Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I'm Baffled About Tom And His Grandpa.

Last week in class we discussed a reading assignment for about a half hour. We had 45 minutes left and I was unsatisfied with how we covered the material, so I invoked my option of offering a short writing assignment for 5% of the grade.

The reading assignment had been very much about the labels we use to identify ourselves: "I'm an American," or "I'm a son," or "I'm hearing impaired." So I asked the students to spend the last part of class writing something that put forward their most important label. I said, "Make sure you identify yourself as something, just like the examples in the text. Don't just tell me a story, or tell me what you were like as a kid. Find examples that prove you are this thing, this label."

They set about the task, grumbling, obviously, but when it was all over I flipped through a few in my office. They were great. People really got it and I felt as if the assignment had been a great success.

Of course the next day I was sitting there and the second paper I graded was by Tom. Tom is a full-on time suck. He is there ahead of class with questions, and stays afterwards. He's in the hallway outside my office, and he asks the same questions. He's not ADHD; he doesn't have Asperger's. He's just used to a lot of attention.

His paper was nothing like the others, and not at all what I asked for. It was a pretty enough story about a tree swing his grandpa built for him when Tom was little. He loved his grandpa. That's about it.

I gave it back with the lowest score possible on my grading scale; it equates to about 55%. It means it's not quite an F, but it's not going to help him get on the Dean's List. He stared at it hard most of class and then met me in the hallway outside my office afterwards. Before he let me get my key in the door, we had this discussion.

"I don't understand why I got such a bad grade."

"Yes, Tom, I felt badly about that, but you didn't at all do what the assignment asked. I really sort of thought you deserved 0%, but I gave you some credit for writing something."

"This is the best thing I've ever written."

"I'll take your word for it, but it's not at all about your identity, or the labels we used to identify ourselves."

"My grandpa built that swing with his own hands."

"Yes, still, that's not what I was asking for."

"This isn't a writing class."

"Well, that's not true, we write all the time."

"I'm not an English major."

"Okay, again, I'll take your word for it. We read and write in class all the time, and your ability to..."

"I was the editor of my high school newspaper."

"I don't doubt it," I said. "But this assignment was about showing me you understood the essay we read in class about identity."

"That essay was stupid."

"Regardless, I asked you to write your own essay, showing your identity."

"My grandpa's dead now, out there on that farm. And that swing is still there."

"That is a really nice story. But how is it about your identity?"

"I won a prize in high school for an essay I wrote about Bruce Lee."

"Again, I'll take your word on that. But that's got nothing to do with..."

He turned and walked away down the hallway, and then turned back. "My senior English teacher would have given this an A." Then he kept going out of the building.


  1. Ironically, if everything he said was true, he could have written an essay arguing that he deserves the label of "good writer". (Apparently, he had his argument all ready.)

  2. do not be baffled:

    "My senior English teacher would have given this an A."

  3. I feel your pain. I had one of these a few semesters ago, and it was all I could do to conceal my mounting irritation at having to explain the same thing over and over again. That one had an English teacher for a parent, and to have to patiently explain to her why her mother was wrong about something--you'd have thought I was suggesting that the mother had been humping a goat in public.

  4. I had a documented ADHD student in a class three years ago. He was like Tom in some ways, but also oddly confident and imperturbable.

    He would do the wrong thing every time I assigned something. Sometimes he would just make up an assignment for himself. I kept talking to his academic services person who got more and more tired of me.

    "Grade what he gives you," she kept saying.

    "Well, then they're all Fs. He's not doing what I ask."

    "Grade him based on the assignments HE'S doing then."

    "But that's not what college is about, is it?"

    I eventually got called into the chair's office and yes, I was told to grade his work as if he himself had crafted the assignment for himself. I was told it was not his "fault" that he couldn't do what I asked.

    He got two years credit at the community college I used to teach at, and then transferred elsewhere.

  5. "Grampa sounded like a heck of man. Now make him proud by completing your work as assigned."

  6. Hiram my dear, there's nothing baffling about his entitlement. It's pervasive. What YY1 said.

    May I make a gentle suggestion? Please stop telling your students that you feel bad about their grades/scores, if indeed you phrase your feedback that way. I did the same thing for years, but it does three damaging things.

    First, it gives students the impression that your feelings actually had something to do with the grading process. That's not at all what you mean when you say this--you're trying to show that you do sympathize--but they hear something about your emotions and it reinforces their mistaken belief that grading writing is subjective.

    Second, it gives students the idea that there is some wiggle room in the grading. If you tell students you feel bad about the grades they earned, they hear, "Well, maybe he feels bad enough to change the grade." It's related to my first point, that we grade writing based on subjective criteria (in their heads), not that they have to earn the grades they receive.

    Third, my dear, is the most difficult thing for me to write, as I do not want you to think I'm criticizing you. I'm not. Hiram, even though you followed it up with "you deserved 0%," you still seem to care that this student screwed up. If you don't and I'm wrong, then this is moot, but you really shouldn't care more than he did--because that's what it sounds like. Especially if the conversation lasted as long as it did. Save yourself. If you really do feel bad about what the kid earned, please, please, please get over it.

    This is a conversation I had with a student yesterday. The classroom door locks automatically after 10 minutes:

    Irate Irwin: "You left me in the hallway for the whole class."

    Me: "You arrived after the door was locked."

    Irate Irwin: "But I knocked half an hour into class the first time, then came back half an hour later."

    Me: "The late policy is clearly outlined in the syllabus. I couldn't interrupt what I was doing with the class to get to the door."

    Irate Irwin: "But I... ."

    Me: "You arrived after the door was locked. See you Wednesday."

    Was he more angry because I offered no sympathy? Probably. There were students in the hall who looked at me incredulously, too, students not in our class. On both accounts, I don't care. There are days when I can get to the door--which is clear across the room and around a corner, out of site of the teaching station--and there are days when I can't.

    Our students too seldom equate their own lack of accountability with their own underachievement. I am sick of it. When they confront me--as they do every single tea-partying day, every tea-partying day--I am firm but polite.

    I'm not suggesting you're not, Hiram. I admit it took me a long time to learn NOT to say, "I'm sorry, but...," but now that I have, life is easier.

    1. Greta!

      You are right on every count, and I appreciate you telling it to me in a way that I really understand.


    2. Thanks for the reminder, Greta! I use the qualifier "I'm sorry, but..." when I'm really NOT, and I am not using it anymore. Instead, I am calling attention to the inappropriate behavior they exhibit as a reason for the lower grade or penalty. That they, it's not a reflection of MY personality or behavior, but of theirs.

    3. PS. I have started using: "It's unfortunate that you chose to do x instead of y, which was required."

    4. It's an instinctive response ... here in the Great White North most people instinctively say "Sorry" when its the other dude that totally bumped into you [as has been parodied in too many tv skits etc]. I've recently tried hard to cut out the "I'm sorry, but..." - it slows down the start of the conversation, because you have to clearly think about how you're going to phrase your opening line, having tossed out the instinctive starting line.

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  8. Hiram, perhaps sharing some of the others' work in class would have helped him realize how completely off the topic he was. I suspect he's written about his grandfather's swing before and received accolades for being such a sensitive soul.

    1. I second this ...

      I had a student in Hamster Care & Feeding who had endured some similar care and feeding challenges in while growing up. However, in a graduate level course where the focus is on being able to demonstrate an ability to incorporate current research into Hamster Care & Feeding, retelling your story of personal triumph is irrelevant.

      After being told this, the student responded with a rambling narrative of how the story has been shared with classmates in some of the clinical Care & Feeding sections after which the student was lauded for empathy and strength.

      But the student still cannot find an article to support current Care & Feeding interventions and heaven forbid actually integrate such information into Care & Feeding practice.

  9. I had a student who had a short writing assignment due last week, he even turned it in early. Then, he asked me afterwards what it was supposed to be about, and I said, "Well, it was compare and contrast ..." and he said, "Oh, I didn't really compare, I just sort of freestyled."

    Is my assignment a jazz band or a skateboard competition?

    They make me crazy. Sometimes.

  10. The first assignment for my third year class was to take method of evaluation X and apply it to text Y.

    When I opened the papers this weekend the very first one took method of evaluation X and applied it to some other text entirely, which I didn't have a copy of and which was (in any event) inappropriate for the assignment.

    I stopped grading, checked the assignment instructions - which were perfectly clear, and even supplied a copy of text Y - and wondered what to do. Should I tell the student to redo the assignment? Grade it on its merits but take some off for not paying the slightest attention to the assignment? Give it 0 and pass on?

    In the end, I read it through and it was mediocre, so I just graded it on its merits and let it go. But, I mean, WTF?

    1. I put a zero on top of essays like that, then return them with the instruction that they can redo the assignment, properly this time, with a ten point penalty. I give them one week to do it. Fuck 'em if they don't want to follow directions.

  11. I do what Bella does.

    I always tell them that part of what they're being evaluated on for all their assignments is whether or not they can follow directions. That is actually pretty much the #1 step in evaluating their work: Does it do what the assignment asked? No? If not, then I put my pen down and I don't evaluate it any further.

    I return it and tell them to redo it, the late penalty clock ticking the whole time. Most of them do this with little or no complaint (I don't negotiate about this, so they quickly realize complaining or wheedling about it is pointless) and hand it back in speedily; the others just accept the zero, which is really their choice.


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