Grade-Grubber in Chief


Mayor Koch would famously ask, “How am I doing?”
But his was a rhetorical question. Getty Images

A friend posts on social media, “Is it grade-grubbing season already?”

Grade-grubbing combines pleading with outrage, supplication with casuistry.

Even if you love teaching (and, please, if you don’t, do find some other line of work), one part of the job that will age you fast is grading. Or, if we can speak frankly, defending the grade you’ve assigned when confronted with an indignant or self-righteous student, angered or insistent that the grade has to be  wrong.

I’m fortunate to have students who take low grades when deservedly assigned, and I’m daily grateful for it, but a scenario that may be uncomfortably familiar might go like this:

“I’ve always been an A student, so if there’s a perceptual problem, it’s yours, not mine,” the student might say, though maybe not in so many words. “My work was better than you think. I put more time into it than you realize. I know what Sam got and my work was at least as good as Sam’s.” Ergo you, professor, are a nincompoop.

An aside: I’ve always assumed that nincompoop is a deformation of non compos mentis, the state of being “not in one’s right mind.” But the Oxford English Dictionary offers no support for it (though Dr. Johnson might have erred in the same direction, so I have good company in being wrong).  Origins of nincompoop remain “uncertain.”

But this post is not about you.

As to grade, the OED dutifully records our familiar academic usage, “a mark (usu. alphabetical) indicating an assessment of the year’s work, examination papers, etc., of a student.”

OED makes reference to A-levels and O-levels — programs and degrees of achievement that continue to puzzle those of us unfamiliar with spotted dick and other mysteries of British schooldom.

Yet the OED is curiously reticent on grub and grubber. For the latter, it enshrines as Definition 3 “one who gets together wealth by sordid or contemptible methods,” with a nod to money-grubber.

Our dictionary of record, however, does not yet record grade-grubber. 

In a well-ordered system, grades are based on achievement, and the final grade shouldn’t really be a surprise. The midterm is one crucial moment for assessing classroom performance. In the American political system midterm elections is a misnomer, since for those members of the House of Representatives serving a two-year tour of congressional duty and who are then up for election, the two-year mark is the only mark.

But we persist in this usage because the potential to change the composition of Congress occurs midway through the presidential term. While midterm elections never elect a president, they are always about the White House incumbent.

The media were obsessed over the current president’s first 100 days, both denying that the span is qualitatively useful and insisting that it’s a legitimate assessment tool.

Most unsurprising is the current president’s insistence on the excellence of his performance. Those of us who lived through New York during the Ed Koch years will remember his catch phrase “How am I doing?” It was more than rhetorical and less than a question. The White House incumbent ups the ante on Mayor Koch’s perennial gesture, living instead in a world of superlatives where there are only two grades, A and loser. As has often been noted, it’s the reality-show mentality of up or out, win or fail.

The dailies are saturated with his insistence that his work is terrific, the best, tops, super.  And yet. The insistence is no more definitive or clarifying than the appeals and demands of the student for whom the grade is a negotiable term of art.

Indeed, many a student discovers that the course is “harder than he expected” — wait, sorry, that’s not a freshman taking physics or world literature, it’s the president of the United States.

And yet, the acknowledgment of difficulty doesn’t blunt the demand for the best grade possible, either when it comes from the student or the elected official.

Those of us in the academy now have a countermodel at the top of our political system, someone who insists on the highest evaluation, regardless of performance.

Whether such behavior rises to the level of the “sordid” or “contemptible,” terms the OED harshly assigns to money grubber, I leave to the reader and citizen.

What can one say to a particularly bullying student, other than “you’re not entitled to the grade you think you deserve”?

It’s one thing to respond to an undergraduate, another to a political figure, especially one who seems determined to be grade-grubber in chief.

At least he’s earned that title fairly, and all by himself.


Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano



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