Monday, December 27, 2010

An Open, Bitchy Letter to My Students, and Any Other Students Much Afflicted by Their B+

My dear young friends:

Ah! The B+!! It is the cruelest thing in the world, isn't it?  You, my lucky young friends, having been born into one of world's wealthiest countries where everything from frozen yogurt to dirty pictures* to celebrity gossip is but a Paypal click away, are unused to hardship.  Even more, you have been fortunate enough to be the children of parents willing, nay eager, to spend $50K+ a year for your education, and probably have since you entered this fine world.  I get it. You haven't really had your back up against the wall.

So, of course, when presented with the B+ you earned in my class, you are in turn outraged/devastated. Grief is a terrible emotion. It tears into your soul. Since I turned off my email the day before Christmas and haven't gotten back to you,  you have written me emails every single day.  Every. Single. Day.  So intense is your grief that the emails change in pitch, day by day, as you believe that I am indifferent to the terrible injustice I have done to you.  Why am I not in my office Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, hell, EVERY day waiting to fix this blot on your soul? Where in God's name am I? THE HUMANITY!

Only one of my B+ recipients has failed to fill my email box with her daily wails. Let's call her J.  J was called alway to Hong Kong in October for her mother's death--a real death, not that kind that crops up when you need it to. You could tell it was the former rather than the latter: J came to class the week before she left for the funeral, and this normally lovely, bright-eyed, well-dressed girl dragged herself in to talk to me, her eyes red-rimmed, her face pale, her hair stringy and uncombed, her eyes fixed on her hands.  She was barely able to answer a simple question. When she returned, she remained a zombie; her pixie's frame, which darted around at the beginning of the semester, moved as though she had to swim through molasses. She smiled, but the smile never reached her eyes—not once during the two remaining months of the class. She burst into tears during my office hours. "I"m so sorry! I'm so sorry! I was just thinking about something!" she cried.   She is only 22, and while I get impatient with people who want to infantilize college students, 22 is awfully young to see your mom go into the ground.

She wrote me an email on Christmas Eve, too. "Dear Dr. Bear: Thanks for all your help this semester. I really enjoyed the class. And thanks for working so hard to make it fun."

That's it. That's all she had to say.

It is my experience that students are quite literal, so let  me explain what I am getting at here in less abstract terms: there are bigger things on your horizon than a B+ in my class, or any class.  There will be children, tragedies, triumphs, cancer, Alzheimer's, cheating spouses, divorce, people you trust who betray you, losses (real losses)--a million things a million times more important to you than what grade you got in my class, which I doubt you will remember in ten years.

One of my major flaws/features as a professor is that I never cared very much about grades when I was a student. I thought grades were childish. I still do.  But I have to have to some way of giving you feedback to help you understand how you are doing, and the world wants us to have grades, so there you are.  And so I freely admit that I am less sympathetic to those of you for whom your B+ is the Worst Thing Ever.  When I was a student, I generally thought "a B! Gnarly!" (Yes, we said gnarly back then. Shut up.) I went to an undergrad institution where there were no pluses or minuses, so an 89 percent? It was a B. Just like an 81 percent. You sucked it up.  Thus, in addition to wanting you to understand that, as in J's case, you will have to learn to cope with real pain, I also want you to understand that a B+ is actually a GOOD grade, not a bad grade.

Finally, the nice lady that handles grade changes is out of the office visiting her family in China until January 15th. So even if there has been a mistake, we can't fix it until then anyway.  How's about you stop sweating it, stop pestering me, and just chill until January at the earliest? I know this means carrying around a frightful burden, but, please, try to be brave and carry on, despite the many trials you must bear, until then.


The Bitchy Bear

*Back in the day, we had to work harder to get our porn. Just saying.


  1. Hugs and kisses to BitchyBear. If only we had no "Winter Smushed Semester" and then the office really WOULD be closed. Of course, MY office is closed, and that's what really matters.

  2. "Back in the day", we also had to wait until January for our grades to arrive via the postal service. Gasp.
    Here's a great Louis CK clip, "Everything's Amazing, and Nobody's Happy."

  3. I love this letter. Can you make this into a form letter so that I can just fill in my own details? Then, I can send it to all the whiny punks I have been dealing with. "BOO HOO! I didn't do the work and I still want a good grade. BOO HOO!"

    Thanks, Bitchy Bear.

    Mathsquatch out.

  4. Ah yes, those were the days, when grades arrived by mail and proffies were long gone and unreachable for at least a couple of weeks. Now I get emails about grades within minutes of my posting them.

    It's very strange to me how the grade has become the thing rather than what it represents. Students become so wrapped up in the grade that it's part of their identity, e.g., "I'm an A student." Unless a professor made an error in calculating a grade, I can't imagine why students would think contacting us would make one whit of difference in the outcome.

    The only time I ever contested a grade was in grad school. My department had a new adjunct prof for whom my chairperson would have licked muddy boots from a cow pasture. Said adjunct kept handing me back papers all term with grades of A- on them. On the night of the final exam, a dinner party at her home at which we had to give presentations on our research, she pulled me and two other students aside to inform us our final grades in the course would be B+s. She didn't read the college grading scale before she began teaching. A- was not a legal grade to assign, so since we hadn't earned a full A, we deserved B+ grades. Never mind that she'd been giving B+ grades all term to students whose work she considered not as good as ours.

    I'm sure you can guess what my appeal got me.

    Later when the chairperson went on sabbatical, she asked for and got an unprecedented appointment for the adjunct to become department chairperson that year. (Yes, she was still an adjunct/not on TT while she was chair.) She was then put on the tenure track a year and a half later and became chair when the chairperson retired.

  5. @BB:

    I've tried the defenses, "B is a good grade," and, "There will be worse things in life," too. They never work.


    They contact us because they think of us as customer service representatives. It's not easy to convince them otherwise, but I haven't given up trying.

  6. And, of course, remember the other reason they contact us to change their grades: They honestly assume it can't hurt. If we say yes, their grades raise. If we say no, they're right where they started.

    No one has ever told them that grade-grubbing is annoying and that THIS is the down side. That they're jeopardizing their relationship with another adult and wasting someone else's time.

    So when they ask for higher grades, here's an idea: Don't just tell them "no." Tell them "No, and quite frankly, here's why you shouldn't grub." After all, we can't expect them to learn something we don't tell them.

  7. I don't actually mind the asking. It's odd. Certainly, I make mistakes in calculating grades--it's happened. But emailing again and again?

  8. alas, as an adjunct I can't respond the way I would want to..
    "But I'm an A student!"
    "Not any more you're not!"

  9. I have never had a student complain about a B+. Where I teach, students are more of the "yeah, I passed!" school of jubilation when they get a C or a C-. Did I mention our low admissions standards?

  10. The most unhappy person on the planet is the student with an 89 average....

  11. What a great post. Made my morning!
    The wonders never cease. At my institution, students can follow their grade all semester long. From Week 1 of class, I post grades on our online platform as we go, and the computer, so helpfully, even throws in a projected grade. I also tell my classes around mid-semester that, if their average is not at least at a certain percentage, they might want to consider dropping. And still, hope springs eternal in the student's breast--I, too, get at least one grade-grubbing e-mail every semester: "Please. Isn't there anything you can do? I'll do anything if you let me make up work. This would mean so much to me." (Needless to say, these are typically the most polite e-mails I receive from them all semester long.) I learned how to say "no" in my first semester of adjuncting, and I'm glad I did. I'm always nice about it, but a no is a no is a no--a lesson many students have not learned yet.

  12. I got another set of these. Whine, whine, whine, WHINE.

  13. Great post! I am thinking of putting a grade grubbing policy on my syllabus -- something like only contact me about your grade if you honestly thing I made an actual error (did the math incorrectly). I have to think about the wording, but I am deeply sick of the "but I am an A student" lament. And this last semester the hysterical student who called my office every 5 minutes, filled my e-mail box, and ultimately came into my office and threw herself on the floor and had a temper tantrum (yes she screamed and kicked her feet up and down) was the last straw. Any ideas for wording -- need to make sure I do not get sued!

  14. "Can you make this into a form letter so that I can just fill in my own details?"


    Dear _______(student/snowflake/reason I question my life),

    I am _______(sorry/appalled/surprised) that you are _______(unhappy with/questioning/bitching about) your grade. I have calculated the math carefully and your grade is indeed correct. If you would like, I can _______(send the break down of the grade/meet with you in person). You can also _______(contact the chair/realize your grade is actually good/go f*ck yourself). I am _______(sorry/frankly, rather pleased) that there is nothing more I can do.

    _______(Regards,/Cheers,/Don't ever contact me again,)
    Professor _______(your name)


    The things in brackets are suggestions.
    You're welcome.

  15. BB, please tell me that you actually emailed something to this effect to your students. I'll worship you forever.

  16. @Snarkygirl:

    Here's the one I use:

    "The instructor will be happy to fix any errors that occur in the grading. If, after any errors are fixed, students still want to contest their grades, the students are required to do so in writing. This written request must be typed (or computer printed) and must be a minimum of half a single-spaced page of 12-point type for exam or Final Exam questions, and a minimum of one single-spaced page of 12-point type for the overall grade. It is to be submitted one time, either to the instructor during office hours, or to his mailbox in (my department office). See Grade Protests in (my university's) General Catalog: this must be done before the end of the fourth week of classes, during the semester immediately following the semester in which the contested grade was awarded."

    Since my university adopted the rule that all grade protests must be submitted in writing before the end of the fourth week of classes, faculty have taken to celebrating "statute of limitations day," starting at 5 p.m. on Friday of this week with drinks and hilarity, off campus of course.

  17. P.S. I have no problem with e-mailing grade breakdowns, and do so without quibbling. Nearly all of them end there: math has an authority all its own, particularly for the vast majority of students for whom it's a total mystery. Any that continue to argue I send a copy of my above policy, straight from the syllabus. I do not encourage them to meet with me in person, without their written request. The frontal assault does not work well in academia: there are too many jagoff administrators to make it backfire.


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