Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Honeymoon's Over

I handed back midterms. (And can I say, as an aside, to all of you other academic bloggers who have already finished their semesters: Tthththtthhtthpppp! So there.)

I always like the beginning of a quarter (despite the chaos of shopping and add/drop) while the instructor and the students are (for the most part) both desperately trying to like each other. Thanks to caffeine, I have a fairly high energy level, despite the time slot, and a big fat mouth that runs off and is often unintentionally funny (occasionally intentionally so), which leads to us all having a reasonably entertaining time in class. But this beginning relationship, so full of promise and transference, is freighted with unstated expectations: the instructor thinks that, if the teaching is going well, it will result in (for the first time) brilliant papers; the students think that the care and attention their remarks are getting in class mean that they will get As on their assignments.

Then comes the first paper, and reality sets in.

No longer is everything under the rosy glow of potential; I now know that my students run the usual range of decent to bad writers, of unused-to-this-midterm format to didn't-believe-me-when-I-said-they-had-to-do-all-the-reading, and my students know that I am a hard bitch of a grader. Correction ---- I usually am a tough grader. I don't see how anyone could cut slack for the large number of people who did not respond to the correct number of passages. Dudes: if you didn't even try it, how can I give even 5 out of 10 points? You're not making it easy.

And now we will set into the next phase of resignation and realistic expectations, the romance and excitement being gone. We will slog on to the bitter end, although some will see their grades and decide that a quickie divorce is in their future. We get to face each other in the classroom with some awkwardness, no indulgent smiles and chuckles, perhaps open recrimination or even mass revolt depending on how organized and with-it the students are.

The part I really hate comes next: students coming to my office to get their grade raised. The ones who had a tough wake-up call (either college or this class in particular will be tougher than they expected) freak out, and I get to deal with students crying or having major identity crises in my cubicle ("But I've never gotten a B before!" --- If I had a dollar every time someone told me that. Of course college is more challenging than high school ---- it's supposed to be that way. I do have some sympathy for the smartasses who've never been called on crappy work in high school, 'cause I had the exact same thing happen to me. I'll tell you about it some day). Others think they are entitled to an A (or even, a B ---- these were a bad batch, yo.) because of the amount of money they (read: their parents) pay, and they come to yell and bluster and storm. Then there are the manipulative ones, consciously or no.

And I must say at this point that although I loved the movie Clueless when it came out, as a witty and sharp take on both Jane Austen and high school, I fucking hate that so many students seem to have taken the line, "Oh, daddy, those aren't grades, I think of them as first offers" and try to bargain (or threaten, or plead, or guilt) their way to higher grades. Nope, I don't know what other instructors are doing, but I worked hard on grading those ---- I read through the piles more than once. Your test was read carefully and with an eye towards both what I expected and what the rest of my students did. If I marked it as a C or D, trust me, it was worse than what most of the others were. When you tell me I should regrade it, you are in effect telling me that I did a crappy job last time and am bad at my job. I know this is not true ---- I am not a softie grader, but I am not a bad, capricious or unreasonably hard grader. What you are really saying, please be honest, is that you don't want this grade and are unhappy with it, and you would prefer that I "give" you a more acceptable grade. To which (your underlying message) I say no, you earned this grade, motherfucker, and if you want a higher one? Try reading the book and taking notes on it. Read it until you understand it; for some people this will entail re-reading. And if you are still unclear on what lecture was about? That's why I have office hours. And for the people the prof overheard selling this course as an easy A? Maybe you should stop with the false advertising. I've TA'd it before and it has never been an A-fest.


Horace said...

I have tried a lot of way t deal with this phenomenon, including really challenging diagnostic essays in the first week to both set expectations and to soften the blow of the first major grade, pushing major grades back in the semester so that the classroom culture will have set in, and just letting the first grade pack its punch.

Nothing seems to work in relieving the shock, although I do advocate giving harder, but lower stakes assignments up front so at least they get the message clearly on assignment that isn't 20% of their grade. That way, if they are still getting poor grades for lackluster effort, they cannot say they haven't been warned. And if they do need help, they know they need to come ask for it before the big assignments set in.

As for the bargaining issue, Good luck on that, I often start the conversation with, "What do you intend to do to improve you next paper/project/exam?" that opening line usually makes it clear that I still believe that they need improvement...

In the meantime, I hope the post-honeymoon phase (not unlike marriage) develops into a deeper and more abiding love, rather than a simple nervous infatuation.

medieval woman said...

Amen sister! That whole "re-grade" it stuff pisses me off too! I always say, "they don't get any better a second time around"...

gwoertendyke said...

check out the size of those cellphones? it's hard to believe that just mere years ago, we had no cellphones and when i graduated from highschool, i got one of those typewriters with the itty biddy computer screen behind the keys.

when students try to argue about their grades, I tell them to 1)wait one day before making an appointment with me; 2)write at least one paragraph explaining how they intend to revise their paper and why this should improve it; 3) meet with me to discuss their first paper, my comments, and to outline the next draft; 4) make them turn in all of the above with the next version, on a date we agree upon.

and finally, i make sure that they know that if the paper is actually improved, i will give them the higher grade (not the average of the two); if it is not improved, their grade will stay the same.

the sheer amount of hassle shuts up most of them, the others actually do the work and produce better papers. very few keep the whole bargain.

good luck. smile and then tell them how it is.

Sisyphus said...

Hooray for advice and comments! You all rock.

First, Horace: I'm TA-ing the course so one of the constant challenges is being the one who interacts most closely with the students but does not design the shape of the course. I like being the "translator" or go-between the prof and the students, as what they _don't_ get teaches me a lot about how to teach (and it's clear that a lot of these profs haven't really talked to the students in a while and no longer have an up-to-date grasp on what students do and do not know). On the relationship side of it, we're on the quarter system here in California, fans of academic serial monogamy and quickie divorces, so all of us will have "so moved on" in just a few weeks, heh.

Medieval Woman, I have been known to tell people I would ask a fellow TA to read and re-grade the midterm for me, but they would have to accept that new grade, even if it was lower!

Adjunct whore: I love your system! Unfortunately these are in-class midterms so asking people to do over an ID and contextualization of a passage over would guarantee them an A (particularly if they could go home and check their books.) But definitely adding more work means that only the truly dedicated will try to up their grade, and then they've actually worked really hard for it and I have no problem raising it.

As an update: one of the TAs has a very different style than me and spent the first 5 weeks prepping them on practice midterms; of course they did fabulously. But I have spent those weeks pushing them to prepare their research proposals and worked with them on how to develop their research into an argument, with the results that their proposals they just turned in all look like proposals and are very close to having thesises, whereas she got a lot of things that said "I want to look at identity in [blank] period literature," so ha! I am somewhat justified!

And if anyone else wants to chime in, please do!