On Negotiating GradesS

I am an instructor in women's studies. This is, as you may imagine, a job fraught with emotional and political landmines. Feminist pedagogy in general is rather paradoxical, as feminists are generally concerned with acknowledging and equalizing power hierarchies, and yet, the teacher-student relationship is, at least in our contemporary postsecondary educational system, inherently hierarchical. That is to say that, no matter what I do in the classroom to recognize and equalize power, ultimately I am the one giving the grades. I have to assess student performance in a fair and equitable way while knowing that such performance is going to be at least partially influenced by the very factors I am often teaching about—gender, race, and social class—and that those grades will have tangible, material effects in students' lives.

On Negotiating GradesS

This leads to a variety of pedagogical dilemmas that I reckon with on a day-to-day basis. For example, my class is structured in such a way that attendance is essential to the learning process. If given a choice, I would rather have students attend every class and do no reading at all than to read everything I assign but attend no classes. Now, obviously, I'd prefer students do both, but I say this to emphasize how much I feel students learn and grow just by virtue of attending class and listening to the discussions, even if they never read a word of the assigned material. But attendance is something that is, at least in part, enabled by privilege. In this case, it is primarily class privilege (a student doesn't have to work, can afford transportation, doesn't have to take care of another family member, etc.) and able-bodied privilege (a student is not fighting a chronic illness or dealing with a disability, including psychological disorders such as crippling depression), but occasionally other forms of privilege come into play as well. For example, religious privilege: my Jewish students' high holy days are not seen as important national holidays, so they may have to miss school on those days. Or gender privilege: when I'm discussing abortion or rape or eating disorders or some other triggering issue that my women students are more likely to have experienced, they may choose not to come to class rather than to come and be triggered by their classmates' insensitive comments. Ah, privilege. You are a tricky beast to recognize and battle, indeed.

On Negotiating GradesS

So, knowing all of this, as a women's studies instructor, how do I grapple with this reality in a way that is fair to everyone but that also acknowledges the unique circumstances of oppressed minorities? In short: very carefully and very thoughtfully. I have created an attendance policy that I feel is the best compromise I can come up with and that allows me not to have to judge whether each student's reason for missing class is legitimate or not. Who am I to determine legitimacy? When my grandfather died, I was sad, but not broken-hearted. However, how do I know how emotionally devastating it would be to you to lose YOUR grandfather? Or aunt? Or best friend? Or dog? I really don't, so who am I to say which deaths should result in an excused absence and which ones should not? Similarly, how am I to know whether you're genuinely so depressed you can't get out of bed or whether you're just hungover? I've been both, but it doesn't mean I can determine one from another for someone else. Therefore, I've settled on a set number of "free" absences that each student can choose to use or not use, and after those free absences, regardless of the reason, the student will start to lose points from his or her attendance grade (which is generally worth 10% of his or her final grade). In other words, I don't deal with excused or unexcused absences; I treat my students like the adults they are and assume that their reasons for missing class are legitimate, but that, beyond a certain point, if they miss too much class, they simply are NOT ABLE to have the educational experience that I want them to achieve.

But what if someone's house burns down? Or what if a student is hospitalized for a psychological breakdown? Or what if a student's parent, who lives in Europe, has died and there is no one there to deal with funeral arrangements, so that student has to fly to Europe and deal with his or her parent's estate? Or what if a student is going through a messy custody battle and has to be in court for weeks or even months? All of these situations happened to my students, not within my 10+ years of teaching, but within the last year alone. And I made allowances for some of them and did not for others, depending largely on 1) how well they could document their situations and 2) how quickly they approached me to make arrangements for the issues they were dealing with. I'm not entirely satisfied with how I handled each of these situations, but I do forgive myself, knowing that I did the best I could to be fair to each of them. I try to ask myself in any such circumstances whether I would do the same thing for any one of my students who was facing this difficulty; unfortunately, sometimes that is as close to "fair" as it can get.

The rumination on my attendance policy is just one example of the ways that, as a feminist, I consistently have to confront questions of power, fairness, and equity in my classroom. It comes up over and over—in grading written work, in dealing with late assignments, in questions of class participation, in communicating with students outside of class, and of course, in assigning final grades. And it's really the latter—final grades—that prompted me to write this today. Because, y'all, I'm feeling bad.

When I was in college, I learned that students in the philosophy program could take all their PHIL courses as pass/fail courses if they wanted to. The reason: the philosophy program wanted to acknowledge that some individuals are philosophically opposed to the grading system. This was a lightbulb moment for me, because it was the first time I realized it was possible to be philosophically opposed to the grading system. And, honestly, to this day, I kind of AM, because of all the difficulties of accurately assessing learning and because of the many factors (many of which are socially constructed and socially determined) that create those difficulties in assessment. (Yes, I'm a feminist. I call things "social constructs." Deal.)

On Negotiating GradesS

Unfortunately, though, you can't be a college instructor who is philosophically opposed to the grading system. Or, rather, you can, but you're going to have to assign grades anyway. And if teaching has taught me anything, it has taught me that it is pretty much inevitable that a handful of students at the end of any given semester are going to try to negotiate their grades. (As a side note, if anything about teaching will drive me to drink, it is this.) I used to blame Clueless (as much as I love it) for perpetuating the idea that one's grades are negotiable, but the fact is, most of my students these days have probably never seen it, since it came out when they were, oh, BORN.

On Negotiating GradesS

So, not Clueless. No, I suspect the thing that influences MOST of my students to treat their grades as "a jumping off point to start negotiations" is our state's merit-based scholarship (as well as other, similar scholarships and forms of financial aid with GPA requirements, etc.). The second most influential thing is probably the lure of grad/law/med school, as students feel they need to keep their GPAs high in order to obtain admission to these competitive academic environments. And then there are those students on academic probation, who are just hoping to stay in school, period. So, predictably, students in one or more of these situations are going to try to beg, cajole, bully, or flatter me into raising their final grades. And, to those of you who are current students, I want you to know this: It is SO. DAMN. TIRESOME. But more than that, it is just not nice.

It certainly doesn't help matters that most students take women's studies, at least in part, because they believe it will be an "easy A." I think that in some cases they are actually insulted that they could make anything less than an A in women's studies. Students are often, in fact, quite honest about the fact that they chose the course because they heard it was easy, such as the student who once piped up in class, "When I first started the class I was like, 'All right, easy A!' But as the semester goes on, I'm finding I'm really enjoying class! It's interesting! I'm actually learning stuff!" (Side note: She was highly upset when she got a B in the class, and I'm still suspicious that she is responsible for no less than 4 negative evaluations of me on RateMyProfessor and Koofers.)

On Negotiating GradesS

But it's not that hard for me to give a "bad grade" (which, for most of my students, is anything less than an A) when a student is arrogant and entitled. I still don't enjoy upsetting those students, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me less. For example, one student recently spent the entire semester harping on responsibility. He claimed that terms like "oppression" and "privilege" were just excuses for personal shortcomings, and even justified victim blaming in rape cases under the rubric of "personal responsibility," as in "those girls should know better than to get drunk in a public place." As you might imagine, I was therefore appreciative of the irony when he asked me to reconsider his A- in class, in part because he turned in 2 assignments late. He blamed this on missing the first day of class, saying that since he was not in class to hear that he should read the syllabus, how was he to know that it contained assignment deadlines? In that particular case, I was happy to tell the student that, given his focus on personal responsibility over the course of the semester, perhaps he should acknowledge that reading the syllabus in its entirety was his responsibility, and that, as he failed to meet this responsibility, he should accept that his late assignments were a direct consequence of this behavior. (Lest you think that I was punishing this student for disagreeing with me ideologically, let me make it clear that I actually strive to construct my classes in such a way that you do not have to agree with me in order to perform well in them. You simply have to show that you have considered the material and that you understand the concepts I have tried to relay. If I were grading based on how much the student agreed or disagreed with me, he would have received well below an A-. I only bring up his attitude because it was, as I say, entitled and arrogant and because his perspective was, in the end, self-contradictory. Despite how it may seem, it was still difficult for me to be firm with him, because I am soft-hearted and prefer not to upset anyone.)

However, it is far more difficult for me to assign a final grade that makes a student unhappy when I really like that student and when I understand the roles that privilege and oppression may have played in the student's performance, as well as understanding the material effects that my grade will have on that student's life. And that's why I'm feeling bad, y'all. Because I had to give a student that I really liked a grade that she felt would ultimately mean she had to leave the university. The class was on multicultural women in America and she got an A- rather than an A, which was apparently going to mean the difference between her keeping her athletic scholarship and losing it. And while I genuinely don't believe that her thoughts went beyond, "I'm scared that I'm going to have to drop out and so I need to beg for an A," she did something that I found, to put it plainly, unkind. Knowing my sympathetic nature and my feminist pedagogy, in her plea for me to reconsider her grades she (a woman of color) emphasized that her own circumstances mirrored many of the issues we discussed in class: she directly or indirectly referenced her race, gender, and socioeconomic status as she told me that this athletic scholarship that she was on was the only way for her to afford a college education. In short, she placed upon me the burden of her future success or failure in life, and used my own feminist pedagogy regarding privilege and power to make me feel even more responsible than I might already have.

Not. Nice. :( :( :( :(

On Negotiating GradesS

I mean, I did what I had to do: I told her that I would not be changing her grade even though it pained me to think it might cause her to leave school. I emphasized that I was incredibly sympathetic to her circumstances, but that I simply could not re-assess her score in light of them. Now, I know that in putting this out there, I'm inviting criticism from those of you who will disagree with my decision not to reconsider her grade. She was 2 points away from an A (although, to be fair, the point spread for each grade is only about 6 points), but so was the self-entitled student I mentioned above. While my feminist pedagogy does compel me to consider the influences of oppression and the importance of using my power responsibly, my position as a teacher also demands a certain amount of fairness in how I treat all students. If I was not willing to revise his grade, how can I justify revising hers? Or the 20+ other students who were just one or two points away from the next highest grade, who may also be facing equally dire circumstances but may not have come to me with their stories because I emphasized throughout the semester that grades are non-negotiable?

Perhaps students would be less inclined to ask to negotiate their grades if they realized that they are, in essence, asking me to sacrifice my integrity as a teacher on their behalf. Probably not, but maybe if they could think of it this way, they could understand why I am so adamant about not re-assessing their grades. I might be philosophically opposed to the grading system, but in taking on a teaching position, I agreed to assess students, and my fair and accurate assessment of them is one of the only tangible markers of my integrity in doing so. Obviously I hope that my integrity shines through in other ways, too, but this is a measure that is clearly defined for everyone to see: my colleagues, my students, myself. I use rubrics and I strive to be as fair and objective as I can regardless of how I feel about any individual in my classroom. In extraordinary circumstances, I try to do for one student what I would do for any student, but beyond that, I try to treat everyone the same. I build my acknowledgment of privilege right into my syllabus and policies so that I can feel that each student is being given the same benefits regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, and so on. I am incredibly self-aware and self-critical, and I constantly revisit my policies, revising them to be better and fairer when necessary. What more can I do?

All of this is a plea to you current students: Don't do this to your professors. Please. We are people. I am a human being, and a very compassionate one at that; why should I be made to feel as if your success or failure—in my class, in college, in life—is my responsibility? It won't alter my decision, but hey! Congrats—at least you made me feel crappy for a while. Is that really how you want to repay someone who has devoted her life to trying to educate others and make the world a better place?

To be honest, what I really want to tell students who come to me worrying about their grades, whether they think they won't get into med school or they think they will have to drop out of college, is that they'll be ok. I want to tell them that they'll live through the coming situation, whatever it may be, and they can still go on to thrive and to be happy. I want to tell them how, for example, I certainly wasn't expecting to be widowed at age 30, but I made it through a grief the size of an ocean and found happiness on the other side. I want to tell them that they will survive their A-, they really, truly will. But I don't, because I know how that bullshit sounds to people who are in the midst of what they see as a tragedy, whether it is real or imagined. So I don't say it, but I fervently hope they will learn it for themselves, as I did.

On Negotiating GradesS

Being a teacher is simultaneously one of the most difficult and rewarding things I've ever done. I love what I do and I love my students and I love feeling like I make a difference in the world and in individuals' lives. I love engaging with bright, curious, thoughtful students about questions of moral, political, and ethical importance. I love making them think and question and say, "I've never thought of it that way before!" I love making them doubt and wonder and get uncomfortable and revisit their assumptions and change their minds and live in the grey areas where most of life actually happens. I am realistic enough to know that my influence on them, in the long run, may be negligible; when I consider even the professors I loved the most in college, I am hard-pressed to come up with specific examples of things they said that changed my life forever. But I know that their influences still linger in my personality and philosophy in ways that I cannot clearly identify, but can definitely acknowledge and appreciate; if I can do that for even one student, all the effort and heart I put into teaching is worth it.

On Negotiating GradesS