The Daily Pennsylvanian's recent staff editorial ("Valuing Achievement," 3/8/01) addressed the topic of grade inflation, and alluded to several broad issues which have concerned me as a teaching assistant. Before anything else, I should state that I love teaching and that I have had many valuable relationships with my students over the years. First, the ruthlessly competitive undergraduate attitude the DP alluded to has important ethical consequences, although it is not the whole story. While I, as an instructor, do make occasional grading mistakes, I spend most of my office hours listening to undergraduates argue that they deserve more points rather than conversing with me about the nature of their omissions. When unsuccessful (as usual) in their sometimes aggressive bids for higher grades, some literally say, "OK, I guess I'm out of arguments to get more points," and proceed to ask me an unrelated question in a perfectly normal tone. Occasionally, my students become overtly hostile, shouting and calling into question my qualifications, often in public. Re-grades, office hours, makeup exams and such are there to accommodate legitimate student needs, particularly in exceptional circumstances. A culture of litigious abuse is spreading, however, so that they function instead as "loopholes" and create a dangerously adversarial relationship between the student and the person who is supposed to help guide their learning. In the three-and-a-half years I have taught here, this has gotten far, far worse. When I talk to other TAs about adversarial relations with students, the phrase "sense of entitlement" comes up often. It is frequent, for instance, for students to use the argument that they are paying a lot of money for their Penn "education," hence they are entitled to "get what they pay for" and earn high grades. An education at Penn, however, is nothing but an opportunity to get an education. If you choose to squander that opportunity, that is your prerogative, and you bear the responsibility for its consequences. Even if you try, things may not go as well as you hoped. That is the outcome of most of life's endeavors, and dealing with disappointment productively is one of the most important lessons you could learn here or anywhere else. Indeed, I would assert that responsibility is more of an issue than competition. As in all the above examples, students often blame external factors for their disappointing performances, neglecting to acknowledge, for example, that other students may have done perfectly well under the same circumstances. During class or exam review, it is not rare for students to "tune out," or purposefully stop listening. This allows them to maintain the image that the material is "below them," that the class is "dumb," that the material or the teacher is "boring." These students dissociate themselves from their (recent or anticipated) inability to maintain high standards, so that their self-esteem is not affected -- quite the contrary, they can bond together in "moral" opposition to the course. This behavior is clearly going to improve neither their their grades nor their understanding. In economics, for example, much of any course involves setting up the premises one needs to make important economic statements. Students that tune out will miss them in the fog and learn close to nothing. It also fosters a negative work ethic, which, incidentally, is something that prospective employers and admissions committees are unlikely to value highly. Of course, this aggressive grade-chasing culture is at least partly a response to pressures to attain measurable goals (grades, prizes, rankings, money), which brings me to my last point. The DP's argument that "such practices are inherently dangerous, for they establish an artificial bar of achievement that makes it difficult for any employer or admissions committee to identify real accomplishment or potential" is misguided. As mentioned above, employers can see far beyond grades to tell what kind of a colleague someone will make. Top management is not full of straight-A students -- they end up lower down the totem pole. Except for some technical positions, high grades just tell them that you know how to do what you're told reasonably well and that you can complete tasks you begin. The role of education and grades cannot be reduced to that of a simple labor market signal --if it can, then you failed to use your time here wisely.Comments powered by Disqus
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