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Monday, March 12, 2007

Living Measure for Measure

I have a student in my class this term who is a non-native speaker of English. English might in fact be his fourth language. He's a reasonably bright guy, a very nice person, but he can't write a lick. No, really. Most of his sentences are grammatically and syntactically incorrect. No, that's an understatement: Most of his sentences, paragraphs, and essays are almost impossible to understand.

So he should clearly earn an "F" on his essays and therefore an "F" for the course, right?

Maybe, but...

He's a senior. A senior English major, at that. Clearly others have been giving him (barely) passing grades. He also has six children and a wife living in a refugee camp (or two) on the other side of the world. He says he needs to graduate so that he can earn enough money to bring them over to the U.S. (assuming he can successfully navigate all the bureaucratic obstacles, which is no sure thing). I tend to believe these claims.

Justice or mercy, mercy or justice? Measure for measure, or measure for measure?

Do I give him what he "deserves" or do I make his life easier and give him the barely passing grade he does not deserve? Do I give him justice or show him mercy? What say you all?

  • At 3/12/2007 05:50:00 PM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Why is he an English major? Doesn't he realize that there isn't any money in it?


  • At 3/12/2007 06:11:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Good question--he wants to teach (in a closely related field that doesn't require the teaching of writing).

    But still, of all the majors....

    The worst student writer I ever came across wanted to be a journalist. She would take class after class, and write essay after essay, and her writing never improved. There seemed to be some undiagnosed cognitive issue with her, which she couldn't get diagnosed because she didn't have the $700 needed to pay for the testing.


  • At 3/12/2007 09:00:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I'm always for mercy, but then, I'm a pushover with this kind of stuff. But if the student is smart and attentive and engaged, I sort of feel that there are intangibles there that can influence a grade upward, even if the numbers indicate something else.

    Of course, if this is a course for majors, and this is a major, that may be another issue ... My undergrad teaching recently has been very heavy on a large introductory survey course, which draws significantly on non-majors.


  • At 3/12/2007 10:20:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Sounds like a perfect candidate for the gentleman's C- to me.


  • At 3/13/2007 12:05:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I like to think of myself as a hardass, but even I'd say to let this one go and get rid of him--he's not going to improve in the short time remaining (and he doesn't sound like someone who needs to be taught a lesson in any way), so the only thing that forcing him to stick around for another semester or year would produce is more agony for you and your colleagues.


  • At 3/13/2007 05:06:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Thanks, all. It's looking like he'll get a C-, assuming he does ok on his exam. If a D were passing, he'd get that, but it's not (when and why did a D become a failing grade?), so a C- it is. I should note that he comes to all the classes, participates regularly, and has clearly done all the work required in the course. It's just his essays that have been awful because writing in English isn't yet a strong skill of his.

    On a related note, though I'm skeptical of most claims about grade inflation--they're almost always based purely on anecdotal evidence, and they almost always smack of "things were tougher back in my day"--I'd imagine that making the D into a failing grade had something to do with it. A C can't be average if everything below a C results in failure. On the A-B-C scale, the B has to become the default average; otherwise you have nothing to give for below average but still passing work.


  • At 3/13/2007 09:52:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    S: I don't think it's all based on anecdotal evidence. Wasn't there a real study done at Harvard a couple years back? What I do think is happening, as so often, is that trends at a few very elite schools are being extrapolated, perhaps too hastily, to "colleges."


  • At 3/13/2007 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Ds are (nominally) a passing grade at my instituion, and I give a smattering of them every semester. Students do need an *average* grade of C in courses in their major to get credit for/certification in the education program (which most English majors are also enrolled in), but I figure that my D will surely even out with the inflated grades they got from someone else.

    (My students don't particularly like this argument when they come asking if their 67% couldn't, somehow, be squinted at and become a 73.5, but that's the way it goes.)

    What I find amusing is that we don't have an "F" grade--it's called an "E." To take the "failure" out of it, I guess?


  • At 3/13/2007 11:55:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    An C average makes sense (though it too calls into doubt the claims that a C was once given for average work; in modern terms, wouldn't that mean anyone with a GPA below a 3.0 should not graduate?).

    In my department, any grade below a C- is considered a failing grade. We do still have the D mind you, but we're supposed to reserve it for non-majors.

    Rational, completely rational.

    As for that Harvard study, I too have a vague recollection of it, but I also vaguely recall it having some major problems.


  • At 3/13/2007 10:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Here's what the grades I give really mean (and I suspect something like this is true of most of my colleagues):

    A+ = A+
    A = A
    A- = A- to B+
    B+ = B-
    B = C+
    B- = C
    C+ = D+
    C = D
    C- = F

    I figured this out a few years ago, and felt very foolish for a while. But the moment that I push grades back down, even the tiniest amount, I immediately get students staying after class to "discuss" their grades.

    I'm currently in charge of the committee that handles complaints about grades, and we've got an unusual case: a grad student has formally complained about her grade, a B-. Isn't that like giving an undergraduate an F-? Have you seen grade inflation among the grad students?


  • At 3/14/2007 09:24:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    That's brilliant, Aldo.

    As for grade inflation among grad students, do you mean beyond the A, A-, B+ scale, which is what my grad school used and my current dept uses? I haven't noticed any inflation beyond these, though I haven't looked either. But if they translate into "good," "slightly below average," "unquestionably below average," then a "B-" would mean something like "leave this department...now!"


  • At 3/14/2007 06:49:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    And a C- it is.

    My rationale: his performance was good enough to warrant passing the class. That being said, his final average was in the D range (above failing, but below a C). But I don't have that grading option in my department (the D exists, but the student receives no credit for it, which as far as I can tell means a D equals an F). So I can either give him the lowest passing grade afforded by my current options (equity), or I can give him the grade that technically matches his average but also results in a de facto F (justice).

    I chose equity.


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