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MAKING THE GRADE
Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt
BY KURT WIESENFELD
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IT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to
my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. quot;Professor
Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wondering if there’s anything I can do to
improve my grade?quot; I thought, quot;Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike
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making declarative statements?quot;
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After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. quot;I got a D in your class. Is there any
way you can change it to ‘Incompletequot;?quot; Then the e-mail assault began: quot;I’m shy about coming in to talk to
you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.quot; The next day I had three
phone 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 as
the 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 quot;returnquot; counter to trade it in for something better.
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What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and
performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t
deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for
self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the
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professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the
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assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I
guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final
grades were posted.
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That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until
long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t
matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the
academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality
of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.
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Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel
it’s not relevant. quot;If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.quot; quot;If you don’t give me a C, I’ll
flunk out.quot; One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, quot;If I don’t pass, my life is over.quot; This is tough
stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or
deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with
something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be
traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college
actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the longEnglish