Monday, September 28, 2009

Shirley From Shelbyville on The Never-Ending Problem of "Can't Me and My Mom Renegotiate My Grade?"

I had two parents contact me at the end of last semester to try to get grades changed for their kids. I know some RYS correspondents are used to calls from parents, but at my urban Big U, I haven't seen much of fact, this was a first, in spite of the fact that I teach large intro-level classes to urchins fresh off the yellow bus from 12th grade.

One parent started quite cordially by asking for more information on why his child had received the specific grade for the semester. Upon learning (1) that his child had not attended office hours; (2) that, while I would not discuss the specifics of any individual student's grade with others, the grade in question placed the student in the bottom third of a large class; and (3) the way that the grades were calculated, the date the student got the first graded exam back, and the fact that the student's grades had been "consistent"...well, by the end of the call, I was actually defending the student from the parent a bit. "You know, they're young, they haven't had a hard college course before, it takes a while to learn the study skills and discipline they need for this, it's easy for them to surround themselves with others who are doing badly and use them as an excuse, they usually do a lot better when they re-enroll, blah blah blah." I think the student had given him the idea that I was just an unreasonable teacher (or grader) and nobody could get a good grade in my course.

But then, a few days after that conversation, I still got another message from the dad on my voicemail saying that "he didn't know if it made any difference, but [his child] was a scholarship student," and that scholarship was now in some jeopardy because of the grade in my course. I didn't call back.

The other parent sent a long email telling me that my "unwillingness" to "bump up" her child's grade from C- to C was basically ending the student's career, and excoriated me for being so unreasonable about a "small thing" that could make such a big difference in someone else's life. I wrote back a calm and factual message a couple of days later, explaining (as I expect the student had not) the grading protocols for the course and outlining the typical grade distribution, again mentioning that the student had neither sought help during office hours nor (since this student apparently worked during at least some of my office hours) contacted me to make an appointment for help. I also mentioned the unfairness to the 3/4 of the class that earned a higher grade, should I start "bumping up" students upon request. I never heard back from this parent.

While these are the first encounters I recall with parents, I've always gotten many messages, calls and visits along these lines from students; I expect it. I know that in week 16 of a 15-week semester, they are somehow shocked to find out that the grade they are assigned is actually the one that matches their calculated average. And many of them think, after floating anonymously through the entire term, that I should change their grades based on how hard they (claim to have) worked, whether they're going to be accepted into their professional program, whether they'll lose their scholarships, or the fact that their company, who was fronting the tuition, is now going to make them pay it back because they failed.

Up until now, I was always suckered into actually engaging in the debate. But this fall I'm going to try a new tactic, and anyone out there who wants to is free to adopt it, 'cause I think it's going to work, and save me a lot of frown lines and email editing. Rather than getting into the specifics of their grades, I'll write the following: "It looks like you're asking to be graded under different guidelines from those in the syllabus, which were used to calculate the grades of the other 170 people in your class. Is this correct?"

I think that'll get rid of most of them. And I might actually have fun with the rest.