be. So, I would re-emphasize those that advised requesting specifics and dealing in numbers. They may think they deserved a" B" but if you ask them to state what part of the grade they disagree with, they will be forced to focus on the details. If they lost 10 points for misspelled words, sometimes just pointing that out to them is enough and has no emotional or subjective baggage.

    Be" drippy sweet" and accommodating in e-mail tone, but deal with the problem as objectively as possible. Don't take anything personally. I often compliment the student for caring enough to find out why they got the grade they did. For some, they really don't know why because they've been given so many bullshit grades in the past.

    As for your job, as adjunct, we are often at the mercy of instructors who are perhaps good teachers but can be very poor managers of people. I currently have a kindred soul for one manager and a major, narcissistic dick as another. The dick believes all whiny students about OTHER instructors and thinks he is God's gift to the poor, trodden souls who don't have Him as an instructor. I may lose my job with him, but I always keep my integrity. I'll find other work if needed; he'll get his shitty evaluations eventually ;)

  12. OK ... to preserve my own mental health, I avoided delving into the particulars of the student's EMail until I heard from the CM crowd.

    Some clarifications:
    > Yes, this is online, so there can be no meeting (not like it would happen on campus!)
    > I do have a rubric (always have);
    > I embed comments in the text and attach a completed rubric with summative observations;
    > There is also a two page instruction sheet (revised repeatedly after previous exposures to common mistakes);
    > My syllabus is long and richly detailed (for the same reasons), but I do not have a statement about grading being the instructor's prerogative (hasn't that been implied since, oh, Socrates?)
    > I also have a PowerPoint where I have basically cataloged 7 years of student mistakes to give current students the benefit of avoiding the most obvious stumbles of their predecessors (current access rate <5%); finally,
    > I have inquired of my hierarchy about second readers and was told absolutely not, they have no desire setting that precedent.

    Now ... to the student's EMail
    The original grade was 81, which student refers to as "exceptionally low."

    Assignment was to analyze the technique of ancient painted basketweaving, comparing it to current weaving techniques focusing specifically on the weaving NOT the painting. (Damn I wish we didn't have to go all anonymous!) Student focused almost exclusively on the painting.

    Student claims "various" empirical sources were utilized consisting of: the text, and two articles from the painting literature. (Nothing from the weaving journals.)

    But the pièce de résistance ...
    Student is a spouse and parent, working full-time, with a full course load AND a perfect A average! (Aren't they all?)


    Student has bit her tongue at some feedback on discussion posts which student felt was "unjustified", but now must speak up.

    AND (this one kills me!)

    Student looked at the A grade and C grade exemplars and found them to be atrocious and is insulted that this student's work would be judged anywhere near the same.

    Ultimately, the student did write a decent class paper -- just not for THIS class.

    Wish I could just say that!

  13. Then there's the lazy way: "Oh, I'd be happy to re-grade it. But I can't be positive that the outcome would be a higher grade; it might end up lower. I presume you are OK with either?"

  14. Overgrade. I practice a somewhat minimal marking system with student papers, in part because the vast majority of students don't look at comments anyway.

    You might write back: "I don't usually mark every single mistake or inconsistency on student papers, because I think students find it overwhelming, and I find that they react better to general comments. However I understand that you are concerned about your grade, and so I am returning you your paper with every problem cited."

    Then, find every fucking thing that's wrong and mark the hell out of it. In red. All over. Send it back, writing as well that the student can contact you with any further questions.

  15. It sounds as if you have given the student a phenomenal amount of useful information to work with, and they can just suck it up, frankly.

  16. There was a post here recently, something about the new "super student"--students who want to do it all, do it all full-time, and then are surprised/shocked/heartbroken when they finally sign up for an instructor (yeah, that's often me) who does not grade for effort. You have my full sympathy.

    One thing you might try is to tell the student part of what you just did--this would have been a very decent [adjust language accordingly] paper for a different class or a different assignment, but in effect, you asked for apples, and the student gave you oranges. It doesn't matter how great the oranges are--if apples were requested, apples must be delivered. Make a point of telling the student that part of your job is to prepare students for whatever career this degree will enable them to pursue, and apply the analogy to the workplace: if you have to complete Task X on the job, you'd better complete X and not Y, because no matter how well you do Y at this point, it will simply not do. I had a group of remedial writers at the point of mutiny earlier this semester because they had botched a writing assignment: instead of describing the basket, they told me how they felt about the basket and how it was really, really hard to keep looking at the basket. Sorry, folks, not a passing grade.

  17. Be minimalist, but vaguely nice. Cc: someone important so they know you aren't afraid of them (if YOU bring it to the attention of someone important right out of the gate, they will have no delusion that they can threaten you) and Bcc: someone you like in the department (so at the xerox machine he/she can offer some rhetorical comment of support so that you don't drink or put your head through a wall at work). But most importantly, be minimalist.

  18. I haven't taught an online class, although I had an opportunity to do so last semester. Frankly, I was too stupid to get my head around how, exactly, I would run a discussion course electronically from Starvistan, which was what my chair was suggesting that I do.

    (My chair's own specialty du jour was vernacular architecture of her backyard and she RAVED about how great it was to be able to sit on her porch and teach this course. I was envisioning our email system in Starvistan, which frequently relied on mice running in a wheel.)

    That said. I think that The Thin Woman has a great idea about a diplomatic response...

    Gah. Okay, jeez. I need another coffee. (You know how Standard Time is supposed to help our pineal glands? It doesn't help mine.)

    If it is at all possible, I would try to talk to this person by voice. I'd want to know what they found so "atrocious" about the A and C papers and how theirs was different. I'd say it more nicely. It is easier, for me at least, to allay my own rage when I am hearing what they are saying and can ask questions right away, instead of having to read an entire email of dreck.

  19. I always say that I'd be happy do discuss the grade and explain my reasoning during an office hours visit.

    If the office hours visit doesn't go well, I exert my authority by stating that the grade assigned is final - it isn't up for further discussion.

    As much as my college seems to be run by a bunch of screaming monkeys, faculty here have at least small pleasure: the grades we assign are final. There are no appeals that can FORCE us to change any grade assigned. Oh, the student can run to a Department Chair, or even to the Dean, and the only thing that can happen is a meeting and discussion about the situation. If I don't want to change a grade, that's the final say.

    I'm not sure I could work at an institution that allows a grade to be overridden by others. I'd go batshit.

  20. I've been there with almost the exact same situation (as far as our basket weaving analogies can take us) with an online student. My reply to her went something like this:

    "You have the right to feel however you choose about the grade. I've provided you with a detailed explanation about how you earned it. Your feelings will not change my grading standards, which are clearly listed on the syllabus and this assignment. If you wish to pursue this matter further, you are welcome to contact my chairperson. Her name is ___, and she can be reached by email at ___ or by phone at ___."

    My chairperson always tells me to under-grade. She uses that as ammunition, e.g., "Look here, Steffie Snowflake. You didn't cite your source correctly in MLA in this section, and EnglishDoc didn't even take off points for that. Your grade probably should've been even lower!" As soon as I get word a student has made an appointment with my chair, I always provide complete assignment documentation because my experience has been that complaining students tend to leave out things which make them look bad.


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