Just One Complaint While I am Doing End-of-Semester Grading

So I’m sitting in my office earlier today, waiting for students to hand in their final assignments, which for some include assignments on which I gave them extensions. One student, who has done barely a stitch of work all semester, rushes in with headphones on and music blasting loud enough that I can hear it. He puts his bag down and pulls out a manila pocket folder stuffed with paper. He has, he says, made up or rewritten all the work he missed or failed over the course of the semester. I’m not in the mood to argue with him about the fact that he has never once come to ask me for an extension of any kind, so I take the folder, wish him a good holiday, and put it in my bag to look at later.

Well, it’s now later, and I just finished going through his work. Aside from the fact that most of it is so late that it wouldn’t count anyway—since, as I said, he never once came to ask about an extension—and aside from the fact that (because he never bothered to pay attention) he ended up doing assignments I changed or eliminated over the course of the semester, he managed to do every single assignment incorrectly, including plagiarizing significant portions of the first page of his final paper. He even failed almost every single one of the online, untimed, open-book self-quizzes I assigned for each of the chapters that we read. And he did self-quizzes for at least three chapters I didn’t assign, and he failed those too.

Except that I am really annoyed because I had to go through everything he handed in—since he has so clearly failed the course, I wanted to make sure everything is properly documented—I have to say that there is something almost admirable about his consistency, in a very ironic and sad sort of way.

ETA: Okay, a second complaint. I thought, perhaps, I needed to step away from the stack of papers I was grading because I was starting to have to read some sentences two and three times before they made sense. So I did walk away, but when I came back, the first sentence of the paper in front of me still read: “Since back from the beginning of time, mankind has always had different parts of their lives.”

One more ETA: Now that I am done with the grading, I feel obliged to say that this student’s paper did get better–and, in places, much better–than this first sentence would seem to indicate. That does not change, however, the effect that first sentence had on me when I read it, walked away, and then read it again.

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16 Responses to Just One Complaint While I am Doing End-of-Semester Grading

  1. 1
    Myca says:

    To be fair, Richard, you must admit that there was no time when mankind only had the same parts of their lives.


  2. 2
    Grace Annam says:

    I really admire the work you do with gradeschoolers, Richard.


  3. Myca,

    Yup! And the scary thing is that you could fine, throughout this person’s paper, sentences and strings of sentences that one could turn into similarly, middle-of-the-night-when-you’re-high-college-dorm-room philosophical conundrums and/or found poems that would be really, really interesting.


    Thanks. Your reference to my “gradeschoolers” (if only) reminds me of when my son was actually in grade school and I sometimes had to bring him to class with me. He would sit an listen really attentively—though you wouldn’t have known it from the way he was doodling or playing with his Nintendo—and, when the class was over, say something like, “They really didn’t know [insert whatever obvious point of language some significant portion of my students had real trouble with]? I’m in [insert whichever grade he happened to be in at the time], and even I know you’re supposed to [or not supposed to] do that!”

  4. 4
    Jake Squid says:

    That seems to be about the level of writing I find in the business world. Your failing student will blend in perfectly.

  5. Jake,

    I had for a while in the 1990s and early 2000s a business doing freelance corporate communications (mostly business-to-business), and I learned then just how right you are. It’s one reason I am such a hard ass in my technical writing classes.

    And since I am now in the middle of the second set of technical writing final papers, and my frustration is only growing, I have to share a couple more:

    The first sentence of a proposal about improvements to something called the kegerator, which I did not know existed until my students decided to do this project. The improvement the students are proposing is that the kegerator should be mounted on conveyor belts so it can follow you around. Still, their first sentence made me want not to read the rest: “Throughout history when someone wanted a drink, they would have to go and get it.”

    And this one from a proposal on improving the battery life of cell phones: “A big scare in regular cell phones are batteries within the phones because charge them for so long and sometimes even over charge them.”

    The thing that I find most frustrating about this second set of final papers is how many I could fail without even having to read them because they did not include a single citation to show where the student got her or his information from. I had made it very clear on the assignment sheet and in class discussion that students would have to do research to complete the assignment and that papers without citations would be considered plagiarized and receive Fs. I also made clear that I would not be teaching documentation and citation, since this is something they learned in a previous English class, but that I would be happy to meet with students outside of class if they needed a refresher, etc. Did anyone take me up on that? Of course not!

    Okay, enough venting. Back to the papers.

  6. 6
    Grace Annam says:


    reminds me of when my son was actually in grade school and I sometimes had to bring him to class with me.

    I’ve had similar experiences with my children. I once asked my son, then in the eighth grade, to call the local building supply, to get a price on the biggest size of chain they sold. My attention was elsewhere during the call until my brain flagged the following sentence as noteworthy and called my attention to it: “No, that’s smaller. Think of it as 3 divided by 8, and 3 divided by 16.”

    Yep. My eighth grader, on the phone, was explaining an adult’s job to him, while said adult was looking at the chains.


  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    Hey Richard!

    This post is too funny, and I empathize.

    But, just bringing this up — as someone who has dabbled in editing, I’d be very careful about putting up exact quotes, even super brief ones. Just in case of the rare scenario where the student or writer does happen to find it. Especially because this is tied to your name, the student could theoretically find it by googling. Your choice, of course, I’m just paranoid about that.

  8. 8
    Ruchama says:

    I’m dealing now with all the students whose averages were just slightly below the cutoff for a particular grade emailing me to ask if they can get the higher grade. Many of them seem to have a different definition of “just slightly below” than I do. Like, they have an 88.5, and want to round that up to 89, and then round the 89 up to 90. (This is also a somewhat different definition of “rounding” than I’d expect from students in a calculus class.) I do look very carefully at the students who are just a point or two below passing, and I sometimes do bump those grades up a little, if I can see that they had above-passing scores on nearly everything, and then one low score that brought the average just below a 70, especially if that one low score was near the beginning of the semester, because it’s not really fair to make them retake the whole class if they were struggling at the beginning but then doing fine at the end, when the material all builds on previous material, but I am not going to change a B+ to an A- with no good reason other than “it will look good on my medical school applications.”

  9. Ruchama,

    I just posted my grades, so I imagine I will be dealing with that over the next couple of days. It’s never any fun, especially since I have usually thought through whose grade I can bump up by how much before I ever post them.

    I hope your end of semester was and is as smooth as possible.

  10. 10
    Lee1 says:

    I’ve learned the hard way over my first couple years as a college prof: thank God for a well-written syllabus! At least at my school (and I imagine this is the case more generally), it’s so helpful to have very explicit terms in the syllabus about late homework, missed exams, etc. – that may seem painfully obvious to some, but I hadn’t fully appreciated it when I started. You still have some option to be more generous based on specific student conditions, but you can also ward off crap like unexpected extension requests from undeserving students much more easily. I’ve had to deal with that a lot this semester – much more than in the past few.

  11. 11
    Lee1 says:

    I now write in my syllabus (and tell my class at the start of the semester) that I’ll assign letter grades based on clusters in addition to standard percentages; so for example if I have a cluster of students around 89-91 and a gap below them they’ll all probably get an A-. I feel like that makes things a fair bit easier for me in terms of complaints about final grades. But I also feel like I have a million things to learn about how to best handle this….

    Happy end-of-semester to Richard and Ruchama and anyone else who’s finishing up finals and ready for the break!

  12. 12
    Ruchama says:

    At my university, the grading scale and exams and everything are set by the department, and we’re allowed to deviate from it for a few students if we’ve got good reason, but we’re pretty much told that, if we do give a grade other than the one dictated by the student’s average, then we better be prepared to defend it if necessary. (I usually adjust grades for about five or so students per semester, and I haven’t been questioned yet, but apparently there are some instructors who have been questioned, when they had a whole lot of grades outside the set standards.)

  13. 13
    Harlequin says:

    Ruchama, that’s really interesting (and seems kind of appallingly bureaucratic from my perspective–though it may work well for you of course!). And it’s also a difficulty for the professors, I should think: if you want all your A students to get above a 90, you better not accidentally make one test that’s harder than you think…

  14. 14
    Ruchama says:

    It’s appallingly bureaucratic from my perspective, too. As for the tests, the midterms and final exam are the same for all sections of this class in the whole department, and those all together are worth about 80% of the final grade. We have to submit separately the average grade for each student for the homework and quizzes and whatever else we assign individually that make up the other ~20%, and for each instructor, the average of all our students’ averages for that in-class stuff has to be between 75 and 85%.

  15. I always struggle with the fact that I can’t give minus grades as a final grade. It forces me to decide whether a student who really should get a C-, who really doesn’t deserve a full on C, should be bumped up or down, and since Ds don’t transfer, and I am at a community college, that can be a serious issue. Though I feel conflicted as well for students who get a B- and don’t really deserve a full on B. Somehow I am less conflicted about giving an A to students who get an A-.

  16. 16
    Em says:

    This makes me upset, because I flunked out of Uni because I was capable of work that was better than the student the OP wrote about, but not as good as the essays I’d read in my classes. It would never have occurred to me to half-ass it and just go on my way as though I were entitled to waste everyone’s time, and yet I have postgrad friends who TA and the stuff they see is atrocious – and if I’d understood what the standards were overall, I might have stuck it out. I might have kept learning, and improved. Instead I let myself be intimidated, I failed my first year, and I never went back. Now that I am working two jobs, supporting a disabled spouse, and having a baby, I probably never will. And meanwhile, people who are slightly better than Headphones McGee will plod on and get diplomas. Why didn’t anyone tell me.