Monday, May 19, 2008


Late on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from one of my students. Let's call him George. The conversation began with a compliment. "Thanks Prof. S for the great semester," followed by an interesting bit of autobiography. "I am a liberal arts major, but I am going to medical school next year." So far, so good.

But then the ask. What follows was appalling.

"I'm calling because I'm one tenth of a point away from graduating Magna Cum Laude. You gave me an A- in your course and if you change the grade to A, I'll graduate with high honors." George's exams and final paper were graded by one of my highly competent (and probably exceedingly generous) TAs. It's possible (but not probable) that his grade was unjust. In any case, George did not claim that he had been treated unfairly. In this respect, at least, he was honest. In all of my years of teaching, I have only modified a TA's grade once, when the student presented me with unassailable evidence that her TA had a personal beef with her and, as a result, had given her an unwarranted grade.

Back to George: I was probably too soft on the kid. Rather than berating him for last-minute grade grubbing, or going to the registrar and lowering his grade for impudence, I gave him my conventional line on grade changes, namely that if he wants me to reconsider a grade, he needs to offer me an intellectual rationale, put it in writing, and take the risk that I might be a harsher grader than my teaching assistant. I haven't heard from him since. I'm sure that he went on in his search for the weakest link. I hope he didn't succeed.

Were it not for the Buckley Amendment, which protects students' privacy, I would have shouted his name from the rooftops and through the blogosphere from sea to shining sea. Instead, to you George, I wish you a most unhappy graduation. I hope that someday your cheating catches up to you. May you struggle mightily through your medical school courses (which are graded on a curve with little recourse for aggrieved grade grubbers). Should you graduate and pass your board certifications without cheating, may you find a medical position that doesn't require contact with patients, but if so, may your practice be marred by countless, costly, time-wasting malpractice suits. Good bye.


MSS said...

Good policy. I institutionalized that policy of written appeals and risk of lowered grade some years ago. The number of complaints went down a lot!

(I've been reading your blog since I saw a link a couple of weeks ago at CT. Keep up the good work.)

Dance said...

I think in this case, your curse is a little harsh. He knows how the game works, and .1 away from Magna cum Laude has gotta be frustrating. Few people will look at his transcript in the future, but Magna cum Laude can live on a resume forever. That's a strong curse for someone who is playing the system he's been taught.

This points up an error from your school, though---no one should know they are .1 point away. The school should use a combination of minimum GPA and top percentile/class rank, and hey, someplace like Harvard, maybe it should throw in a "must have earned X number of A+ which should be reserved by all profs for 'wow, this kid blew me away'" .

Incidentally, 10 years later I'm still aware that I must have missed Phi Beta Kappa by not all that much, and sometimes idly wonder whether working harder in creative writing would have been enough to do it. At the time, I was saying "damn! shoulda worked harder in creative writing!" and a bit annoyed with myself.

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