After a hyper-efficient round of grading, my students’ midterm grades have been released into the wild. And I feel like old blind Tiresias.
I feel this way at the midpoint of every semester. Based on their performance to date, I can predict reasonably well which ones will pass my class and which will fail. The latter group are the ones who have stopped coming to class, who aren’t turning in rough drafts or coming to their paper conferences. And, while I can issue warnings and provide opportunities to earn additional points, I cannot force any of my students to seize their last chance – which means I cannot actually prevent any student from failing the first-year writing course.
Students, of course, assume that I can stop them from failing. They assume I have total control over their grades, and that I wield this power like a particularly cranky Hera. Which is why I’m very particular about how I talk about grades, both in the classroom and in my syllabus. Grades, in my classroom, are never something that I “give”; they are something students “earn.” When I talk about grades, the responsibility – and, for the students who realize it, the power – rests always on their shoulders.
There is one context, and only one, in which I will deliberately talk about “giving” grades: when a student who is failing due to lack of attendance or lack of turning in work complains that I am not “giving” them a passing grade. At which point I will pretend to give grades only long enough to say: “I cannot give your work a grade if you do not turn in your work.” But even this is not “giving” a grade; it’s “earning a failing grade by omission.” Students earn grades by effort and performance (my grading system is specifically weighted to encourage effort); no effort, no grade.
No doubt this comes as a shock to many students. It’s hard to think of grades in terms of effort and performance when one is used to the student-as-consumer model of higher education; after all, nobody thinks much about “effort” or “performance” or of “earning” a new car, an upgrade to first class, or an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet for $4.99.
But I contend that the chance to “earn” a grade actually puts a great deal more power and control in the hands of the student. First-class tickets or $4.99 shrimp buffets aren’t, typically, “earned”; rather, they are “given,” and often on highly unequal terms having nothing to do with the quality of one’s effort or performance (or, heaven forbid, on how “good” a human being one is). Most things in a consumer culture are deals: take it or leave it. Grades are the product of labor, but the added value accrues entirely to the student. For once in their lives, “working for what you want” turns out to be a very good deal indeed.