Grade blubbers

As a new journalism professor at American University, Alicia Shepard wasn’t prepared for students demanding A’s.

During the spring semester, they showed up at my office to insist I reread their papers and boost their grades. They asked to retake tests they hadn’t done well on. They bombarded me with e-mails questioning grades. More harassed me to change their final grade.

. .. . My colleague Wendy Swallow told me about one student who had managed to sour her Christmas break one year. Despite gaining entry into AU’s honors program, the student missed assignments in Swallow’s newswriting class and slept through her midterm. Slept through her midterm! Then she begged for lenience.”I let her take it again for a reduced grade,” Swallow says, “but with the warning that if she skipped more classes or missed more deadlines, the midterm grade would revert to the F she earned by missing it. She then skipped the last three classes of the semester and turned in all her remaining assignments late. She even showed up late for her final.”

Swallow gave the student a C-minus, which meant she was booted out of the honors program. The student was shocked. She called Swallow at home hysterical about being dropped from the program. To Swallow, the C-minus was a gift. To the student, an undeserved lump of Christmas coal.

. . . .John Watson, who teaches journalism ethics and communications law at American, has noticed another phenomenon: Many students, he says, believe that simply working hard — though not necessarily doing excellent work — entitles them to an A. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student dispute a grade, not on the basis of in-class performance,” says Watson, “but on the basis of how hard they tried.”

Sometimes, Mommy or Daddy complains. They’re paying tuition, and they expect A’s for their money.

On brightMystery, the world’s most patient math professor shares his exchange of e-mails with the mother of a student who didn’t want to learn how to solve problems. That didn’t fit his “learning style.”

About Joanne


  1. Mr. Davis says:

    She had the intention to make an effort. Doesn’t that count for something?

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    Of course if you don’t change their grade you might find yourself being sued.

  3. It spills over into work life, as well. I have had a number of PAs who do a lousy, lousy job, but whine that they really tried. I tell them that effort means nada, results are everything. THey are usually shocked by this attitude.

  4. Isn’t contractually-required arbitration an option?

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Under those circumstances, I suspect teachers should be allowed to sell grade up-tics as long as those grades have an asterisk in the permanent record.

  6. As an American University (undergrad) alum, let me say that I find this all quite distressing and embarassing, though I can’t imagine AU is by any means unique. However, what I find even more appalling than the students demanding undeserved grade changes is the faculty caving in to such outrageous demands.

  7. Richard Brandshaft says:

    As a techie, this notion of a teacher as just a discussion leader is especially weird. Exactly once in my life, I had the feeling the teacher didn’t know much more about the subject than I did. I dropped the course.

  8. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    Dave J,
    It is even worse than you think. Most of my friends who are retired or retiring college professors will tell you that one of the main reasons they decided to retire is the lack of support from the college administration.

    Most college administrators have identified the student as the customer and they are big believers in “The customer is always right”. Once universities have determined their core misson is to recruit students/customers, to do whatever it takes to keep them enrolled, and to try and avoid ever displeasing a student then education becomes a secondary and elusive goal. Add to the mix the professors who: want to be best friends with the students’ want to sleep with the students; are afraid of the students; or are afraid that everyone will realize just how little the professor knows and you have a difficult mix to deal with.

    My grading standards are not what I wish they were. I am considered one of the tougher professors where I am at and you pretty much just have to have a pulse and show up to get a “D”. A person of average intellegence can just come to class and do a minimum amount of work and get a “C”.

    Now before too many people get overly self-rightous, what would you recommend as the alternative? I do a decent job educating most of the kids and even the students who get a “C” in the course know more than the average person. My university administers a national test to graduating seniors and our students performance is compared against students from other institutions across the US. My department’s graduates usually score around the 85th percentile on average.

    So while the faculty caving in is disgraceful it is sometimes the best course of action. There is an old saying that the nail that stands up gets hammered down and that is what has been happening in academe. The courts have determined that the professor does not have a right to determine the students grade. That right belongs to the university.

    For those interested in more on the subject you can visit:

    Lovelace v. Southeastern Massachusetts University, 793 F.2d 419 (1st Cir. 1986)

    The court rejected the free speech claim of a faculty member whose contract was not renewed after he rejected administration requests to lower the academic standards he applied to his students, concluding that universities must have the freedom to set their own standards on “matters such as course content, homework load, and grading policy” and that “the first amendment does not require that each nontenured professor be made a sovereign unto himself.”

  9. superdestroyer says:

    If college is not so easy and grades handed out like free trinkets, then why do half of the students still not finish and why do most students who do finish college change their major at least once and change it into something easier?

    The number one major at most of the top tier universities now is economics. Did that many students really start out as economics majors or did they just change their majors?

  10. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    Excellent questions. My best guess, based on my limited experience, would be that the kids drop out because they were not motivated to be at college in the first place. For many students going to college is like going to “13th grade”. There is no consideration given to the choice it is just expected that the high school graduates will go. The students who want to succeed and then have a good time can do so. The students who want to have a good time and then succeed can do OK if they are reasonably intellegent. The students who want to party all the time and who don’t care about school will flunk out. My first trip to college I was definitely in the third group.

    I have never had a nontraditional student do poorly in a class. Most of the nontraditionals I have had dropped out of college earlier and then came back after they decided that getting a degree was important to them.

  11. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    Economics is not a particularly easy major at most schools and the job prospects for economics majors are not particularly great. I have always thought economics was one of the most undervalued majors there is because it is very quantitative but still requires logic and at least a little bit of business sense. Do you have a theory for why econ would be so popular?

    For what it is worth, at the two schools I have taught at management was the business major that attracted the weakest students. By weakest students I mean as measured by H.S. GPA, SAT, and ACT scores.

  12. Being an undergrad now seems like ancient history in another universe…thank God. For the record, I never once approached a professor to change one of my grades at AU; indeed, the thought would never have even occurred to me. But more and more undergrad professors might want to adopt (and, I suspect, might be adopting) the law school practice of basing the grade largely or wholly on blindly-graded exams on a fixed or at least “semi-fixed” curve.