When Grades Incite Violence: Why I Am More and More Afraid To Be In Education

Photo credit: By Chris Radcliff from San Diego, CA, USA (UCLA) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Colleen Clemens’s blog, Reflections on Gender and Postcolonial Issues, on June 2. Check out all her great work and tell her that Raging Chicken sent ya!

I am shaken this morning.  Again.  Another shooting on a campus.  After twenty years of being in a classroom, I find myself thinking “it is only a matter of time” when I used to think “this could never happen here.”

But this morning’s news that a student shot a “brilliant, kind, and caring” 39-year-old professor over low grades leaves me caught off guard by my level of despondency.  For I suppose I am not inured to these shootings–yet.  I am rattled.  As I said to my partner this morning, “this is my worst nightmare.”

And then I said to him, “What incentive do I even have to give low grades?  To be a teacher?”  A veteran of the classroom for 20 years himself, he nodded and left to teach AP Physics classes.

So other than being able to look in the mirror and respect myself, what incentive do I have to hold my students accountable for the work they do?

Some of the drawbacks of giving students grades they earn include:

  • Complaining:  Students have a right to be assertive about their grades when graded unfairly.  For sure.  I am transparent in my grading and welcome conversations about a grade that might be considered “low.”  Complaining is a different matter–complaining looks like “I know I didn’t do half of the assignments, but how could I be failing the course?” (see the syllabus).  I have deflated the number of complaints I entertain by stating clearly and repeatedly that I will only discuss grade issues in person (unless in an online class).  Ask any teacher you know, and they will tell you students do not want they grades they often earn.
  • Parents:  Now that I am at the university level, I am no longer required to entertain the barrage of emails from parents “concerned” about grades.  With online gradebooks, many parents check grades every day, expecting teachers to input grades on a daily basis.  Transparency is awesome.  Obsession isn’t.  Parent emails add up quickly when one is teaching 120 students.  And in my few cases in which a parent did quibble about a grade, the student was immediately believed and the teacher had to make the case for the grade.  Not the other way around.
  • Administration:  Again, I feel very supported in this regard.  But one story sticks in my head:  the day I gave the graduate student commencement speech after earning my Ph.D., I came home to a phone call from my department chair saying a parent was calling to complain about the B+ her (always texting in class) daughter received.  That was the grade she earned.  Know what?  I didn’t care.  “Give her the A-.” And I attempted to enjoy the rest of my graduation day.
  • Time:  Grading well takes a ton of time.  Do the math.  If it takes me one minute per page (and that is pretty fast) and I have 50 papers at five pages each, that is 250 minutes of time I need to find beyond all of the other work I have to do a passable job at ensuring the work is graded fairly.  I get why folks don’t want to spend this kind of time.
  • Violence:  There is a palpable fear of students using violence to manage their anxiety about grades in academia.  Active shooter training is now a thing.  I ALWAYS bring my car keys to class with me in case I need to leave campus and cannot get back into my building due to a lockdown.  I only return major projects online because I want students to be in their own space when they see their (usually quite good) grades.

I am afraid.  Open carry on campuses is not the answer, at least not for me.  I would rather a see a culture in which we start to value teachers and talk about them as hard-working folks who are doing their best, not lazy good-for-nothings with their “summers off.”  I want students to learn that failing is ok and usually on them.

I want to give students the grades they earn.  I feel it is my duty as a teacher to assess my students’ work fairly and openly.  But that drive in me is eroding with each story I read about the awfulness that is happening on a weekly basis on campuses.  I find my need to literally be able to look at myself in the mirror trumping my need to figuratively be able to look at myself in the mirror.

Today two children are waking up without their father.  Because of grades.  I am sick in my heart.  And terrified.

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