03 March, 2007

...when it was hard to earn a 9

My Italian nonno once showed me a report card of his. He was rummaging around for something else to show me, perhaps the pass whose dates he forged during World War II so that the Germans would allow him to buy bread. He happened upon the report card and showed it to me. The grades were recorded as numbers. The high possible grade was a 10. At least one of his scores was a 9. He pointed to that score with solemn pride. You see that? he asked. That's when it was hard to earn a 9. The clear implication was that a 10 was nearly impossible, whereas in these lax modern times, it's handed out with the same ease that a politician hands out promises.

I wonder about this as I grade my students' papers. I'm teaching Calc II and Modern Algebra I, which means I'm dealing with people who are, more than likely, unusually intelligent. Yet they rarely meet my expectations.

Are my expectations too high? I'd like to imagine they're not. I read a lot about students who are getting better grades for worse work. I have read a number disparaging remarks about Harvard's faculty's habits of handing out A's to pretty much anyone who walks through the door. I don't mean to pick on Harvard; that's simply what I've read. I doubt they're alone.

As another example, I consider my university newspaper's grammar and vocabulary somewhat embarrassing. One day these people will be the leaders of our linguistic culture, yet in discussing their endorsements for student government positions, they actually wrote the jaw-dropping description that such-and-such a candidate was "convicted to increasing voter turnout." Convicted? Apparently it's a crime to be "committed" to something. If I'd read something like that as a student, I would have voted against every last one of the newspaper's endorsements.

The Modern Algebra class is both struggling and discouraged. Average scores are nothing to boast about, and they're not accustomed to receiving math grades in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. In my discussions with other professors, they report more or less the same challenges (and grades) when teaching that subject. Students won't learn the definitions, won't read the book, won't study the notes, etc.

That's my job: to teach them that reading and writing isn't optional for a math major, and I have to be willing to award them the grades they earn, even if they never learn that.

After all, would you give an A in a history course to a history major who couldn't read a history book, then write a coherent discussion of its themes? or whatever it is historians write about...

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