Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sun, 27 Mar 1994
I went out for a late walk today because Passover is upon us and I had to help my wife prepare for the evening's seder. As I sweated along in the hot, late morning spring sun, I was still thinking about grades, how as some have indicated that the hiring bean counters in both business and government, contrary to what they say, for the sake of expediency, or laziness, or sloppiness, rely so heavily on the grade transcripts for their judgement of a prospective employees abilities. How unfortunate. The grade will not tell them how that student will perform in his/her future vocation, social, and personal lives. It does not even reveal what that person might have learned in class. I know all the components of "the system" demand grades. That's fine, as long as we recognize grades for the approximations that they are: subjective, relative, arbitrary, distorting, inconclusive, contrived, socially segregating, weeding out, thinning out, and educationally divisive instruments. But, that's not the signal we send out to the students. And that started me thinking once again about Mary (not her real name) because I saw her last week on campus. She walked right by me without uttering a word, even refusing to acknowledge me, though I gave her a warm hello. She still is mad at me and refuses to talk to me. She is not one of the success stories in my class, and I hurt that I couldn't have done anything to have made it otherwise.
Mary, a third-quarter first year student, an only child coming from a high-achieving and demanding family, was in my spring quarter class last year. She always came to class with a smile on her face and a cheery greeting in her voice in obvious attempts to warm up to me. But, she barely did what she thought was minimally required. "I read the material," she would always say, "but I didn't study it." "I don't want to talk," she replied to my comments about her lack of class participation. "I'm not going to rely on anyone else for my grade," was her explanation for her lack of cooperation with the other members of her triad. But, when it came time for the triad to take the weekly quizzes or to hand in the daily written assignment, she was more than willing to let the others do the work and share in the credit. I talked to her on more than one occasion, even offering her any alternative means of expressing what she was understanding and learning to that of class discussion. Nothing.
About five weeks into the quarter, she came to me at the beginning of class with a drop form in her hand. With the other students looking on, we had this conversation. I remember it like it was just an hour ago:
"This far into the quarter?"
"Yes, just sign where you are supposed to."
"See me after class and we'll talk."
"No, we'll talk now. I don't have time. Just sign."
"Please! Just sign now."
"Why do you want to drop the course?"
"Well, I'm going to medical school and need to get all good grades."
"What's stopping you from making one? You certainly are capable. It's your attitude that's holding you back, not your intelligence."
"This course is too hard. It's not cool. There's too much work. I'll probably only get a 'C' with you. That'll kill my chances of being a doctor. I'm going to wait to take an easier professor so I can make sure I get an 'A'. Are you going to sign?
"Will you learn as much in that kind of class?"
"I don't care. I just want an 'A'. Are you going to sign?""
"Well, I'll sign, but it will be with a failing."
"No, I want you to give a withdrawal with a passing."
"I'm sure you do, but you don't deserve it at this moment."
"I need a withdrawal with passing.
"Don't you need the signature of your adviser first?"
"He's the one who told me to drop your course so I can be guaranteed an 'A'."
"Well, unless you want to drop with a 'WF' on your transcript that's the same as an 'F', I'm not going to let you drop it. I don't think I'd be helping you one bit. I'd be hurting you if I let you tuck tail and run at the slightest challenge. I know you can do it if you want. What are you scared about?"
"I'm not scared and I don't want to."
"Well, I'm not going to sign. You now have a few choices to make. I suppose it's crunch time. You can stop coming to class and get an F; you can cruise like you've been doing and probably get a 'C'; or you can rise to the challenge, do what you are capable of doing, and get that 'A'."
"If I stay in the class and work, will you guarantee me an 'A'?"
"I'm not going to guarantee anything. Only you can do that."
"I don't want to think or talk or do any of that stuff. I just want to read, take notes, memorize and get my 'A'!"
"That's the easy way. When are you going to start trying to do things the right way?"
"I've done all right through high school."
"Do you think that's good enough to get through med school. Will you only try the easy way in med school or when you become a doctor? You're going to have to use your judgement, analyze situations and come to a decision. How are you going to develop those skills? When are you going to start?"
"Do you really want to be a doctor?"
"Is that what you wrote in your journal?"
"My parents want me to. Will you sign?"
"What about the other members of your triad?"
"I don't care about them. I don't like working with other people. I like being alone. You going to sign?"
"What kind of doctor are you going to be?"
"And to be a surgeon you don't think you have to learn about getting along with people, with other doctors, with other nurses, with the patient, with the patient's family, and with god knows who else?"
"I'll learn. Are you going to sign?"
"No! You have no choice. You're stuck with me. I'm not going to let you come into a class, dip your toe in the water for almost half of the quarter, and then decide you want out and that you're not going to take a swim. At least, not in my class. That's a lousy habit to develop."
"I've done it before each quarter, and no one argued. I've done anything I had to get that 'A'."
"Well, this prof doesn't roll over and play dead. Does that include cutting corners?"
"That's the cool thing if you can get away with it. You going to sign?"
"I appreciate your honesty, but I told you, no. But, remember this. If you want to do it, it can be done. And if it can be done, do whatever it takes to do it. And I'll be there to help you all I can in any way you wish."
"You can help me by signing this drop form!"
"Sorry, I care enough about you that I won't sign."
"If you really care, you'll sign. Or, I'm going to your bosses, to the president, to force you to sign!"
"That's your right," I answered in the same quiet, calm voice I had used during our conversation, "but answer is still, no."
Her voice had been getting ever louder and all the students were watching. With my last "no," she stormed out and I started class. I later found out from her acquaintances that Mary was ready to try to embarrass me into signing that drop form if I refused to do so voluntarily. It didn't work. I guess that was one reason she got increasingly annoyed as our public conversation progressed.
Anyway, a few hours later, I got a call from her adviser. "Louis, who do you think you are to refuse to let her drop?" he berated me in no uncertain terms. I think he used the words obstinate, arrogant, pompous, and self-righteous. Our conversation went something like this:
"Do you care about Mary?" I asked quietly.
"Of course I do."
"Tell me about her."
"Well...ah...I don't know that much. But she's a good student. I got her transcript in front of me. She got all As in her high school and during her first two quarters here."
"Well, I know a lot about her from her self-evaluations and her journal. You ought to read her journal, if you were really interested. Ask her to show it to you. You might find it interesting. She knows she can do it. She's just scared to try for a whole variety of tough reasons. What do you think will happen to her in med school if you steer her only into the crib classes?"
"If she fails your course, there won't be any med school. It'll be your fault. Will you sign the drop form?"
"She won't come anywhere near failing it if she doesn't want to. Maybe if we work together we can help her get on track."
"I don't have that kind of time. Will you sign?"
"Well, I've got that kind of time. You sound like Mary. And, I don't think so?"
"I'm going to your department head and the dean."
"That's your right, but I'll tell you this. I won't sign even if they tell me, and they won't after I tell them what you said to Mary."
Well, to make a long story short, no one went to the department head or the dean except me. I let my department head, the other department head, and my dean know of my "displeasure" of this professor's attitude not just towards me and my class, but towards education and learning as a whole, and especially towards Mary. More importantly, Mary refused to rise to occasion. I talked with her, still offered her any alternative means of expression she might wish to choose, asked the other members of her triad to help her when they came to me with complaints. Still, nothing. Out of spite, and I suppose for other reason, she just would not bet on herself, continued to perform minimally, received a 'C' in the course, blamed me, and spread the word that I was a thoughtless son-of-a-bitch. I think of her often. It hurts, and I wonder what I could have done differently to help her.
As I was walking and thinking of Mary, as well as the comments about hiring practices, a word she kept using in the conversation, "cool," haunted me. I hear that word frequently uttered by students on my campus when it comes to grades; I see it reflected too often it in their attitude and actions. I think it is regrettable, but there are too many Marys and too many of the likes of her adviser on our campuses receiving and sending signals that promote the idea of the self-centered purpose of getting good grades at any cost, and that grades are absolute indicators of achievement and success.
Well, I started feeling lyrical again. This time I was asking the question, what students are considered the "coolest" ones on campus by their fellow students:"
Mirror, mirror on the wall who are the "coolest" students of them all? Replied the Mirror, an answer I can deliver without hesitation, reservation, equivocation, or the slightest quiver. I can say without delay that it's the students who get an "A". But, not the students you might think. What I am about to say will make you shrink. It's not the students, the so-called bookworms, the nerds, who in small herds roam the library throughout the terms. It's not the students who do not cheat just to be in the academic elite; or who cut a corner to receive that collegiate honor. It is not the students who could boast that they struggled to do the most; whose midnight candles always burn doing whatever it takes to learn, and whose light is always on late into the night. It is not the students who could say that they received that "A" the hard and honest way. Those students are not thought as coolish because everyone thinks they're foolish. These are students who often feel ashamed, embarrassed, derided, emotionally maimed. They are made to cry merely because they always try. Each is labelled a silly jerk just because they're dumb enough to do the work, just because they wish to grow with the knowledge and experience an education can bestow. No, no, no, no. It is not them other students laud; it's not their actions other students applaud. The students who are the envy of them all; who receive the academic game ball, are the students who are secretly sleazy and take the professors who were easy so that their elbows would not be greasy. Their noses have no hone 'cause they never used a grindstone. On their shelf lie some dusty books, uncracked, unmarked, and never given the slightest looks. They will cut a corner here and there, and argue that no will care how you got there, for in the rat race all is fair. To seek the grade they resort to guile, as well as to a fraternity or sorority file. They enjoy all the campus fun without regret for what they have done. And contrary to what you might have thought, in the spirit of sport, they're the sort who are proud that they were never caught. Oh, everyone thinks they're "coolish" for having made the system look so very foolish. So, with slight remorse that they got little out of a course except the high grade that they made with its taste of honey as the sweet pipeline to job and money, they will loudly boast and raise their beer mugs in a toast that they got away with the most. Mirror, mirror on the wall who are the "coolest" students of them all? Replied the Mirror, an answer I can deliver without hesitation, reservation, equivocation, or the slightest quiver. I can sadly say without delay that it's the students who take the easy way, who do the least to get the A; who passed the test and ignored the rest, but graduate with a high GPA.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____