MAKING THE GRADEMany students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirtBY KURT WIESENFELD1IT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went tomy office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. “ProfessorWiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wondering if there’s anything I can do toimprove my grade?” I thought, “Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislikeTEXTCHUNK #1making declarative statements?”2After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. “I got a D in your class. Is there anyway you can change it to ‘Incomplete”?” Then the e-mail assault began: “I’m shy about coming in to talk toyou, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.” The next day I had threephone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it asthe outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years,however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade,they go to the “return” counter to trade it in for something better.3What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort andperformance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’tdeserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces forself-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk theCHUNK #2professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to theTEXTassumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, Iguess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after finalgrades were posted.4That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide untillong past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’tmatter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, theacademic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the qualityof one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.5Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feelit’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’llflunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” This is toughstuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out ordeciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker withsomething they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can betraded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing collegeactually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long
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