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A For Effort, Or F For Forget About It?

Michelle Cottle's impassioned post about college students expectant of good grades simply for showing up to class has sparked a feverish debate among our commentors. A few highlights:


Maybe the kids get this from unionized grade school teachers, who themselves are among the most entitled beings on the planet.  Lavish praise for being a warm body with decent attendance, with no reference to actual merit?  That sounds like a public school teacher to me!


I have to be honest, in my University classes ... I could not last as a teacher if I failed everyone, as much as possible I teach to the level of the class and not to the level of the material. I have known a lot of teachers who have taught to the level of the material and who burn out, or whose classes are avoided like the plague. So yeah, for a lot of classes if you do show up, work hard, do the work, you can attain a B average. I didn't say will, I said can. I also know a lot of my students pass on short term memory alone, that a few weeks or months afterwards any compositions they write will revert to the drivel that was there at the beginning. I just do the best I can. Ideally Michelle is right, and for the Ivy league colleges what she says is fine, but community or state colleges you gotta teach to the class that you have, not some idealized version of what you hope exists.


Blame the parents.  I see it all the time with my two elementary school kids, one in 3rd grade and one in first grade.  My wife and I won't accept anything less than excellence and make sure they know they hve to WORK to get a good grade.  I have the attitude that nothing short of perfection is good enough as I get reminded daily that I have to meet that standard or else my job goes to China or India.  My kids better get used to that fact now.  

Why don't more Americans understand this?  My kids attend school with mainly affluent to outright rich kids, so no blaming "them po' folk" for dragging the standards down. I see plenty of well-off whiny parents protecting junior all the time.  No wonder the kids end up like that.


Let me push back and say that you're taking this line of thinking a little far, Michelle. Yes, I completely agree that we wouldn't be much of a functioning society if our sense of egalitarianism leaked into our system of credentials and professional certifications. But we're not talking about 3Ls unable to pass the bar, or aspiring actors being cut from auditions for the Royal Shakespeare Company. We're talking mostly (it seems) about undergraduates who are at once 1) at least encouraged, and often required, to take classes outside their expertise by an academic culture that embraces the liberal arts approach to learning, and 2) penalized by poor or average grades thanks to the hyper-competitive nature of internships, grad school, and to a lesser extent jobs, where the emphasis on undergraduate GPA will only grow as spots become more scarce...


I am not quite sure what to make of this entry, or the NYT article itself. As a college student nearing graduation, I felt compelled to respond to this. ... As for teachers and parents who encourage their young ones, what would you have them do? Sure, I would like maybe a more realist approach, but dampening spirits and not encouraging potential is a recipe for even fewer truly gifted individuals advancing to their fields. So yes, we should be rewarded for effort, but not on effort alone. We, as college students, should recognize that effort is necessary to our larger goal, and that is understanding and mastering our field, a task that is made extremely difficult by LACK of effort. The quote from Sarah Kinn somewhat proves my point, she says, "I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B."

I interpret this to mean that based on her attendance and reading, the understanding and aptitude of her studies are implicit. The operative word in her statement is "achieve." This implies that there is some level of knowledge that has been generated by her effort and hard work. Her statement is not saying that she expects a B JUST for doing these things. I may be wrong, but I just felt compelled to give a semi-defense of the college students I know, and the institution in which we operate.


Funny post, Ms. Cottle. As a PhD student I graded tons of biochemistry and genetics exams and, time and again, was surprised to see these college students coming to me thinking they had the RIGHT to high grades.We would go over exams and we would see together: "Well, you didn't solve this problem, and this one and this one. Wherefrom do you want more points?" They wouldn't say, just sit there with a stubborn expression and saying they had been to class and did their homework... And they really expected me to yield, and were upset when I would not (except for a few -very few- times when I realized I had overlooked correct answers - and then of course I gave back everything). I just don't believe in things for free.

Often they even told me how much they were paying to attend the university (a top US research university). The best was a chap who tried to berate me for not "having gone to an Ivy college", implying I was not qualified to grade His Majesty's exam. I explained to him that I came from Israel to do my PhD in the US, so I couldn't have "gone" to an Ivy college. I also told him that one attends or graduates from a university, doesn't "go" to it. That seemed to infuriate him even more. It's quite amusing how much they lose their temper when they don't get their way - which they have been taught since the earliest age to expect."

There are a lot more great comments in this heated exchange, so be sure to keep up with the debate here. (And if you're a subscriber, please weigh in!)

--Alexander Wolf