Dear Former Students,


Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine

Thanks for writing–I always enjoy getting e-mails from my students.  However, when you write to me after your final grades have been posted asking “if there’s something [you] can do” to improve your grade, I have to wonder.  Are you offering me a bribe?  (What do you have that you think I would possibly want?  Actually, I’m kind of curious about that–but believe me, you don’t have anything that I want.)  Or, are you simply unclear on the concept of final grades?

The only thing you could possibly do at this point is to invent a time machine to take yourself back to August or September, and then come to class every day and do all of the assigned reading and writing assignments.  Oh–and reading and following the instructions for essay assignments and exams is a really good idea, too.  By writing papers and exams on the assigned topic with the correct number of primary and secondary sources–it’s amazing how easy it is to work your way into the “B” range if you follow the carefully written instructions and submit your work on time. 

And, by the way–that’s what makes you different from the students who regularly take home As and Bs.  It’s probably not that they’re that much more naturally bright–it’s that they’re more organized.  They arrange their lives to make sure they get to class, usually on time, and they make sure to do the homework.  They read and follow instructions carefully, and they probably grasp the logic of assessment exercises better than you, because they’ve been doing the reading and showing up to class much more regularly than you have.  Maybe they had a first- or second-grade teacher back in the day who kicked their a$$es if they didn’t listen and follow the rules carefully.  (Maybe they were just luckier than you in that regard.)

I know this is not the reply you were hoping for.  I hate having to write this to you, too–because it’s just another version of the same speech I gave on the first day of class in August.  It’s what I’ve been telling you to do all along.  (But–maybe you missed those classes, too.)

0 thoughts on “Dear Former Students,

  1. I have often wondered what inspires these e-mails. I have to confess that there was one student whose e-mail did prompt me to raise the grade from a B+ to an A- out of a reconsideration. And there have been a smattering of students where I actually did enter the wrong grade. But these cases can be counted on one hand across the courses I have taught. Is it an excusable hope that they might be the one in a hundred case? Or is it because there is a profound sense of entitlement?

    Thoughts? I lean toward the sense of entitlement but do not want to be quick to judge.


  2. I don’t think it’s entitlement–it’s a combination of disorganization (which is why they’re pulling Ds and Fs to begin with) plus cluelessness. Whether it’s because of drinking and/or drugs, or because they’re first-generation college students, or just fecklessness, or a combination of all 3, they are so far from having their $hit together that they think they might as well throw the Hail Mary pass.

    But, it never works. (Except in cases of miscalculation, or a misrecorded grade, of course.)


  3. If this is open-source code above, I think I’ll just drag-and-drop the language into my next (three) syllabi. It takes the concept of “lissen-up” to entirely new levels. The other thing is, maybe the A and B students are just interested, either in the subject itself, or in the idea of actually learning something, or at least enough of a kernel of something to see the work as being about more than “how many pages” how many sources, can I use MLA citations or (do we HAVE to do) footnotes, etc? I don’t have to hit the “send” button on grades until midnight Tuesday, but I expect to field some of these well before the big ball drops down the pole in Times Sq.


  4. If only I could send this to a good number of students. They deserve to hear it. My favorite was a student who asked me to change his grade to a B+. Not because he deserved it but because without the B+ he wouldn’t stay in the honors program. The fact that he had around an 83% and did not deserve anywhere near a B+ seemed to completely pass him by.


  5. Ah, yes, the moment when they get religion. It usually begins the week before finals with, “is there any extra credit I could do.” You know, to make up for not having done but 50% of the course work so far. They last until I turn in grades.

    I haven’t had too many after the grades have been submitted. Those usually look like this: “how could i have F in ur class!!??!!” Sometimes it is in all caps. Like everyone else, I could adapt this (with proper citation, of course!) for my syllabus under “Extra Credit? No.”


  6. Oh yeah. It’s that time of year.

    I was just having thought along these lines. It always comes to this: students who read and understand my policies on extra credit are the students who don’t really need the extra credit, for example. And I’ll be back-and-forthing with students whose grades are poor and who didn’t really understand the policies, way past the point of diminishing returns.

    (I give nominal extra credit for some out-of-class activities that I think likely to promote better learning skills, but they have to pass minimal participation requirements in order to get the points. And yet, there are always some who want the extra credit without meeting the requirements, and what they don’t seem to get is that it wouldn’t help them anyway.)


  7. I use a standard spiel that tends to work quite well. Exercises: if you submit one, you get all the point alloted. Rationale: it’s an exercise, a drill. If don’t submit: you didn’t submit. Exams: you ask for a regrade, sure why not, I make mistakes. If you ask for another exam or what can I do … the spiel: “The exam is a contract between me and the class, you get what you deserve. We cannot repeat it because we will violate the contract with the rest of the students.”

    This system works for a long time. I didn’t work when in the 70s and beginning 80s we had Iranian students; they’re the world’s best negotiators. I had to work hard to keep the dam intact.


  8. Thank you Historiann! I received five such emails last week! After the third one I posted a similar message on the D2L pages of my western civ classes.

    To be fair, I think a lot of these emails tend to come from freshmen and sophomores. They are operating under two delusions: first they do not know how to be college students (hence problems with reading, organization) & they are not history majors (so they have a hard time grasping that history is a _discipline_ and more than just random factoids spewed out of the maw of the history channel). In general, I have few problems with the junior and senior history in my upper division classes.


  9. Matt–same with me. Although I think the class size differential is also a big factor–90 to 123 students in the survey classes versus 40 max in upper-div. majors’ classes.

    I accept that a lot of what we must do in the survey classes is teach them how to “do” college, so I spend a lot of time repeating myself, repeating myself, reminding them of things I’ve said before, and repeating myself. It’s like being the parent of a roomfull of toddlers. But clearly, nothing–not even failing grades on essays and midterms–wakes them up until they get their final grades!

    I realize too that some of this is developmental; people in their late teens and early 20s are still a little unclear on the concept of cause and effect. (This is exacerbated by drinking and drug use.)

    I swear, I feel like Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High: “What are you people–ON DOPE???”

    I guess I’m relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who gets these e-mails. (Although now I feel sorry for the rest of you, too.)


  10. I’m in the very beginning of my teaching career, and have only had one instance (so far) of a student asking for a final grade change; I think that your theory of ‘some students don’t understand how it works, for one reason or another’ applies to that student. I’ve had more students try to wiggle out of the syllabus-sanctioned punishment for plagiarism; those were pretty clear examples of entitlement. So I’ve got to throw my support to Information Wrangler – there are a lot of students out there who seem to expect special treatment.


  11. None of this–literally none of it–is imaginable without e-mail. In my day (sorry), to even quibble about a legitimate, structural, grading issue, you’d have to change your trajectory for the day/hour, maybe upgrade the dress-code a tenth of a notch, hike across campus, find the prof in-office, and make your pitch in person. It rarely enough happened (and never with me) that my first year as a T.A. at a much more entitled doctoral/elite-undergraduate institution, I sat in open-mouthed astonishment as the T.A. in the next cubie
    (several years ahead of me and in a different field) waited out a tirade from an angry student about an exam grade. Ze agreed to make a tweak on the grade and the kid stomped off. I said J——n, why did you do that?!? Well, ze replied, I was an undergraduate here, and I used to do the same thing occasionally…

    Encouraging story in the NYT today about kids, esp. it seems girls, “de-friending” FaceBook or at least down-timing their total time expenditure budgets there. Maybe things are re-equibrilating on the electronic frontier.


  12. That’s why for me, submitting grades inspires joy and loathing. Joy that the semester is done, loathing to open my email and find students asking how it was possible they received such a low grade.

    Um, because your final exam shows that you didn’t take notes, or even stay awake, or listen to my warnings over the past several weeks. That you essentially didn’t believe me when I told you that to whom much is given, much is expected. That you misunderstood my friendliness for a willingness to pass everyone, no matter the craptacular essays you submitted. Too late, bubs.


  13. It’s always the students who ask to do “extra credit” that seem really clueless. I often think, “But you didn’t do the regular credit yet — When are going to have time to do the ‘extra’ bit?”


  14. If I understand the Peabody, Sherman and Wayback reference, any students lucky enough to get a trip on the Wayback would find out that everything they learned in their History classes would have been wrong anyway? And then they could say that the answers they put on their exams really were correct with a good deal more persuasiveness. At least as long as they answered “Sherman and Peabody” to everything, or if the answer to all their History exam questions came out like the punch lines to a series of shaggy dog stories (note the irony: Mr Peabody is, in fact, not a shaggy dog).


  15. I always tell them with a wink that my bribe is $1,000,000. When they explain that they don’t have it I then say “guess you’ll have to keep the grade you earned then”.
    Have fun with those!


  16. I wonder if Indyanna might have hit on something: has anyone tried responding to these e-mails with an invitation to discuss grades in office hours? Of course, this would have to wait until the semester was in session again, but perhaps the prospect of having to actually come in and face the professor *at the professor’s convenience* might not only get rid of most of the frivolous complaints, but also be a lesson in protocol.

    Hells, now that I think of it, I might stop answering e-mail altogether…


  17. Hmmm. I think I should re-think my extra credit and say that people can’t do it unless they complete every assignment.

    I do this. I don’t have a formal offer on the table but when public lectures come up that fit with a lower division class, I encourage students to attend and write a few paragraphs about the presentation. Sometimes they come back and tell the class about it (I love this). I make it clear that such activities do not substitute for course work but may augment it.


  18. “The fairness–it burns!!!” Hahahahahahahaha…..!

    @Notorius Ph.D.: Yes, I have tried having students come into office hours to discuss questions/concerns/complaints about grades whenever that’s feasible.

    Some students do take me up on it, but I still end up in circular conversations along these lines:
    S: “But I just forgot to turn it in.”
    Me: “I understand that you forgot to turn it in. But it was due a month ago–I can’t accept it now.”
    S: “I did it, I just forgot to turn it in.”
    Me: “I can’t accept work that was due a month ago. I can’t track down each student individually who hasn’t turned something in and say, ‘Please, will you turn this assignment in?'”
    S: “But I’m so close to a B+ — it’s just this one assignment that’s keeping me from a B+.”


  19. First-generation college students? Really? I was one of those, and I never would have even imagined that my professors would change a grade. I was so intimidated by professors that I was pretty certain that they didn’t ever sweat or go to the bathroom or ever make a mistake with a grade.

    Now I’m a professor, and I get the same emails, and in my experience, they’re not from first-generation college students, who, still, are generally timid and uncertain about the culture of the university.


  20. When it comes to after-the-term requests for grade changes, I hide behind a very sensible university policy: there are no grade changes except in cases of instructor error. Specifically, regrades of work are *not* allowed. I’ve had to use this a couple of times–I mean, sometimes you do enter the wrong digits in when you’re uploading grades. (Ours are all electronic submission now.) But otherwise, “There’s nothing I can do. University policy. Sorry.”

    In general, though, I have been surprised to discover how few grade complaints I deal with. At my Ivy undergrad institution, nearly everyone I knew complained of a paper or exam grade at least once. (Usually within the term–they knew that you couldn’t really go back and complain after the term was over and have a grade overturned.) And at the Ivy institution I attended for grad school, fielding grade complaints was a common activity for TAs and professors alike.

    I now encourage students to come to my office hours, but I suspect it is only a half-heartened encouragement, since I *really* don’t want them there. The conversation goes the same way almost every time, as we talk about (this is usually for papers) basing your argument on the primary sources, making sure that you use evidence to support your claims, having a clear thesis, etc. You know–the stuff I talked about over, and over, and over again in class.


  21. I agree with Indyana about the email factor. In my experience the disorganized, terrible students never come to office hours and usually never say anything to you before or after class. (I had a failing student this term who pretended multiple times that he was going to make an appointment and come to office hours. Once he even made an appointment – and then stood me up!) Email empowers them – to ask stupid questions, to waste our time (what time is the final exam? Where’s your office?), and to ask for something they’d never have the guts to ask for to our faces.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a post-final-grade request for “extra credit to do better” but I’ve had plenty during the semester. What wears me down at the end are the inevitable last minute crises and excuses. Sometimes they are legitimate; even when they are, wading through them and sorting it out is *exhausting*, like dealing with students who plagiarize on their final paper. I feel like they’re doing it just to torture me. We’re so close to the end! Why am I still dealing with your problems!


  22. my favorite so far was the student who emailed me halfway through the FALL semester asking if there was anything he could do to improve his grade (D) from the previous SPRING semester.

    I thought, “well, first you need to find yourself an old DeLorean, and befriend an eccentric scientist…”

    But I wrote back, not “hahahahahaha!” but simply telling him it was too late to do anything about that grade, and that I would explain why he got that grade if he came to office hours. I haven’t seen him yet. Maybe he’s still saving up for the DeLorean.


  23. I think Indyanna and Perpetua are onto something in that “[n]one of this–literally none of it–is imaginable without e-mail. I just deleted a few irritating e-mails before popping in to check out the discussion over here, after having been away all afternoon to have lunch with GayProf. Why, after missing all that class and not doing the work, is your problem something I need to spend my time on?

    Tom is reading too much–quite cleverly–into my Sherman and Mr. Peabody reference. All I wanted was a picture of a time machine, and the Wayback Machine was I thought a great one. (But the DeLorean from Back to the Future is perhaps more generationally appropriate for me…)


  24. I should say that when a foundering student *does* come to office hours, early in the semester, and not to complain, game, or ask for special dispensation, but usually just after a bad performance and to seek advice on how to do better, I always make a coded note of that in my gradebook. And that does not infrequently end up being the proverbial seventeenth tie-breaker at semester’s end between a truly ugh grade and a just pretty bad one. Because any evidence of giving a damn about the result is a distinguishing mark, in context.

    On the other hand, when your discipline’s “bread and butter” service offering at the institution is a chop shop–there to run the load-bearing numbers up under your higher value enterprises–it seems like a class-action over curricular misconduct waiting to happen. Sometimes you almost want to hold an “earn one, get one free” special at grading time. Will academics have to know how to spell “product recall” one of these days?


  25. This post and the comments it has generated have cheered me greatly! I’ve also had to deal with these silly emails, and I’ll add my voice to those who believe that such things would not be possible without the proliferation of email. I was an arrogant, overly confident college student, at least in freshman and sophomore years, and it NEVER would have crossed my mind to argue with a professor about my final grade. I simply wouldn’t have done it. I know this because I argued constantly in high school, because my friends and I held the notion (rarely warranted, but usually not) that we were genuinely smarter than our instructors, and should have gotten As just for surviving their insipid lessons. And even with that kind of attitude, it never occurred to me to shoot off an email demanding an upgrade. Even if I had wanted to take issue with a grade, I’d have done as Indyanna suggests, and put on a clean shirt and gone to office hours to plead my case. But in my heart, even when I smoldered over a grade (one particular course still comes to mind), I had to admit after some reflection that it was the grade I had earned.


  26. My problem really is with the A- students wanting an A. One was so persistent – replying to me in at least 3 separate emails explaining hir effort in the class and how s/he believed s/he had put in an “A effort”. At which point I responded that the grade was not formulated on the basis of students perceived effort in the class. When a sophomore tells me (as A LOT have done this semester) that they KNOW this was not a C (whatever, paper, exam, effort) I want to strangle them. One student pushed me so far this semster that I said “because I’m the one with the PhD.” Such a lame answer but I couldn’t help it I was at the end of my rope, it was like trying to explain to a toddler – because I said so!


  27. Liz2–3 e-mails back and forth? That’s two e-mails too many, IMHO. They wrote you, you said no, end of conversation.

    It’s strange how critically important it is to communicate with us, and for us to have meetings with them, once they get the news of their screw-ups. But, all of those classes we taught, all of those office hours we held all semester long–where were they then? Sorry. I showed up where and when I was supposed to. How does answering your e-mail or meeting with you now do anything for me?


  28. I just received “You must telephone me immediately at [number] to tell me why I flunked your course” email. The answer: unexcused absences for 60% of class meetings, first paper did not follow guidelines, second paper did not follow guidelines and was plagiarized, third paper did not follow guidelines. And every student was allowed to revise and resubmit their papers as many times as they wished throughout the semester. But this student didn’t revise the first paper, never retrieved the second paper, and likely borrowed a copy of the last assignment from a classmate.

    My brush with greatness caused by a student’s objection to a grade? While a grader in an introductory course, I evaluated a student’s paper and assigned it a “B.” Said student argued with me for two different office hours that the grade should be higher. I honestly cannot recall if I gave him the higher grade, but I get to see him a lot: he served in the U.S. Congress, and is now a talking head in the parade of punditry on cable television. I tell myself he could have won another term had he assiduously applied himself in writing better papers way back when.

    And I was a first-generation college student who was amazed that anyone would argue with professors about their grades.


  29. Above and beyond the “entitlement” question, the science arc of this thread seems to lead straight back to the currently vexed subject of “assessment.” Assessment, the theoreticians, accreditors, and other denizens of what a former student of mine calls the “wing-tip wing” of the academy claim, is “objective,” whereas grades are clearly just whatever the grader says they are.

    Here’s what we are mandated to choose among when doing assessments: “Target,” “Acceptable,” “Unacceptable.” Objective, my a–. You can’t tell the suits that you don’t *have* targets, either. The accreditors might land that very night and revoke something important. The school’s accreditation, I suppose. The accreditors are like modern Vikings. Who accredits the Vikings?


  30. I give my students opportunities for extra credit (which require being present in class). If they show up, pay attention, make a few notes, think about it a bit, x 2, they can get up to another 5%. I had one student complain that was a lot of work. I told them extra credit wasn’t free credit. The few that did it, didn’t read the assignment. My favorite is when they ask if there is more extra credit they can do. Um, no? One joy of D2L is that their grades are posted all semester. Final grades really shouldn’t come as a shocker. I expect ~3 grade change requests this time around. I think it’s a combination of laziness, entitlement, and Hail Mary. I also think we all do them a favor by modeling the consequences-actions (or lack of) relationship.


  31. For a number of years I taught as an adjunct Welfare and Social Policy at a couple of area law schools. At one of the law schools the class was primarily students who were interested in the subject and it was a joy to teach there, though I finally gave it up as it was too much work on top of my full-time position.

    It was only at the other school that I came across the type of entitlement you speak about. One student who I (very generously) gave an B+ wrote to me saying that he expected an A in the course. I assumed it was joke until he followed up by calling me at work to complain I did not respond to his request for a grade change. He said because the course was about poor people he didn’t think it should be graded as hard and he took the course because he assumed he would get an A. I told him I was not changing his grade and I assumed that was the end of that.

    Several months later he wrote to me that his summer job at a large firm fell through and that he would like to work at my firm (a legal services agency)for the summer at least until “something more important” came through.


  32. Heh. At Baa Ram U., I really don’t see the entitlement that Brian and History Maven write of. (History Maven–I think I may know that student of whom you write, if as I recall you went to Ben Franklin U. too. . .) Love Brian’s story about the law student. Some people just can’t get out of their own way, can they? The sad thing is that he was clearly rewarded by someone or some institution for his behavior along the way.

    I just don’t think I need to spend my break time explaining their messes to them. I hope the torrent of e-mails slows for all of you.


  33. Ah, yes. Thank you. I just finished writing my own little rant/big sigh on a related topic. Oh, would that one would only have to write that letter a single time…


  34. I don’t think it’s as much entitlement as it is a culture of haggling. Students–and everyone else, for that matter–are being taught that haggling is not only appropriate for all situations but that only chumps don’t try to haggle and get a better deal. Haggling–it’s not just for buying cars any more.


  35. Roll it in, drag it in, push it in, just get it here… and I’ll send you off the lot in a brand new super-stock Dean’s List. Nobody beats our price. 🙂


  36. I remember a student earlier in the semester who came to talk to me about his situation (ie he was failing because of frequent absences and failure to turn in assignments). He seemed to think that grading was a kind of arbitrary negotiation and I could magically make him pass if I wanted to. Finally, I said bluntly and not very nicely, “It doesn’t have anything to do with what I want or don’t want. If you don’t do the assignments, you will fail.” He looked so shocked!

    I think there’s a mixture of things going on here – entitlement for sure, the increase ease of secondary education (everybody comes to college thinking they’re smarter than they are), grade inflation, and a complete devaluation of education in general. They don’t think of education as a process of learning to think and write critically. They view it as an annoying hoop to jump through, a formula they have to learn, and they see it as OUR responsibility to make sure they do well (that’s “our job” in this customer service world). I definitely had significantly more grade complainers at my elite private u as a TA than at my large state schools where I’ve taught. (Basically, I agree anecdotally with the posters who have commented that first generation students tend to be more respectful – sometimes charmingly in awe – of faculty and education generally, since it tends to be prized in their families, not taken for granted.)


  37. I’m curious as to what your students have to offer for a better grade as well. A friend of mine has a nifty ITouch that I’ve been thinking I would like. Maybe try to score yourself some new gizmo in exchange for a higher grade? (I know this is unethical and so forth but it’s fun to fantasize about. Decorate your house with nice gadgets and your students go home with high marks.)


  38. when you get these emails at my uni they tend to be the warning shot before a long protracted war involving increasingly “hire ups.” I once had a student fail for turning in a mid-term on a subject completely unrelated to our class and a final on a text book for one of her other classes and then write me the obligatory email. 2 yrs later, she was still going off to meetings with dean’s and presidents trying to get an A+ for herself and her boyfriend, who also failed the class b/c he was too busy flirting with her to do the *in class* writing assignments. Trust me when I tell you, they were actually pretty mild compared to some (one of my colleagues even had to contend w/ a student who was contesting her grade from 3 states over from her new grad program …)


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.