Friday, August 19, 2011

 

Ask the Administrator: Should I Complain to the Dean?

A frustrated student writes (it’s a bit long):

In a nutshell: I got a B and should have gotten an A, can you see why I'm uncomfortable going to talk to the dean about this? However, the letter grade isn't my gripe.

Please forgive my ignorance, but, this is the bigger picture that I can't seem to gain a sense of reasoning on.

I took Interpersonal Communications over the summer and we had a typical first day; Professor IC introduced herself, we ran down the syllabus, discussed what a condensed summer schedule meant, etc etc. We were also assigned the first couple chapters. I found a couple significant errors in the book (about self-concept, misquoting studies and findings, and definitions) and pointed them out to her at the next class. I was very careful not to attack her, and just let her know that they were there, in case she wanted to glaze over those pages again, and asked her if any of this mis-information would be on the test... she was extremely confrontational about it, but going forward things seemed okay, so I thought nothing of it.

The class had 5 written assignments, and, Professor IC would write feedback on them. I always incorporated the feedback on the next assignment, but, always scored low. This is very puzzling because most of the time we would watch a movie such as Antoine fisher and then be asked a question like "How do you think your communication style would be similar to Antoine's if you had grown up in foster care and which communication style would you use?". Well, I did grow up in the foster care system for many years, and I also answered according to the text definitions. I'm unsure how you can gauge and grade papers that ask for opinion, especially when they are reflective of one's life experience, when they've answered within the guidelines and not something such as "I like cheese".

Again, I thought nothing of it, and tried harder yet to incorporate her feedback.

Then we were paired into groups for our final project. I was grouped with students who: 1. didn't show up 2. had parent's on the staff so they didn't care about the work because they would "pass anyway" 3. only needed a "C'' to please their parents 4. had no idea what the word "alienation" meant and wasn't "alienated" any of the five times she had been arrested (and some combinations of the above.)

I knew I was sunk. I tried to speak to her several time and she made it impossible. I FINALLY got her locked into a 12:00 appointment (class started at 12:20)... to which she showed up at 12:17 and literally said "You're doing fine and should be able to get an A".

So, I did everyone's work on the final. Had it not been for that, I wouldn't have carried my classmates. I don't believe everyone deserves a ribbon just for participating.

After all that, my question is basically this, I never thought there was a problem because the class is a communications class and I wasn't informed of one, but, is there such a thing a teachers apathy? Or something similar?

Last semester I took 6 classes and have always had a heavy workload. I've always excelled and I work hard to do so.. I'm very annoyed when people complain they want a grade they didn't earn because it devalues the grade I DID earn. Normally, I would think I'd be satisfied with a B, if I earned a B. In this case, I don't feel I did.. and even more insulting is I saw what little work was put into the class to yield a B and I was only 2 points away from an A. Prior to this class I had a 4.0 GPA.

If I need to, I'll retake it with another teacher to "grade" out of the B, but I'm unsure what that would do on my transcript and I'm confused as to why a teacher wouldn't be flattered and excited that a student is reading the material and challenging their knowledge on the subject to strive and grow; instead of thinking that just filling the seat warrants a good grade.



This reminds me of a class I took in college. I got a B, which seemed roughly right, but I was annoyed at how the B happened. The grade was based primarily on two papers. The first paper, which I knew was weak as I handed it in, got an A-. The second one, on which I worked hard and of which I was proud, got a B-. Had the grades been reversed, I wouldn’t have felt aggrieved; since they seemed utterly disconnected from performance, though, I was upset. It felt random.

In retrospect, I suspect that his criteria and mine were different. It happens.

A few thoughts.

GIven that the class was Interpersonal Communication, starting off by correcting the text in class suggests a certain tone-deafness. I wonder, too, if some of the disappointment in your classmates came through, affecting your performance more than you realized. To the extent that group work was a part of the grade, contempt for the other members of your group could well have come through, to ill effect.

The point about grading papers based on “opinion” is a bit of a red herring. Typically, an assignment that asks you to explain an opinion is focusing on the quality of the explanation, rather than on the direction of the opinion itself. In other words, whether your answer was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ was probably less important than how, and how well, you supported it. Any experienced professor in fields with significant disagreement has had occasion to give A’s to papers with which they disagree, and to give lower grades to papers with which they sympathized.

Is there such a thing as teacher’s apathy? Yes. Teachers are human, and any given person is subject to the usual range of human limitations and failings. I don’t know if your instructor falls into the apathetic category or not; s/he may simply have been demanding. But there’s nothing in your story that would suggest to me that a trip to the dean is in order.

It’s true that judgment calls are part of grading, and that reasonable people can disagree on some of those calls. But from a dean’s perspective, that’s nowhere near what it would take to overturn a grade, or even question an instructor. The standard on my campus involves proving either an error (of computation or data entry) or a gross injustice, such as “he demanded sex for an A, and I didn’t, so he failed me.” Something like “she seemed brusque, and the other kids were jerks, and I deserved an A instead of a B” isn’t even in the ballpark.

As with my annoying class in college, I’d take it as a life lesson and move on. Sometimes authority figures disappoint. It’s part of life. Maybe later you’ll see wisdom in what she did, or, maybe you’ll decide she was just wrong. It happens. But no, I wouldn’t pursue this one. And I wouldn’t want to teach anyplace where a complaint like this actually resulted in a dean taking action.

Good luck. I hope you’re able to put this behind you and move on to bigger and better things.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? What should the student do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Part of me thinks the professor may well have taken off a few points on the student's papers due to poor word choice and punctuation issues.

Other than that, I think you hit the nail on the head. Effort doesn't always equal quality, people have different expectations and grading preferences, a B isn't the end of the world, etc.
 
At every place I've taught, the appropriate way to complain about a grade isn't to go straight to the dean. If the student is really concerned, the first step is usually to (painful as it may be) talk to the instructor and just ask for clarification about the grade or the grading scale for the class. If in that conversation, the student actually listens with an open mind, accepts whatever criticisms might be part of the conversation, and leaves feeling like the grade was unfair (meaning not based on actual work completed), the next stop is the department chair. If that person says you have no case, you probably have no case. Either way, the student should make those two contacts before going for the dean.

However, I also agree that in this particular case, the student probably has no real gripe other than disappointment. B's happen. Move on.
 
Yes, as the commenters note, one eventually realizes that a B isn't such a problem.

I'd add to Bethany's comment that some schools do have procedures for rereads; usually one is supposed to talk to the instructor first, etc. The reread always comes with the warning that one's grade might go down after the reread.
 
You have to chalk it up as a learning experience because in the grand scheme of things, that 4.0 doesn't matter one bit.

I had a simliar thing happen in my ugrad. I'd had the same sociology prof for 3 different classes. I liked her. We got along. Had great debates. She praised me to my mom (who was/is on staff about how well-prepared I was). Then in the span of one class, she turned on me. My classmates could even see it. Long story short, I got a B in a class that I should've gotten an A in. I went to ask her about the final grade and that went no where. Oh well. Looking back I think it's because by that point, I was more confident in my opinions and beliefs. She was about as far left as you could get and I am on the right. She really didn't like that I could articulately defend my POV. You live you learn.
 
On a different note, this student had read the given text, understood it, and been confident and analytical enough to tell the prof there were errors in the text. These happen to be exactly the kind of skills that employers/leaders want students to develop. In the workplace (or at least outside of the classroom) such skills aren't easy to find in people and highly valued. However, in the context of this communications course, her comments were seen as "tone-deaf" and bringing them up lead to some "confrontation". The argument for these reactions is that in the context of this course, it was in slightly poor judgment to bring these things up. On the other hand, if the course was short and time was a factor (ie not much time to dwell on or discuss things), or the student wasn't sure whether the specific book content would be tested on or not, I can see some context for the student's perspective. Cognitive dissonance is hard enough, let alone if you're being graded on it.

Yes, I agree this is a learning experience and that B isn't so bad, but it's also interesting to see how situations like these fit into the bigger educational picture.
 
Had "parents" on the staff, not "parent's."

I agree with Seamyst and give this complaint a B.
 
When addressing an error with a teacher (or boss), it's wise to give them the benefit of the doubt: "I noticed X in the book, but I learned Y in a previous class. Can you explain why these things are different?" Most teachers are open to this kind of "challenging", because it's a chance for discussion and growth.

Your (the student's) description of events, however, has a completely different tone: "I found a couple significant errors in the book and pointed them out to her at the next class...just [to] let her know that they were there, in case she wanted to glaze over those pages again, and asked her if any of this mis-information would be on the test". In essence, you suggested she didn't know the material, then gave her suggestions for doing her job better. You would be hard pressed to find ANYONE who wouldn't be offended by that kind of message. (You say you brought this up "at the next class." For goodness sake, I hope you spoke with her before or after class. If you questioned her abilities in front of other students, no wonder she was less than welcoming.)

You are a student, so there's a _really_ good chance your teacher (or boss) knows something you don't. You should always _ask_ ("can you explain this") before you _tell_ ("there are several errors in your textbook"). If you aren't satisfied with an answer, then by all means, maintain your skepticism and find another teacher.

LoweringTheBar.net has a story that dovetails nicely with this. The lawyer in question is more exaggerated in his blind spots than the frustrated student, but it's another case of "I'm just trying to be helpful" gone horribly wrong. I plan on using the lawyer's email as an example of "inappropriate tone" in my next business writing class. (If you don't wish to follow the link, just Google Gregory Berry, lawsuit).

http://www.loweringthebar.net/2011/08/in-which-a-superior-legal-mind-is-confused-with-arrogance.html
 
I understand how these events would be very frustrating to the student. I also understand how the work may have been appropriately graded at B level. From the letter posted in the blog that doesn't seem too far a stretch. There are definitely a few issues in the work.

If you (the writer) feels compelled to pursue the issue then the first stop is the prof. Make sure to ask for examples of A level work. Ask for the differences between the B work and the A work. I teach a science class and even I have grading rubrics for written work. She should be able to explain precisely what was missing or erroneous in your work.

If that doesn't resolve the question then go to the chair. In my opinion, the chair probably won't do anything but at least you can look back and say you tried.

I believe we all have those experiences where we think what we did should have garnered more kudos than we received. The most important thing, however, is the world will keep spinning and so life will go on.
 
Wow, it sounds like your professor wasn't very good. However, having dealt with your kind of student, I say you got exactly what you deserve!

Seriously, nothing gets me angrier than students who spend a ton of time complaining about their grade, when they could have just put that effort into earning a better grade in the first place.
 
I agree with Jrant. I've had students say "well this isn't like what I learned in that other class, so it's wrong" to which I have to explain that every field has their own slant, set of differences, etc. So pointing out errors might have just been a lack of understanding in the difference in fields.

We've all had classes where we've gotten grades we didn't want and we've all had students approach us and say they feel like the deserve something different. In this case it sounds like the student walked in feeling like IC is a blow off course, that should be easy and that s/he knows a lot already becasue some concepts were covered in other classes. If that arrogance came across in the work then yeah, I'd give you a B too. Some students think they are challenging and raising good issues when they really just aren't listening to the professor and are arguing something entirely different than what's being covered.
 
This situation is why I hated group work in school. In the future, confronted by a group that is totally non-functional, I would set up a couple of meetings and try to get the group together but if it doesn't work, go to the instructor, show her what you've done to try to get your "partners" to engage and ask to be reassigned to another group or to be graded as an individual. Do this before the assignment is due to give yourself time to complete the work.
 
I am reminded of my first year at what DD refers to as snooty liberal arts college. I wound up in an advanced speech class (Argumentation and Debate, rather than intro speech), because I'd done a lot of speech tournament stuff in high school. The instructor told me (in class) that he would expect more from me than from anyone else...and, yes, I got a B. I sighed, said to myself, "This'll make a great story later," and moved on.

Later--after that instructor was no longer at SLAC, I mentioned the experience to the speech department chair (and debate coach) who has been a close friend for the past 40 years. He just shook his head, and said, "Another reason I''m glad (he)'s no longer here."

So it did, in fact, make a great story later.
 
I'm disconcerted by the correspondent's claim that the prof "made it impossible" to meet. If so, this is a serious charge. Did she not hold office hours? If the correspondent really did request a meeting several times and the request was denied, the department chair should have been consulted at that point.

Otherwise, I definitely agree with DD. There is a right way to approach a professor about errors in the text, and a wrong way, and "will any of this mis-information be on the test?" sounds like the wrong way. The student is claiming absolute certainty about these errors before even giving the professor a chance to explain - at least, as the letter reads. It's almost comical that this was a course on Interpersonal Communication.

Not that the professor was perfect. Showing up 17 minutes late to meet a student is not acceptable, barring emergency situations.

I also have to admit to reading the Tale of the Terrible Group with a bit of skepticism. There were apparently at least 4 other students in this group, and all of them were completely useless for anything other than excuses? Hey, I very much dislike group work, too, precisely because it does tend to enable lazy students to ride the coattails of the stars. But...it seems like quite a coincidence, the number of people in this story who wronged the correspondent in the course of one summer class.

Maybe it's possible that the project group would have gelled if the participants had better interpersonal communication skills. This sounds like a joke, but I mean it. That they did not was probably evident in the final product. A group project in a class called "interpersonal communications" is really meant to be a group effort.
 
Let it go.

Do not hold on to the 4.0 with white-knuckled intensity. "The 'A' that got away" makes for a good story.

In my Communication department, it was always a joke how the Communication faculty were normally not very good at communicating. I chalk that up to the usual quirks of the professoriate: smart, focused people who often don't have a lot of patience or tact. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

Unless you haven't seen all of your graded work product (is there a final that hasn't been returned?), I would let it go.

The only possible exception would be if the prof still had your final and you haven't seen it. That would be worth asking for, because it's possible there was an error in grading, or a math error, that made you drop from A to B. Otherwise, let it go.
 
Ask, politely, to go over the grade with the professor. I had a student do that last term and he was right, I had made a mathematical error and he deserved the higher grade. I apologized and submitted the correction.
 
I like the last Anonymous comment and some similar ones above.

Apply some of what you learned about "interpersonal" communications and talk to that person who was your professor about how the grade was arrived at. A humble remark about how you thought you had gotten past that silly statement about the textbook on the second day of class might have some utility.

My advice to DD is to tell that "B" story, and some of the others in the comments. Having one B might improve the transcript in many people's minds.
 
Talk to the professor. If she's an adjunct, the last thing she wants is to let the dean know who she is. Adjuncts, because of their powerlessness, change grades more easily than full-time faculty. It never pays professionally for an adjunct not to change a grade in an iffy case (not an egregious one).

If she's an adjunct and cares for her survival, she will change the grade and claim it was a clerical error. That's the ticket: "Clerical error." If a change of grade form says the reason is the teacher was unfair, that will cause problems. Clerical errors never do.

But she may not be smart enough to change the grade. Some adjuncts will stand on principle. They usually don't get classes the next semester.
 
Yeah, you gotta go talk to the teacher first. Ask to go over the grading. I was once challenged by a student on the grading, and I had in fact made a math error. She got a B and deserved an A- -- but I gave her an A, because of the stones it took to come in and deal with me politely and calmly.

And yeah, don't go in the first day and start correcting "errors." It's way more likely that you're not seeing an approach correctly than that an introductory text is obviously wrong on the first day.
 
Oh my god, there's a great deal of helpful information here!
 
This won't have effect in reality, that's exactly what I think.
 
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