Friday, March 5, 2010

March 12

It’s one week later--the Friday afternoon of the seventh week of classes. Next week is spring break. I am so glad, because this past week has been no fun at all.

I met with Briggs on Tuesday morning before class. He said that he’d looked over my grading, and that it seemed fine. Given what Angie had told me, I doubted that he had spent much time on this at all, but I certainly wasn’t going to say anything. Besides, I felt proud that he trusted my grading ability so much that he didn’t feel the need to scrutinize or question it.

We then went to class. Only about 25 students were there at first. More, though, trickled in while Briggs gave his lecture, as usual. Toward the end of the session, he said that the TA would now pass back the exams. If the students had any questions about it, he said, they were to see me first; he wouldn’t discuss it with anyone who had not done so. He then walked out, leaving me with the unenviable task of calling out the names of all the students who had taken the exam.

By the time I did this, there were about 40 students in the room and so a lot of time was wasted calling out the names of students who weren’t there. Many of those who were there, though, expressed their indignation over the grade they received as soon as they got their exams back. Things got noisy enough that I had to call for quiet three times so that students could hear me continue to call out names.

Once I had finished this task and made sure that everyone there had gotten an exam back, I ended the session. Several students came up to me immediately afterward, angrily claiming that I had given them “the wrong grade” and demanding an immediate upward revision. I told them that they had hardly had time to read—and none at all to digest—the comments I had written explaining each of their grades. I told them all to go and do so and then come and talk to me this afternoon during my office hours if they still had any questions.

The students who came to the lecture session in the morning apparently spread the word that the midterms had been graded (and graded hard at that) because when I went to my discussion section that afternoon, there were over thirty students waiting—both for me and the exams. A similar scene ensued there. Those who were satisfied with their grade left the room immediately after receiving their midterms back. Those who weren’t stayed behind to argue. I repeated to them what I had said in the morning. What this meant now, though, was that they simply followed me back to my office—where there was a line of students already waiting to see me.

I first called for all those who had not yet picked up their exams to come in and get them. There were several of these—many of whom wanted to start arguing with me right then and there. I told them to at least go back outside and read carefully through my comments. I then told those outside to organize themselves in a line and to come in to talk to me one at a time.

Then things really became unpleasant. I’m not sure how many conversations I had over the next few hours; it seemed like 40 or so. All the conversations, though, had certain common features. Each student was certain that I had erred somehow in grading them. Each asked me if this was the first time I had served as a TA and had actually graded anything (my affirmative answer, of course, only served to confirm the conviction that I had somehow screwed up). Each asked me if Prof. Briggs had checked the grades (I assured them that he had—even though I was not all that sure about this). And each expressed the firm belief that they deserved a higher grade.

I remember when I was an undergraduate how we all viewed TA’s as uniformly biased, unfair, incompetent, and generally stupid. Of course, most of the ones at Cal State Barstow really were. I mean, who but a loser who couldn’t get in anywhere else would go there for grad school? (There’s nothing wrong with being an undergrad at Barstow, though, as my coming from there to a prestigious school like Charles demonstrates).

But now that I am a TA myself, I see things differently. Each undergrad wrote one exam, but I was the one who read them all and so could see them in comparative perspective. Most of them displayed serious misunderstandings about the subject matter. Few students, though, were willing to recognize them as such, arguing instead that what I pointed to were minor mistakes which were irrelevant to their argument. Many of them also showed that they didn’t know how to write a decent essay. But instead of being embarrassed at having this pointed out to them, most responded hotly that since this wasn’t an English class, they didn’t have to write the way composition professors demanded. Good God!

These conversations, of course, were not absolutely all alike. There were some variations in them, which soon became predictable. Most men, for example, tended to get angry about their grade. This didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it was a good excuse for getting angry back at them. It felt good! Most women, by contrast, got all tearful and pathetic, claiming that the grade I gave showed I didn’t like them. This I found a lot harder to deal with. I usually told them that I felt the midterm wasn’t reflective of their true potential, that I was confident they would do better if they worked harder, and that it might be a really, really good idea to actually attend class regularly as well as do the assigned readings. Some reacted as if this was the first time they had ever heard such advice, thanking me profusely for it and promising to follow it faithfully.

Shivvy, I’m sure, would have said they were all putting on an act. All I can say is: if that’s what they were doing, they were quite good at it. Not all women, though, acted like this. Some got angry like the men—including Shivvy herself. “Who the fuck do you think you are, giving me a `B+?’” she shouted during her turn in the office. As with everyone else, I explained how I carefully concealed the students’ identities from myself when I read their exams, but this made no impression on her.

As with Shivvy, the most difficult students to deal with were those who had earned a “B+.” I didn’t think a “B+” was such a bad grade. There are a lot worse ones, after all. But all those who got a “B+” were adamant that they deserved “at least” an “A-.” If I didn’t raise their grade, they told me, they would never get into Phi Beta Kappa, a decent law school, or whatever. I told them all that this was just the first assignment, and that if they did better on the book review and the final, they could still get an “A-,” or maybe even an “A,” for the course. None, though, seemed terribly reassured.

There were a few other interesting variations to these conversations. Some students on scholarship tended to view this fact both as proof of their brilliance as well as sufficient justification for an “A.” On the other hand, many of those whose parents were paying full tuition also seemed to think that this entitled them to an “A” since, after all, they had paid for it.

Several students argued vociferously that I had graded them down because I was prejudiced against them because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever. This, of course, was ridiculous: as everyone reading this knows, I’m incredibly sensitive to these matters. My response to them all was that I did not know the identities of the students when I read their exams, and that I graded everyone on exactly the same basis. Many of the students who accused me of bias against them did so, I am convinced, not because they believed this but merely in the hope of intimidating me into raising their grade. They did not succeed. There were some, though, who really seemed to believe that I was prejudiced against one or more groups they belonged to.

One of these, unfortunately, was the African-American male who had had the contretemps with Danielle last fall. As I mentioned before, I had originally given him a “D” but raised this to a “C” in compensation for past inequities experienced by African-Americans.

It turns out that he (once again, I maintain my principled policy of not identifying him by name) thought that I had crossed out a “B” instead of a “D.” (Because of the way I crossed out the “D,” I could see how he might have thought it was a “B.”) Thus, instead of seeing his grade raised from a “D” as a result of my racial sensitivity, he mistakenly thought it was being lowered from a “B” as a result of racial prejudice. He was incredulous at first when I told him what the true situation was. He realized that I was not prejudiced, though, when I reminded him that I had marched in the demonstration on his behalf last December (I was a little miffed that he did not remember me), informed him of my progressive views regarding racial sensitivity, pointed out the (many) weaknesses in his exam, and offered to provide him with individual tutoring.

I felt proud of myself for salvaging what could have deteriorated into an ugly situation, like with Danielle. I wonder why she didn’t think to do what I did. She would undoubtedly still be here if she had.

There were two other similarities in these conversations worth mentioning. One was that virtually every student—including Shivvy—told me that they were going to take the matter of their grade up with Professor Briggs—as if I had done something wrong and, since I wouldn’t mend my ways, they must reluctantly tattle on me. To all of them, I responded that they were free to do so, but that I doubted he would change their grade. And I was right: when I met with him today to go over the exams which students had submitted to him for review (he would not meet with them individually since he was so busy), he agreed with me in every case that the grade should not be raised. “If anything,” he said, “you’ve been too lenient with them.” Naturally, I was pleased that Briggs was backing me up. I noted, though, that not everyone (including Shivvy) who had said they would appeal had actually done so. “Some of them won’t get around to it until right before the final,” said Briggs, shaking his head.

Another similarity in my conversations with the students was that not one of them thanked me for having helped them by pointing out the weaknesses in their exams, thereby affording them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and do better in future. Not one.

Yes, it was a grueling week—especially since these conversations were not limited to my office hours on Tuesday. Students felt free to come by the office on the other days of the week also and even to call me at my apartment! This made it very difficult to maintain my concentration on my own work.

Now I know why spring break was really created: not so that undergrads can have a holiday, but so that TA’s can catch up on their own work after dealing with undergrads on their midterms!

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