Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pam the Parent Is Perplexed.

My husband is an adjunct math instructor and he told me about this site a couple of years ago. Our oldest daughter is a freshman in college and we've waited forever for this semester. We're very proud of her, we want her to do well.

But I also have warned her about her work habits, which were not the best in highschool. I told her many times that procrastination and laziness would be rebuked in college, and I was banking on that!

She's living at home this first semester so I got to see her work on her first essay for English Composition. She didn't work very hard and only did one draft that I saw. She asked me to read it and I told her of a number of small things I noticed like misspellings and missing commas. I know she didn't spend much time revising it, and truthfully I thought it was a little boring.

I love my kid, okay moms don't get mad at me. But I am realistic. I hoped she would get a middling score on her first essay so that she'd take it a little more seriously. So far all she ever talks about is how cute the boys are and how far away the parking lots are and about how they have falafel in the cafeteria.

Yesterday she came home with her first college essay. It was marked 100/100, and the teacher had written "Excellent and creative" on it.

Well, my mom brain said, "Yay," but then my PARENT brain read the paper. I saw the same errors I saw before. It wasn't excellent. It wasn't worth 100 points out of 100 points! It had errors in it. Attached to it was the essay assignment which said the essays had to exceed 750 words. This was about half of that!

She's over the moon about the 100%. And I as her mom am not.

Can anyone here who teaches English help me understand what's happened?

- Pam the Parent

31 comments:

  1. It means the professor has a need to be liked. It means your daughter is going to get very little help.

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  2. I had a colleague who, if they were in a particularly lazy mood and no aids were available, would assign essay grades randomly.

    How was this discovered? Well... a student accidentally turned in two copies of the same essay. One got a B and the other got an A+.

    I have no idea but it sounds like the essay was not read.

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    1. Was that for the same assignment? If so, wouldn't the professor have noticed that the student got two grades instead of one? What happened next? Which grade did the student end up getting?

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    2. Not sure how that specific grade was resolved. Or the details.

      But I do know that the ISSUE itself was resolved as "This is Professor Johnson, he's going to be ASSISTING your current professor with this class!" while they terminated his contract. He got severance and retired.

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    3. I'm guessing that a proffie this lazy/disorganized wasn't necessarily keeping good grade records, or remembering to take a paper gradebook home, or whatever. So the "records" might well have been one or more scribbled, non-alphabetized lists that the proffie planned to transfer to a central gradebook at some point.

      Or it could be that the papers were scheduled to be revised, or re-submitted in a portfolio at the end of the term, so the proffie didn't bother to write them down.

      Mind you, even with a rubric, my grading of the same essay could probably wander a grade increment in either direction between two gradings, but probably not much more than that.

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  3. I don't know if the CBC sitcom 'Mr D' is shown in the States, but my friends who are teachers love it (the writer and star of the show bases the material on his years as a teacher).
    This one particular video clip involves marking. I showed it to a colleague, and he started sputtering with laughter. "That's how I do MY marking!" he roared. I stared back at him, not quite sure what to say.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fn_vAhu_Lw

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  4. Prof. is lazy and/or desperate to be liked (as mentioned by Low Salt) and digging for positive evaluations so as not to get sacked. Your kid might kill you, but I'd love to see you take this to the instructor then the dept. chair and ask them what the hell is going on. Slackers need to be called to account. As for me? I just shoveled out the biggest pile of D-'s in my history teaching remedial comp--one level below transfer. Absolute. Total. Crap. Shiz be gettin' real for the kidz today, yo.

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  5. Yes, it means her instructor must fear losing a job over candid feedback.

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  6. Or the instructor just graded 15 piles of utter sh*t, and something that just has a few typographical errors and is boring is like manna from heaven. Grading without a rubric can be very subjective. I make sure I use a rubric every time; otherwise, the longer I grade the more I reward mediocrity.

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  7. About ten years ago, when my wife's brother was in college at a middling commuter school, he was in a creative writing class. He's a very good student, and he came home one day appalled that everyone in his class was getting A's on every single assignment. He brought home some of the other students' work (it was a workshop class, so everyone got copies) and showed it to us. It was borderline unreadable. Every story was about a frat party. I still remember one sentence from one story verbatim: "He starts to screams like a bitch."

    Every single one was an A. That's when he knew it was time to transfer out.

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  8. It's possible that other student's papers were word salad. Lord knows I've seen that happen - you're so desperate to get something that has both nouns and verbs that you fawn all over it.

    Or maybe it's just grading scale. Boring and having errors is basically 'par' for freshmen. People vary on what a 'par' score should be: for some it's "C", for some it's "A-triple-plus".

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  9. Grade inflation. The easiest way to get good teacher evals is to give away A's like candy on Halloween. Many of us have deans who think the students' overall rating of us is the be-all, end-all of how well we teach. We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn, we give them A's and they give us good evals.

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    1. I didn't, and came very close to being denied tenure. I got it only because of the external funding I was bringing in from my Hubble Space Telescope projects, and my ability to involve students in taking pretty pictures at the Campus Observatory.

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  10. The instructor might well be suffering through the 5-course portion of hir 5-4 teaching load, drowning in student papers, and blasting through them at top speed, accuracy in grading be damned.

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  11. from Pam:

    I appreciate the answers. My husband and I are paying a lot of money for this college education, and I have to say I expect a lot more than this. Is there a way I can help my daughter without putting a target on her as a complainer?

    Any of these explanations means that my daughter's education doesn't matter as much as the feelings or the schedule of her professor.

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    1. I'd encourage her to go to her teacher's office hours anyhow, and ask what she can do to improve or to up her game. Writing is like life; we will never "have it down", and Super-A+-Unicorn feedback is not helping. Maybe if she goes in with an attitude of "I know this will get harder, how do I approach more complex assignments", maybe she'll get some real feedback.

      That said, these other (and wise) posters might have it right. I'm just optimistic (unrealistic).

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    2. Pointing out that education is fundamentally a self-directed activity is not too popular among university administrators and other politicians these days, but it's still true. They don't like encouraging students to keep their books after they finish their courses since someone gets a cut, but I do so anyway.

      You can encourage your daughter to shop around for more interesting instructors, the way I did as an undergraduate. It's quite easy to spot them: just look at their syllabi. Whenever I tell undergraduates that I deliberately chose more challenging courses, because they would be more intellectually stimulating and genuinely useful to my career (e.g. cartography from the geography department, which required actual skill at drawing, to fulfill a general-ed, social-science requirement), they often look at me as if I have two heads. These tend to be students who become unemployed when they graduate, so let 'em wonder.

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    3. Alternatively,it might be that your daughter's (and everyone else's daughters') education doesn't matter as much as the Univ. Administrators' desire to keep students happily enrolled and paying tuition.
      This, in turn, could be because your daughter's (and everyone else's daughters') education doesn't matter as much as the taxypayers' desire to vote for politicians who cut public funding to universities.
      There is much in this world that is driven by what makes people happy in the short term, rather than what is good for them in the long term.

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  12. Some professors will be way too easy. Everyone will get an A. It could be the professor is lazy, or just wants really good evaluations and giving out easy As is the best way to rake in really excellent evaluations.

    Other professors, though not many, will be way too hard, not because the curriculum is inherently difficult, but just because. No one will get an A, even if they get As on every assignment and exam.

    Your daughter will soon discover that life isn't always fair or even logical. So this is a great opportunity for you! Sooner or later, she will complain that a professor is too hard on her or that she deserved a better grade. Save the essay with the inflated grade, and remind her that she got a whole lot of leeway on this one, and a better grade than she deserved, so it's inevitable that she will eventually get a deflated grade less than she deserved for some other assignment in the future.

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  13. I don't think there is very much you can do, short of shopping for a different college with higher academic standards -- which seems like a rather drastic response to one essay grade, and may or may not work, since all colleges have a few professors whose priorities lie in other places than undergraduate education. The best you can do is play the odds by picking a place where most courses are taught by full-time faculty with a reasonable teaching load, and where undergraduate education is a valued part of the institutional mission.

    You definitely can't discuss your daughter's grade or coursework with her instructor unless you have your daughter's consent, since it's a FERPA violation. (In any case, what would you even say -- "I insist that you give my daughter a lower grade on this assignment because I don't think she tried hard enough"?)

    Also, as Three Sigma pointed out, most freshman writing is pretty bad, and it's possible that the instructor has a more accurate sense than you do of what is relatively good for a freshman at that institution. Keep in mind that a reasonable grading scale is one where an A is achievable for a typical student who works hard, not one where it represents the Platonic ideal of a paper, and that this means, inevitably, that a few exceptional students who do not work hard are also going to pull off an A. Writing that is completely free of sentence-level errors is not achievable for most freshmen, nor is writing that is really original and interesting. The length thing does give me pause, but was it phrased as an absolute requirement, or as a guideline?

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    1. I completely agree with your cogent treatise, except that it should have been written as five paragraphs.

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  14. Could it be possible that this was a diagnostic essay--graded only on completion and not on quality? That said, in my class even a diagnostic that was only half the required length would not get full credit.

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  15. Perhaps the professor has an unhealthy fondness for your daughter. If he/she asks to see her thesis before she can matriculate, I'd start to get veeerrrry suspsicious.

    The other possibility is that you're being gaslighted.

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  16. Pam writes

    I appreciate the suggestions, but wonder how some of you would feel about the "funny" comments if they were directed at your daughter.

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  17. Maybe it was creative, and had fewer errors than the other papers in the class. As others have noted, after reading a dozen pieces of complete crap, a half-way decent paper will look like a diamond. (I still would not give it an A though)/.

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  18. Hi, Pam -- this is, indeed, frustrating, and most of the explanations above strike me as plausible. It also occurred to me that the professor might employ a grading strategy of being encouraging on earlier, simpler assignments, in hopes of building confidence, then getting more exacting as the term goes on (I think most of us here fall more in the "scare them from the start, then get a bit more flexible" or steady-throughout-the-term camps, but there are professors who believe in building confidence and rapport, then getting more challenging as time goes on).

    My first reaction, however (based partly on your mention that your daughter is living at home, which made me think she might be attending a community college) is that this college may not be offering an appropriate level of challenge for your daughter. While it is theoretically possible for a professor to design a class that both challenges well-prepared students and supports those with deficits to be made up, that's very difficult to do, especially if the professor is teaching many additional sections (and/or working many additional jobs to make ends meet) -- and given the way first-year composition is staffed almost everywhere these days, the odds are very good that the professor is, indeed, in that situation (the other possibility is that your daughter's first-year writing course is a writing-intensive freshman seminar, which can be an excellent model, except that such courses are often taught by professors with no formal training in teaching writing, and who may be under pressure to publish to earn tenure or find the next, non-postdoc-like job, or whatever. Sadly, very few people who teach first-year writing have jobs that are structured to genuinely support and reward a real focus on that activity.)

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    1. So what to do next? That's a really tricky question, because college is all about learning life skills as well as academic ones, and learning life skills is hampered by too much parental supervision/guidance, even if the parent's observations about the student's time use, effort, etc. are entirely correct. It sounds like your daughter has had some difficulty with learning life skills, and like you've responded to that difficulty with lots of advice and warnings. That's an understandable reaction, but it's also one that can, over time, create a self-perpetuating negative cycle (the student underfunctions; the parent cajoles, advises, and/or threatens; the student, trying to do the developmentally appropriate work of separating from the parent, underfunctions even more, and so on). It also sounds like your daughter may be living at home in part because you're afraid she wouldn't function very well on her own -- again, an understandable decision, but one that might perpetuate the cycle.

      So I think my advice would be to focus less, at least for the moment, on your daughter's schoolwork, and more on family dynamics -- perhaps with the help of a family counselor (you can probably get a recommendation from the school's counseling or academic-support office, which probably can talk to you in general terms about strategies for helping your daughter achieve greater independence/self-regulation, even if they can't discuss her individual grades/progress). If your daughter is reluctant to participate, you might try a few sessions with a counselor yourself, with the goal of identifying your existing patterns of interacting with her, and trying to figure out if they're supporting or undermining your long-term goals for her (of course she may have different long-term goals for herself, and those are likely to prevail in the long run, but, especially if you end up working on this on your own, your own goals, and whether what you're currently doing is actually achieving what you expect it to, seem like a good place to start).

      With or without the help of a counselor or other intermediary, it seems to me there are some questions you might want to explore with your daughter:

      --Does she want to be in college right now? If so, why? (There are likely to be a lot of answers to this, from doing what you/her peers/others expect to being with peers to following a passion or preparing for life or a career. You may consider some of those answers more legitimate that others, but it may also be some of the ones that you don't particular like -- e.g. being with friends -- that provide the key to creating incentives to which she might actually respond).

      --If she'd prefer not to be in college (or isn't so sure), what other options might she be interested in pursuing, for a few years or for a lifetime? (A lot of students aren't ready for college at 18, and, especially since it sounds like her issues are more developmental/psychological than academic, she might benefit from a gap year or two).

      --Would she prefer to live at home, or in a dorm? Why? (It may be hard to get past the answers she thinks you want to hear to the honest ones here, and I realize money may also play a role in the decision, but, even if she needs to live at home for financial reasons, it might be possible to reshape your expectations, interactions, etc. to give her more independence -- and less feeling that she's under surveillance -- even while living at home. If she's craving independence, letting her have it, even at home, might serve as an incentive to better self-discipline).

      --Are there aspects of her present college experience that she would change if she could?

      --Does she find her college courses as challenging as she expected? If not, does she think she needs to consider transferring to a college that offers more challenge (and/or meeting with her advisor now to work out a more appropriate schedule for next semester)?

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    2. In short (hah!), I'd suggest a pretty comprehensive thinking/rethinking of the situation, with no options off the table. It may be that your daughter doesn't want to participate in this rethinking, at least at first, and that may be entirely appropriate, because whether you should be doing all this thinking/rethinking of *her* life plans at this point is a valid question. The counterbalance is that you're paying for the experience, which does give you the right to set some boundaries, and the incentive to think about whether the boundaries you've set are accomplishing the purposes you expected them to accomplish/support.

      It's a truism, but the one thing you can control here -- with some work, perhaps some very hard work, since habits, especially those born of a combination of love and anxiety, can be hard to break -- is not your daughter's work habits, or her professors' feedback, but your own habits and responses. If cajoling, warning, supervising, strategizing with teachers, counselor, etc. throughout elementary, middle,and high school -- in short, being very actively involved in the proces -- didn't produce a student who works as hard as you would like, to the standard you would like, on her own, then there's little reason to think that taking the same approach to her college career is going to yield different results. That suggests that it would at least be worth the experiment to work on backing off -- maybe not just on not advising, cajoling, warning, intervening, etc., but also on just plain *noticing* how much work she is and isn't doing, and to what standard. Maybe try to get yourself (and her) to the point where you don't know what's in the essay, so you aren't in a position to have an opinion about whether it should get an A, an F, or somewhere in between. That will undoubtedly take some work (and your daughter, paradoxically, may try to get you more involved when she sees/feels you backing off), but that's really where you eventually want to be, right -- celebrating your kid's larger successes, but less aware of -- and worried by -- the day to day to day ups and downs and details?

      P.S. It's usually recommended for working with younger kids, but it strikes me that Adele Faber's How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will talk might be helfpul. It looks like there's a teen version too. Deborah Tannen, especially on mothers and daughters in conversation might be helpful, too. I also like Harriet Lerner's writing about family relationships/interactions.

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  19. You might want to ask your daughter to find out if her "professor" is actually a permanent faculty member versus an adjunct instructor on contract; if the latter, many adjuncts depend on overwhelmingly positive teaching evaluations to get their contracts renewed, which can be achieved by giving out A's like they are candy. It doesn't matter if your daughter's tuition is $4,000 or $40,000, adjuncts have precarious livelihoods regardless.

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  20. Hi Pam! I have two kids in college myself, and I understand your frustration from both sides: as an English professor myself and as a parent who wants her kids to work hard and get their butts kicked into shape by their professors.

    As an English professor, I say this: you say the essay had some missing commas and spelling errors. Even the best of us might miss some of those when we are reading two batches of 25 Composition essays. And some of us are reading three or four batches with more than 25 in each class. So, reading 50 to 100 essays.....we are looking for the student to have answered the requirements of the assignment and for the prose to be clear, easy to read, and to the point. If your daughter can do these things (follow directions and write clear, easy to read prose), she's going to fly by in Composition. So many of the other papers in the stack can do neither of those things. I've literally danced around the house in happiness (to my dog's complete joy and my teenager's derision) when I've come upon an essay that does these things. (This happens when I'm reading a particularly awful stack....much more often than I'd like.)

    You said it was boring, yet the professor said it was creative. Well, I have less of an answer for that---except again, the professor is looking at the essay in context. Perhaps it was creative compared to the others.

    I try to mark even little mistakes. I circle errors. I do not mark them all because I write an end comment that explains I've marked patterns of errors, points out what those patterns were, and tells them to take the essay to the tutoring center for help with those grammatical and mechanical issues. I am suspicious of an essay with no errors at all (because I'm sure that means I've missed something) and I try to go back and find them....but again, it depends on the the professor's situation (as explained well in other responses). No one is perfect every time no matter what their situation, though.

    And of course there are slackers who hardly even look. The briefness of the essay not being addressed makes me fear that is the case here, and yet it could be that your daughter did cover the goals of the assignment in less space (I usually compliment a student on their economy of words if that happens, and explain why I did not take off for the length....I'm real bitch about required length, usually.)

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    1. As a parent, I'll take a different stance, one that might get me into trouble with my friends here (sorry in advance....don't kill me!). You do want your kid's professors to not be slacking off, no matter what their personal and professional situations might be. College costs a fortune, and it is not your fault that the money you are paying is not trickling down to your kid's proffie. Ask your daughter for the grading rubric for this assignment. The professor should have given the students some guidelines for how the essay would be graded. If there is no grading rubric, you can request a meeting (with your daughter's consent) to ask why not. You can contact the department chair to ask about grading rubrics as well (with your daughter's permission). You might even be able to look at the grading rubric without her permission if there is a standard one for the whole department. You can ask the department chair why this professor does not use grading rubrics (if that is the answer you get---which is unlikely but possible if this is a case of a slacker professor.) If this continues, and you really feel that the essays are not being graded with a high degree of attention, you could always contact the professor and tell them that. If I was contacted by a parent with this kind of blanket comment, I'd sit up and take notice. I would definitely grade the student's essays more carefully and strictly. Your daughter would kill you! But would it result in her essays being graded unfairly? Never! I'd know I was being watched, and I'd be extra careful, that's all. Many/most English professors have a terrible fear (almost like a recurring nightmare) that they will under correct some paper in a moment of duress, and it will end up in some newspaper in an expose of poor teaching. I think I've seen this particular fear somewhere here on these pages!

      For now, get the grading rubric so you can understand what the goals of the assignment were and what percentage of the grade was for each goal (with your daughter's permission---just tell her you are only curious----you can also look at the syllabus as the rubrics are sometimes included there). This is a good starting point.

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