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.