Defending My Grades

The semester was over, but the adjunct instructor wasn’t done working, just done being paid

Sabbian Paine / Creative Commons

April 20, 2015

The emails poured in long after the semester was over: "I have never gotten anything below a B before, this must be a mistake." "I had an A all semester long and this must be a mistake." "Her class was mostly group work, how could I get a D in that? It must be a mistake."

As an adjunct instructor, the end of the semester brings, simultaneously, the joy and relief that a well-deserved break is on the way, and the fear and anxiety that another semester of work may not come again.

Being hired as an adjunct means working at the whim and mercy of the institution. As adjuncts, we know that going in, and we spend all semester knowing it. So when the semester ends, final grades are in, winter turns to spring, and we are no longer working for that same institution, a dilemma arises when students from the previous semester complain about their grades.

Several months after the fall 2014 semester had ended, I was still answering emails, taking phone calls, following up, and filling out forms about students’ grade complaints. Why? Because I don’t know how to say no. And I don’t if I can say no, or, really, what else I should do. First came the emails from students. Then, when their wishes for a better grade go unanswered, came the emails from the dean. The. Dean.

And all from a place at which I was no longer employed. All requesting that I provide free labor to deal with an issue that — based upon my grade book (a trusty, old-fashioned, handwritten, meticulously kept ugly green one) — should not actually be an issue at all.

Grading is a tricky unpleasant thing, and my least favorite aspect of teaching. Yet grades are also important measures that signify completion, the product of the end of a semester. And while I would rather students email me to talk about theories and concepts, there I was, face-to-face with zombie grades, including one that was about to lead to a meeting with the dean.

Very few phrases can strike as much terror into the heart of an adjunct instructor like "meeting with the dean." Our jobs, and therefore, the quality of our lives, the value of our work, and the measure of our worth, are precarious things. While it is good to live in the now, be Zen, and go with the flow, it doesn’t feel very good when you are living month-to-month with student loans as you bounce from college to college, semester to semester, never knowing how long anything will last.

I love and value teaching, and I put a lot of time, effort, and devotion into my work. The fall semester was amazing. I taught three courses at a beautiful community college in central California, had more than 200 students, and felt like I was living a part of the dream. It was almost a Pinocchio moment: I was a "real professor!" In the spring semester, that dream ended. I spent my time looking for work again, and dealing with a small handful of students who were seeking me, the department, or the dean to "adjust" their final grades.

The first level of the dilemma: I care about students, I want them to understand their final grades, but the semester was over, and I didn’t work there anymore. Yet I was being asked to work — fill out forms, respond to emails, go over old assignments and my grade books, and, ultimately, meet with the dean about one particularly persistent D student.

The second level of the dilemma: No matter what I did, I felt like I was being judged, and was potentially risking future employment possibilities.

If I gave in to the D student, as the current "customer is always right" model of higher education seems to recommend (especially when the worker is an adjunct with less job security, and often, less respect, than a Walmart employee) then the issue was over and everyone could move on. But maybe I would look weak. Or maybe I would look careless because the student was telling the dean she had earned an A, and my grade book showed that, at best, all of her work added up to a D.

If I didn’t give in, or if I told the dean that I simply could not do unpaid work at this time, I risked looking rude, mean, abrasive, or unprofessional.

Besides a real job, one thing I didn’t have throughout this situation was power. I did not have the power to say yes or no, or to stop what I saw as a destabilizing dynamic between student entitlement and adjunct expendability. OK, sure, in an Eleanor Roosevelt "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent" way, I have power. But in an Oliver Twist "please sir, I’d like some more" way, I didn’t.

In my dreams, my ideal teaching job would be stable, my position respected, my pay fair, and my ability to talk with students about grades would be conducted in an environment where I would not be referred to as "confused" or my teaching methodology would not be dismissed as "mostly group work." In that ideal world, I wouldn’t be the one on the defensive, asked to come in so we can "go over things."

In all of this, no one offered to compensate me for my time or took for granted that my gradebook was right. The structure of the game, the set up of higher education right now, says that they do not have to, for I am a dime a dozen, and students pay the rent.

So what happened with my D student?

She did not, ultimately, receive a grade change. But I had to fight to convince the dean that my records were sound and that no additional time, meetings, or discussions would be necessary. It was a trying experience. The entire time I felt that my role was of minimal importance — the student was meeting with the dean, alleging that my course was "mostly group work" and that her friend "got an A" so she deserved one, too.

I was in a position of both trying to defend my teaching and trying to please the dean so that I might be rehired. Of course it was important for the student’s voice to be heard, but only in the context of my records, gradebook, course structure, and so on.

The dean seemed to feel I should agree to a grade change but said — in cartoon superhero fashion — that only I had the power to consent to the change. I said, "OK, then, no grade change is necessary," based on my records, grade book, assessment of the student, and teaching experience.

Now I’m just worried that I won’t be hired back, and that a good teaching experience, a good semester, and a good relationship with the dean were soured by the anomie of not knowing what to do in this situation and also, not being taken seriously, and having to fight to remain firm despite wanting to maintain my (tenuous) position in this college.

I long for the day when I have the opportunity to be paid and appreciated for cheerfully doing all of the little extras of teaching — the forms, the post-semester questions, the grade issues. But until then, I will guard my time and record.

Jessica Kline is the pseudonym of an adjunct instructor in California.