Cheering for Failure

GradesI meet most of my students when they’re freshmen, unsure and uneasy about the demands of college life, in and out of the classroom. I follow them through senior year, onto graduation and even beyond, and witness their personal growth with pride and pleasure.

I like to think that I’ve helped more than a few of them cross the stage at graduation with a little more knowledge, competence and confidence. I suspect they consider me a cheerleader to their success, audibly shouting from the stands, but more silently relishing in all that they have accomplished.

I wonder if they know, though, that I’ve also rooted for their failure.

When one of my students had atypically gone a full week without showing me any of the work she’d done on a soon-to-be-due paper, I confronted her.

I passed it in.

Huh? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it yet. This from a student who once worked back-and-forth with me on more than a dozen revisions to a single paper. On the one hand, this is exactly the trajectory I hope for. Eventually, students hand in papers on which they’ve worked hard and long and feel confident enough to put their best work before their professor for a grade –without any assistance from me whatsoever.

In this case, with this girl, I was thinking there was another hand. I asked her why I hadn’t seen it.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, Because it sucked.

The one quality I always loved about this kid was her honesty.

She went on to explain to me that she just didn’t want to do the work I would make her do and that the paper she passed in would earn her a B; she was fine with that. In truth, the paper probably didn’t even deserve a B but she knew the professor. She also knew I held her to a higher standard than he did.

I never saw the paper. She got a B.

I wish she hadn’t.

Just as I’d hoped for that C another student received in final grades instead of a B-. And was glad for the 10 point penalty for the late paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving those texts with the got an A followed by exclamation points. I really do cheer on their successes –that is when they deserve them.

So many times they don’t.

They take short-cuts, make excuses, do shoddy work. None of it at all surprising. Some of my own college papers were less than stellar. The difference though, was that I usually received grades commensurate to my effort. Lots of work and lots of effort got me a well-earned A. Not so much work got not-so-good grades. No excuses. I got what I’d deserved.

My students seem less likely to acknowledge that their instructors aren’t giving them grades so much as they themselves are (or are not) earning them. They don’t often appreciate that C- as the gift that it is. Really, they want the B.

One of my students bemoaned a poor grade saying the professor could’ve cut him some slack. He likely didn’t appreciate my dude, you’re in college comeback. But called out, he gave me a reluctant admission that he could have submitted better work. Then, he flashed his winning smile. He’ll go far on that alone –he’s counting on it. And today, he may not be wrong.

Maybe my students know better than I. Many of them seem to be doing just fine with minimum effort and maximum manipulation of a system they have a better handle on than I do. They often get the grades they want –even when I wished they hadn’t.

So I’ll keep wishing them ill. Or at least a handful of them.

It’s only the students who are most capable for whom I truly cheer for defeat. Because they may know all the short cuts, but I know all the scenery they miss when they don’t take the full ride.

 

 

Diminishing Degrees

    I had a student inform me towards the end of last semester that she was thinking about continuing on to grad school.


Considering the academic environment in which I work, maybe I should have reacted differently. But I know this young woman.   

     Grad school  -really? Huh?

grade inflationThen I posited an even worse response: Is this just to avoid the plunge into that real world about which you’ve heard so much?

She laughed.

And admitted that, yes, that was indeed the real reason.

There are plenty of good reasons to get a master’s degree. Your future profession requires one. Hers won’t. You have an intellectual passion for a particular subject matter. She doesn’t. The degree will translate into a real world salary increase. Unlikely.

   So for her, I suggested that maybe she didn’t need to get a master’s degree. At least not right away.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for continuing education. Not just in the short term, but, well, forever.

I corresponded for decades with a woman who was a passionate learner. In her 90s and taking a course at NYU, she informed me that any day she learned something new was a good one. What a great philosophy.

My student’s philosophical bent isn’t quite the same.

But she’s not alone.

If you believe Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth commencement speech statistics (you shouldn’t), 92% of Americans get college degrees. His point, though comically rendered, is that a college diploma today is no big deal.

Higher degrees? Also a lot lower in value than they once were.

But we laid this path out early on. The crowded classes of Advanced Placement courses in high school are a glaring example.

When I was in school, there might have been a dozen kids in AP English, and that from a class of nearly 400. Same for AP Bio and History. The students in those classes were there because it touched on a passion or laid a foundation for specific college study.

Today, they’ll let anyone in.

Maybe not quite, but literally millions of American students are plopping down in desks in AP classes. And most of them don’t belong there.

    In a survey conducted a few years ago, AP teachers admitted that most students coming into AP classes were in over their heads. Ninety percent of those teachers said that students were coming into the classes to beef up their high school resumes. And 75% said that there was an institutional push for AP classes to improve academic rankings and reputations.

    Great messages we’re sending our kids.

    I often wonder what ever happened to average kids? And why we punish students who are stellar artists and scientists and musicians by insisting that they be good everything.

 

But more I worry about a system that teaches kids how to foster the illusion of success instead of its actuality. At the top of the class are often students who may not always know how to do well but do always know how to look good. They learn what clubs to join, what service to offer, what sports to play –all in an effort to pad their resumes.

The most recent big scandal in our small town revolved around drinking and graduation this year. Big shocker. When the students were called in for discipline, those who fessed up and admitted that yes, they had indeed been drinking, were denied the privilege of walking with their classmates and receiving their diplomas at graduation. The kids who said they hadn’t (wink wink) been drinking got a pass.

    Again, nice message. Punish a bit of integrity. Reward a lie.

    Politicians still take kickbacks. Academics fudge data to bolster their research. And the Wall Street wizards seem unapologetic for bringing the country to its economic knees.

    Our kids should fit right in.