Let’s make a deal: I show up and play Angry Birds, you give me an A
by David Lacy
One of the most common queries college professors hear is, “I couldn’t make it to the last class; did I miss anything important?”
This question rankles educators to no end, and I know of numerous colleagues who briskly respond with the same sarcastic retort: “No, not at all Johnny Laxreasoning. After about five minutes of class we noticed your absence — so glaring and woeful to us all – and we decided to reconvene at a time better suited to your schedule. We figured it was a thoughtless move on the part of the department chair to schedule class during a period you registered as being available for, and so we chose not to cover ANYTHING IMPORTANT whatsoever. Except for a tribute to your absence. Stacy read that aloud to the class. It was touching. You should have heard it. I’ll get you a transcript.”
OK, not every colleague answers in this precise fashion but I’ve definitely heard myriad adaptations of the above reply.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe that every student who asks this question truly believes that not a single important concept was covered throughout the duration of an entire class period (although sadly, many do). The query, however, is indicative of a cultural shift in student perspective of the educational experience.
College is now, in large measure, thought of as a series of transactional encounters between students and teachers, and I don’t mean that in terms of transactions of knowledge. Rather, I mean it in the very traditional sense as can be located in the lexicon of economics. I’ll sum it up in a way even those silly folks who believe that the trickle-down theory isn’t fiction will understand: students pay a metric shit-ton for their educations and they expect to be rewarded accordingly for that metric shit-ton. (Emphasis on the word REWARDED.)
The consequence of this exchange is student entitlement.
And lots of it.
Countless articles have been written about rampant grade inflation. As data re-printed in The New York Times reveals (see the link below), an “A” is now the default assigned grade at campuses across the nation. Half a century ago earning an A in college was a relatively rare and noteworthy event; an A indicated academic excellence. It was obviously a 10 percent leap over the next letter grade down (the B) which indicated GOOD solid work. A C grade implied a student produced average work with perhaps an average amount of effort.
As the article points out, researchers have suggested that this inflation trend skyrocketed during the Vietnam War when understandably concerned professors hoped to save many failing students from having to enter the armed forces and the bloody drawn-out conflict. However, that war is over (the issue of who serves on our behalf now is fodder for another column) and grade inflation has only continued to soar.
When I was hired at California State University, Long Beach, the chair of the department instructed me to remind my own students that A grades were to be reserved solely for those who demonstrated academic excellence (to do otherwise was unfair to those who put in merely a fraction of the effort only to be rewarded with the same grade). He told me to inform students who earned B’s that they should by no means be ashamed of their GOOD grade. And students who earned C’s were to be advised that if they wished to earn higher grades, they should output more than just average results.
Still, at the end of every semester I receive emails from students challenging their B grade. The most common argument I hear (I am not making this up): “But I turned in all of the work. I don’t understand why you didn’t give me an A.” In our transactional educational experience – where tuition rises faster than a pitched tent – an A grade has, in the eyes of many students, been PAID FOR IN ADVANCE. It matters not whether a student spends long hours in the library or merely plays “Draw Something” on their iPhone in the back of a classroom; the end grade, in the eyes of many, should be identical.
I want to add a caveat here. I have taught writing courses at three tiers of California institutions: UC, CSU, and community college, and I am well aware that there are students who sincerely struggle to achieve even a moderate command of written English. Their challenges stem in large part, from failed public education policies at the K-12 levels, as well as language barriers that arise from being non-native English speakers. However, I have witnessed a handful of these students work their asses off (repeatedly coming to office hours, seeking tutor assistance, drafting and re-drafting) in order to ultimately arrive at commendable levels (albeit not always A-level) academic success. These students INSPIRE me.
I am sad to report, however, that these students are the statistical minority. More frequently I encounter writing products born of apathy. The culprit of this apathy? Transactional-based student entitlement.
“The A is paid for, Professor Lacy. It’s the predetermined default grade we both agreed upon when I forfeited my savings account to take your class.”
At one point I taught at an institution that assigned minuses and plusses at the end of letter grades. At the conclusion of a term a student e-mailed me and asked why I had given him a A- when I could have been a bit lenient and simply rearranged a few participation points in order to bump his grade up to an A.
My one-line email response: “Because I was originally going to give you a B+.”