Despite the relief that classes are now over, I don’t really like this time of the semester. As I plow through the stacks of final assignments in a kind of death march, slowly posting the grades up online, students begin to panic and sides of their personalities emerge that I haven’t seen before. Consider the following exchange yesterday with a student who, until now, has given me no trouble whatsoever:
[Email from me to several students:]
If you are receiving this message, it is because you submitted an essay rewrite to me without the original essay and feedback sheet attached. As is clearly indicated in the assignment guidelines, rewrites submitted without an original will not be graded.
As it happens, I need to go to my office on Friday. If I haven’t submitted the final grades for your class by then, and if your original essay and feedback sheet are in my office at that time (put them under my door), I will then look over your rewrite. As you know, the rewrite was an optional assignment; because of the late submission, I will not do a thorough re-grade, but will give you a small rewrite bonus if you have done a good job.
[Reply from Lia, student in my post-intro class. The reply is reproduced in its entirety:]
A small rewrite BONUS?!? I did a rewrite to improve my grade, there was no place left under your office door anyway, so my paper would have been stiking out and probably stolen!! Unfair that’s all i have to say. And to add, I think my oral last week was the best i’ve ever done in my life. I wasn’t reading my note sheet because i knew my material and many people told me I did a good job. I’ll bring the original tomorrow, maybe you should hang something on the door for people to put their papers inside.
I am surprised by the tone of your email. If you were not happy with your oral grade, you were perfectly within your rights to contact me and make an appointment to discuss it, so I could explain the criteria to you. (You could even have come back to see me on the day I gave you the grade.) If there was no room under my door for your original, there were several solutions: you could have brought it to the print shop and asked them to put it in my mailbox, or you could have sent me an email saying that you were concerned about leaving your paper and asking what you should do.
It also sounds like you have not understood what a “small rewrite bonus” means – it means that your grade will probably improve, although perhaps not as much as it would have if I had received your original in a timely manner.
In the future, if you have issues with a grade you have been given or any other actions on the part of your teachers, I would suggest that you contact them and ask for an opportunity to discuss the matter. An angry and accusatory message is not usually the best solution to any problem. If you wish to discuss these matters further, please make arrangements to do so in person; you are welcome to make an appointment to see me on Friday.
You are also welcome to bring your original to the print shop instead of putting it under my door if that makes you feel safer.
Miss Curious, I am far from being angry, I just sens that you are not grading me right and I live far from school and there is nothing much to say becuase I read the criteria on the paper and still don’t think it’s right but if that’s the grade you honestly think I deserve then I am disapointed in myself! I have nothing to add, that is why I don’t need an appointment. And the paper, I didn’t think of the printshop because the print shop is not your office. all I know is I was asked to bring my documents to your office and that it didn’t fit. Now this is what I’m complaining about the fact that I will not get the complete grade I was supposed to get for the rewrite. why? Just because i did my work in time but only kept my original because I thought it wouldn’t be safe to leave it on the floor stiking out. I don’t see why people who did their work would be penelized. Anyways i don’t think you see what I’m saying but happy holidays, enjoy the winter break. Lia M.
Have a good holiday, Lia. Please put your original under my door or in my mailbox tomorrow or any time before Friday.
Because I’ve instructed her to discuss this with me in person, I have not replied to her question of “Why?” I’ve learned the hard way that perpetuating these email exchanges is a bad idea. What’s more, the answer is obvious: she was given very clear instructions, and the fact that I’m grading her paper at all is a compromise.
Nevertheless, an outburst from a student always makes me question my actions and my motivations. Is she right? Is a penalty justified, even if it’s not really a penalty at all? (Because this rewrite is optional, the only possible effect it can have on her grade is a boost; this is part of the reason the criteria are so strict, because otherwise they’ll keep trickling in for weeks.) Am I enforcing this deadline to be fair to everyone, or to teach them something important that has nothing to do with English literature? Or am I just trying to punish them for inconveniencing me?
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to follow an “online retreat” at Tricycle Magazine on the topic of kindness. The retreat is hosted by Sharon Salzberg, a famous name in the world of “Insight Meditation.” One question I’ve been meaning to post in the Q & A, although I haven’t yet managed to do it, is about situations like these.
If I aspire to be kind, if I form that intention and try to carry it out, then what do I do for a student like Lia? Is it kind to let her give vent to her anger? To engage in an exchange over email in which I try to explain my actions in a way she will understand? Or is it kind to be firm, and to set clear boundaries and stick to them? Could I have changed something in my tone in my first message that would have made it kinder, not only to her, but to the other students who received it? Or should I just accept her late original and grade her and the others who forgot it in the same way I grade the students who handed everything in on time?
I know that a big part of growth is simply asking oneself these questions, but I worry about myself sometimes. Sometimes I just want to punish people, and I have to try to separate that impulse from the truth of the situation in order to decide on the best course of action. Here, I’m not sure.
In the end, I feel sad. Someone’s going out into the world with sour feelings about me. I often tell myself that being liked is not my job, but part of me still doesn’t believe it. And that’s why I don’t like this time of year. No matter how well things have gone, there’s always a little pill to swallow that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Image by Zsuzsanna Kilian