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Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt
IT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to
my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. quot;Professor
Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wondering if there’s anything I can do to
improve my grade?quot; I thought, quot;Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike
making declarative statements?quot;
After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. quot;I got a D in your class. Is there any
way you can change it to ‘Incompletequot;?quot; Then the e-mail assault began: quot;I’m shy about coming in to talk to
you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.quot; The next day I had three
phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.
Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as
the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years,
however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade,
they go to the quot;returnquot; counter to trade it in for something better.
What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and
performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t
deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for
self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the
professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the
assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I
guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final
grades were posted.
That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until
long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t
matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the
academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality
of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.
Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel
it’s not relevant. quot;If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.quot; quot;If you don’t give me a C, I’ll
flunk out.quot; One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, quot;If I don’t pass, my life is over.quot; This is tough
stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or
deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with
something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be
traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college
actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the longEnglish