Taming the Complainers

Brian Taylor

October 09, 2013

Question: There's something I dread, as every new school year starts: whiny students.

I teach at a midlevel state university, not open admissions but not hard to get into. The grade groaners I encounter aren't the remedial students, who are glad to pass. And only a few of the whiners are pre-med majors, the poster children for grade grubbing. It's easy to pick them out. An A-minus sends them into a frenzy.

No, the ones who irk me the most are the students who get an unexpected B and immediately start their fits. I can't pass back papers in the middle of class, because of the sulking and confronting. After class, or during my office hours, I get tears and wailing: "How could you give me a B? I tried so hard."

I would never have nagged the way they do. Could you please review some good responses to cut off the moaning?

Answer: Ms. Mentor can give you, first, a really bad strategy. "Dr. Misanthrope" was, late in life, "sentenced" (his word) to teach biology for nonmajors. He let students know they were the bane of his existence, and that he wanted nothing to do with anything they had to say. Each day, at the start of class, he would make a great show of turning off and removing his hearing aids. There would be no questions and no complaints.

Ms. Mentor finds that appalling, especially since nonmajors often have the most curious and imaginative questions—not just "Why didn't I get an A?" Dr. Misanthrope's syllabus did list grading standards, copied from the university's handbook. His exams were multiple choice, graded by machine. He had made himself into a cog.

Ms. Mentor prefers to imagine free, unimpeded exchanges of ideas—as in Socrates' dialogues or Margaret Fuller's 19th-century conversations. No one back then worried about credits or grades or "the dog ate my homework."

But a slow poison began entering the U.S. educational system in 1785, when tradition tells us that Yale first recorded grades for 58 seniors: "Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores." The Yale Class of 1785 included Phineas Miller (cotton-gin capitalist), Decius Wadsworth (colonel), and the wonderfully named Return Jonathan Meigs (governor of Ohio). But whether they were Optimi or Pejores, Ms. Mentor does not know.

She hopes to hear from their classmates.

Meanwhile, you may remind your students that grades are not a reliable predictor of success. At Yale, the future President George W. Bush had the traditional "gentleman's C" average. Senator John McCain finished fifth from last (894 out of 899) in his class at the Naval Academy. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, got an F in organic chemistry.

"Grade inflation" is said to have begun during the Vietnam era, as a way of keeping young men out of the draft. Some rebellious faculty members gave everyone A's as a form of protest. In recent years, it's been claimed that everyone at Harvard gets A grades in everything—all of which would make a rational person wonder what grades really mean.

They mean angst.

If you're being graded, you have to spit out an answer. You can't ponder. If you're writing a "timed essay," you have to organize your thoughts and get them down within an artificial limit that doesn't correspond with the rhythms of human thought.

If you're doing the grading, you have to write factual questions that can be answered quickly (multiple choice). Or you contrive pseudo-essay questions that are easy to grade. Regurgitation, not interpretation.

If you're grading essays, your comments can be coachings ("Splendid!") or nudgings ("You haven't quite gotten to the main point"). But they wind up being used as self-protection. They're the justifications for the grade.

Many students don't even read the comments. "I stopped writing them, except for the most committed students," the conscientious "Caroline" told Ms. Mentor. "Otherwise I was just writing notes to myself."

Caroline was practicing self-preservation, and now Ms. Mentor will tell you how you, too, can get through the grading jungle and its whimpering denizens.

Begin with a draconian syllabus, in which everything is specified: dates that assignments are due, how much they're worth in percentages, penalties for missing deadlines or not turning things in. Include some choices and alternatives: A student must turn in five out of seven assignments; a student is allowed to miss one lab class each semester.

Include rules like these: No grades will be discussed until at least 24 hours after the papers are returned. Any student wishing to contest a grade must write a memo explaining the objection.

Meanwhile, you the teacher should prepare a few replies to common complaints: "We don't give grades. We report your achievements to the registrar." Or "We don't 'make' you do anything. You can choose not to pass." Or "Life is a series of choices. You must decide what's most important. If you stay home with your ailing ferret and miss the midterm, you'll have to take the consequences of your choices."

Also: "Grades show what you've learned. They're not about your personal circumstances"—your sports eligibility, your unreliable car, your roommate from hell. "If you have medical problems or disabilities, please contact the appropriate campus offices for help."

If you, the teacher, are young, new, or nervous, practice those sentences in front of a mirror. Strut, shout, and play the self-righteous alpha dog, king of the hill, leader of the pack. Then be the alpha dog.

Yes, Ms. Mentor also feels herself becoming twitchy and bored. Where is the beauty of learning, the intellectual excitement of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge?

She wishes she could tell you that there's more love than dread in grading. But while you're saying, "No, we have to go by the syllabus, because it's the only way to treat everyone equally," she urges you not to resent the students in front of you. They've lived in the No Child Left Behind, tests-and-grades-are-everything bubble for most of their lives. They're frightened about money, jobs, the future.

It's not about you.

You're still free to motivate students through humor and human interest. You're free to start each class with a joke, a current event, a hook. You're free to speak with enthusiasm about your beloved subject—and, if you must, ignore the glazed looks of those who are determined not to care. That's their choice and their loss.

If all else fails, remind yourself that life is short, and in 15 weeks even the most tormenting students will move on—to either growing up or tormenting someone else.

Question: Will you please tell student job seekers to use professional-sounding e-mail addresses? Many of our graduates think it's perfectly OK to write job applications from "serialkiller666" or "hotbunny69." Will you tell them that "jrsmith21218," though dull, will get them through spam filters and give them a chance to be appreciated and hired?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor continues to welcome suggestions for academic novels of literary merit, social value, or absurdity. She has been delighted to see a grass-roots publicity push by the friends of one academic novelist. Cheering a colleague's success is so rare, and so welcome, in our barbarous, backbiting times.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle's forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are changed. No one will ever know your true grade point average.

(c) Emily Toth

Correction (11/5/2013):  This column originally said that John McCain had attended West Point. As a commenter has noted, that was in error; Senator McCain attended the U.S. Naval Academy. The article has been corrected to reflect that.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is