A…My Name is Average

It worries me that I have a reputation for being a hard grader. I am concerned about what this word-of-mouth evaluation of my grading says about the current generation of students.  I don’t like how grades have become, in the minds of many students, a game of negotiation.  As grumpy old man as it may make me sound, I don’t recall a single moment when I approached a professor and acted like his or her grade was a jumping off point to final grade negotiations.  I never contacted instructors at the end of the semester and tried to talk my way into a higher grade.

I blame the bullshit “New American University” business academic business model for this game of academic bartering.  As many other scholars and educators have pointed out, some students increasingly feel as if they are consumers; some even talk to professors like they communicate with store and restaurant managers.  I’ve had students demand that they be fit into classes, in which there are no available seats.  I’ve watched a student complain to administration, after I caught him plagiarizing on TWO major essays in a single class.  He complained because he thought he should be allowed to drop the course without penalty.  When I didn’t allow him to simply withdrawal from the class without incident, he, like a disgruntled customer, wanted to “speak to my boss.”

Before I get too Debbie Downer, I happily assert that most of my students are WONDERFUL.  They produce work that inspires me and makes me proud to stand in front of a classroom at the end of the semester.  My favorite academic moments are instances in which I see students produce work they once thought unimaginable.

That said, I really detest the myth that I’m anything less than generous with my grading.  I find student complaints about grades to be incommensurate with how most instructors score assignments.  A few months ago, I overheard a group of students in the hall outside of my office grumbling about grading.  These weren’t students in any of the classes I was teaching at the time; but I was intrigued by their discussion.  One woman with a particularly shrill voice exclaimed, “I just don’t understand why I earned a ‘B-’ on that paper.  I asked the instructor to point out all my mistakes, and she couldn’t find that many errors.  I just don’t get it.  The number of mistakes should have pulled my ‘A’ down to an ‘A-,’ not a ‘B-.’”

I use this story as a rhetorical springboard to share my grading philosophies and note some concerns about the trends and trajectory of student grading expectations.

1)    An “A” is not the STARTING grade.  In other words, a student doesn’t START at 100%, and then get marked down as a paper or presentation is evaluated.  The “A” starting value myth is horrible, in part, because it doesn’t acknowledge the points that professors AWARD when students kick ass on a particular part of a project.  I tend to start students at a “C,” which is consistent with the national standard average, and then deduct points for errors and award points for elements of a project that EXCEED my expectations of average work.

2)    Grades DO NOT reflect a student’s EFFORT; grades symbolize what the student PRODUCED.  Hard work and earnest effort certainly help a student produce amazing papers and presentations; but hard work does not guarantee that he or she will produce above average work.  This is a life lesson: Try as we might, sometimes we won’t master a subject or activity, regardless of the effort we invest.  As a kid, I spent months and months trying to learn the basics of playing piano.  All my effort should have made me a mini-Mozart, but it didn’t.

3)    Professors do not need to justify a “B.”  A “B” signifies good, above average work; the grade is a REWARD for a job well done.

My grading policies aren’t harsh. Wikipedia breaks down national standard averages in US academic institutions.  I include a link to the Wiki in my syllabi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_point_average#United_States

One former student recently visited the gloriously skewed and often reprehensible RateMyProfessors.com, and complained that, when it comes to group presentation evaluations, I am too hard of a grader.  His or her exact words were that, “Group presentations were the worst.  He says he’s generous with grading, but not really.”

The class average on the group presentation was an 85%; the semester before, the average was an 82%; two semesters ago, the mean on the group project was an 83%.  Keep in mind, a “C,” in the US, is meant to represent AVERAGE work.  If ANYTHING, I am WAY TOO CHARITABLE in my grading.

I’m ranting about grades today, because I sense a growing wave of entitlement among my students.  I know, I know; I’m becoming one of those professors who complain about “student entitlement.”  I’m growing particularly concerned because students are starting to tell one another that, “Dr. Fox is a really hard grader.”  One of my students in Rhetorical Criticism even told me that another faculty member in my department joked that a “B” in my class would be an “A” in one of her courses.  (Real professional, right?) Allow me to dispel the myth about my “hard” grading practices.

Below you’ll find a chart that displays the average FINAL grades in the last five courses I taught.

COMM 130, Fall 2009Public Speaking 77%
COMM 300, Fall 2009Rhetorical Theory 80%
COMM 412, Fall 2009Gender and Communication 80%
COMM 300, Spring 2010Rhetorical Theory 80%
COMM 301, Spring 2010Rhetorical Criticism 86%

*Note: My averages do not include a small number of students who simply stopped coming to class.  As many of you know, sometimes students register for a course and never attend or stop coming to class midway into the semester.

Judge for yourself.