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Show and Tell

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It’s that time of the term–midterm grades are due in tomorrow morning no later than 9, and students who have been told that late papers cannot be graded before midterm grades unless they’re in to me by midnight last night…well, they’re nowhere to be found.

This is not as knock down, drag out as it might be, because midterm grades are not permanent.  If you get an F at midterm but your final grade is an A, the midterm grade will just disappear and nobody will ever know about it.


And this is where things get a little sticky.

Unless you want to transfer to a four-year starting in summer term.

In the old days, the four years went by the grades you had in previous semesters, and only checked your present semester grades at the last minute, after they’d already admitted you, in case they might think they should change their minds.

In practice, they almost never reversed an admission decision, and kids in their last term before moving cheerfully let their grades go to hell and had a good time for a few months before the transfer.

Some of you have probably noticed kids doing the same thing when they’re in the spring of their senior years in high school.  The acceptance letters come out, everybody goes “wheeeeeee!” and it’s impossible to get anybody to settle down until graduation.

Lately, the transfer schools have not been amenable to this kind of thing.  If you are applying to enter for a term where admissions decisions must go out before the final grades of the term you’re in will be available, you must submit your midterm transcript.  The transfer schools then treat those grades as “real,” even though they are not.

It is possible that some courses have midterm grades that are “realer” than English composition midterm grades, but the problem with English composition midterm grades is that they are INHERENTLY unreliable.

They are inherently unreliable because we teach writing as a process, and that means that the first time you hand a paper in isn’t going to be anywhere near the last.

One way to handle this is to put no grade at all on a paper until you have the absolutely last, final draft–but that presents two problems.

The first is that many students take nothing seriously EXCEPT the grade, so a paper that comes back with no grade on it to be revised gets revised only very little. 

Then you find yourself in a marathon tug of war trying to get the kid to DO something to the piece, over and over again, until you don’t have a grade for anything until the last week before the break.

To a kid who cares only about the grade, a paper returned with no grade on it is, by definition, not a big problem, no matter how many red marks there are all over it. 

The other problem is that grades are like voodoo–a fair number of my students are convinced that grades come from the ether with no connection at all to anything they’ve ever done, or that grades are about “effort.”   If you try really hard, it doesn’t matter what the quality of your work is.

There is actually a trope in Ayn Rand novels about this–people who whine that they “did their best” when what you need them to do is their jobs. 

I have no idea how people like this manage to survive in a real world where nobody is going to hire them for effort unconnected to performance standards, but there we are.

There are other people who obsess about grades, however, and with this group, I have more sympathy.

These people are looking to enter programs where the standards for entry are both very high and (almost) completely unforgiving.

The most popular of these are the nursing programs, where the four years won’t accept anybody with any grade below a B.

ANY grade below a B.

If you’ve got a grade below a B, rejection is automatic.

They then fill two thirds of their slots with the best credentials submitted to them.

They then fill the last third with students chosen at random. 

But before you can get picked at random, you still have to have that transcript with no grade below a B.

My nursing students are almost bat crazy about grades.  The advising system in the nursing program seems to be pretty good.  Most of these kids come in having had the selectiveness of the four year nursing programs pounded into their heads in a manner we used to call having the fear of God knocked into them.

What’s more, a lot of them come in from high school programs where math was low-level to nearly nonexistant, and the nursing programs want a lot more than that.

They camp out for days before math and biology tests, quizzing each other and making a mess of the common cafeteria.

I have never quite understood why the program requires them to take a literature course, even an elementary one.  I understand the composition course–it’s a good idea if nurses can write notes and other material clearly and unambiguously–but I’m not sure why a grade in a literature course should be a requirement for entry into a nursing program.

God only knows I think it is important to learn about literature, and to understand it, and to understand how it fits in with history and philosophy and all the rest of it.

But one semester of “Lit and Comp” won’t get them anywhere near that, and in the meantime they’re stressing out over arguable theses in papers about the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s Lear and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. 

I think I’d be less perturbed by this kind of thing if we were actually making a good effort to get them to get it. 

Instead, I’m not too sure what we’re doing.  For the benefit of the state legislature (DON’T get me started) and the cooperative agreements with four years (so that they give credit for our courses for the transferees), we label English 102 a “writing course.” 

And it is that, sort of.  But if what we’re really doing here is trying to pound more basic writing into them, we should make 101 a two semester course and have done with it.

In the meantime, I try to get students to talk to me, so that I know who is in need of what, and I don’t accidentally blow up their entire lives with a midterm grade that bears no relationship to the final grade they’ll get in the spring.

And by the time I’ve got my midterm grading done, I’ve got a headache.


Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2014 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Show and Tell'

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  1. Another example of marks being used, not to provide feedback to students or certification to receiving institutions, but as a kind of filter to deal with an excessive number of applicants. Irrelevant standards, meaningless for the purpose they are alleged to be used – are students who don’t get, say a B- in an English course somehow less likely to be good nurses than ones who get a B?

    I’m running into something fairly similar, too, but perhaps I’d better not get into it.

    But there seem to be a couple of reactions to the reality that there are far fewer places than applicants and weird and arbitrary acceptances.

    One, people who know damn well that they are as qualified as those who will get in become increasingly desperate and frustrated.

    And secondly, some of those who do get in are convinced that they are superior to the ones who didn’t because they think the system is designed to get the best applicants – after all, they got in, didn’t they? (I know that isn’t really logical).

    But the system is designed partly to get the best applicants, and partly to make it a bit easier to work through piles and piles of applications.


    23 Mar 14 at 4:49 pm

  2. This is a hijack back to a previous topic. One of my friends has a daughter who has started a science degree at the University of Adelaide. She writes

    “Daughter is NOT happy with her Communications in Science course (which is a compulsory 6 month unit in the Science degree). She thought it would be about using clarity in report writing and talking to
    non-scientists about science which would be very useful for scientists to know. Instead it’s a SOCIOLOGY class thus far! Pushing the issue
    of how your culture shapes you is the current topic. She’s finding the article (which they HAVE to read and answer questions on to pass this part of the course) about White Privilege to be particularly
    irksome as it has NOTHING to do with Science or Science Writing and everything to do with how evil and nasty white-skinned people are. Apparently one is only worthy in the author’s eyes if one is dark
    skinned or has Asian-brown type skin. The rest of us are evil and have taken far too many resources for far too long and need to be stamped into the ground. “


    24 Mar 14 at 2:04 am

  3. I suppose the type of course it is depends on whether you are asked to analyze the author’s views on culture and race, or merely agree with them.

    I wonder do they still insist that writers of scientific articles stick to the passive voice?


    24 Mar 14 at 5:00 am

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