An E For Effort Isn’t Excellence

Will your kids return to college in the fall? They’ve got plans to protect them, you know, from COVID-19. There isn’t a chance in hell it’s going to work, as everyone who isn’t suffering from delusion or selling a delusion realizes. It’s not that they aren’t interested, although many aren’t all that interested, but kids are remarkably good at doing stupid things and coming up with excuses for them. And they’re invincible, every one of them, right up until they feel the pain.

In any ordinary semester, some students fall apart. They overextend themselves with extracurricular activities, fall into depressions, drink to excess, weather their parents’ divorces or their own wrenching breakups. Their performance in class suffers as a result, and we often find ourselves listening to their tales of woe. We can’t hug them, as my colleague Jessica McCaughey observes, so we make do with listening sympathetically, granting extensions, helping them figure out what they can do to catch up in our class, connecting them with resources such as the university counseling service.

On top of the obvious reality that kids will fail miserably to make wise decisions, there’s the “fall apart” problem. This is a curiosity. It’s almost as if this is some intractable truth of matriculation, that students will go to college and find themselves psychologically crippled. If these things are known to occur (do every kid’s parents rush out to get divorced these days? Have breakups gone from a routine of growing up to “wrenching”?), one might wonder whether the efforts would be better used to address these common problems that are now so mentally traumatic that they’ve reduced the population of college students into sniveling balls of psychosis.

Nope. Wrong answer. Why ordinary life has rendered them incapable of functioning isn’t the question. And you can’t hug them, just as mommy did when they are five, because that could be misinterpreted. There must be more than to just listen to them whine about the nail snagging all their sweaters.

What can we do? We can give them the virtual equivalent of hugs: kind words, the assurance of presence and support, flexibility and creativity in instruction. We can also refrain from grading them.

Grades are stressful. Grades are racist. This isn’t a pedagogy joke.

Since the death of George Floyd and our renewed concern with racial violence, you may be asking yourself how you can begin to make your classroom a more explicitly antiracist space. These unprecedented circumstances can become the occasion to take a more radical step toward fighting racist practices in education. This is a good place to start: don’t grade them.

Oh, and that’s especially true for profs who (ugh) grade papers based on white language.

Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard — which is invariably a white, middle-class standard — is reinforcing racism, he argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.

Remember the “E is for effort” joke? Just change the “E” to an “A” and then you won’t be racist and will save their fragile depressed souls from the trauma of expectations of learning the subject matter and demonstrating some level of mastery.

The foundation of the labor-based grading model is the Grading Contract, which lays out the basic requirements students must complete in order to receive the desired final grade. Inoue establishes a baseline level of work for students to receive a B (while I have followed him in this, I have a colleague who sets the baseline at A-minus). He provides a chart (titled “Breakdown of the Main Components” in the Grading Contract) that specifies exactly how much work students can turn in late, or miss, for each grading category. If students wish to raise their grades above this baseline level, they can complete additional labor, most of which benefits the class as a whole: offering presentations, leading discussions or writing additional responses on classmates’ drafts.

But there is a contract, and it’s formed when a student is offered, and accepts, admission to college. The student is expected to put away his stuffed animals and put on big boy pants, and to perform college level work without hugs from his profs. And the profs are expected to teach the student physics or thermonuclear dynamics or the history of the Mayans. Maybe even read a play by Shakespeare and figure out what he’s trying to say.

Instead, one abdication of responsibility for the maturation process in young people begets the next abdication of responsibility, this time for teaching, for expecting competence, and maybe even mastery, of a subject.

Sure, college can be hard, and when no one ever tells you to grow up, but plenty of well-meaning folks explain your momentary angst as clinical depression and then give you tons of positive support for being psychologically impaired, why develop any grit? Why try to overcome the banal hardships that growing up brings? But most importantly for college, why bother trying to learn when your professor, the person being paid from your tuition, offers you an out, a secondary contract to get a decent enough grade to pay more tuition next year without actually learning anything of use.

You tried hard? Really, really hard? Isn’t that worth anything?

Of course it is. Now couple that with actual competence and you’ve got a chance for a great future. Unless your unduly empathetic professor steals that from you by giving you tummy rubs instead of an education.

33 thoughts on “An E For Effort Isn’t Excellence

  1. Erik H

    This is ridiculous. It’s clearly designed to preference bad students who have more room to improve and therefore can claim they “try harder”: there is much less room for competent folks to make “sufficiently major revisions” (want to bet on how fairly the professor grades those?) etc.

    And the irony is that it will only work If it’s secret, which is to say that this can also be gamed. every time they try a new metric the smart kids tighten their belts, sit down with the rules, and proceed to crush the test.

    So even now I have seen multiple threads online where students in similar classes—the smart ones, who are searching for every advantage they can get—are advised “they Grade on improvement, not quality. make sure your first paper is an absolute dog and improve it through the semester. Do the same for papers where you submit multiple drafts. You’ll get an A easily” the only defense to that is open race or class based grading AA, which I suppose is a real risk with folks like this.

    Sigh. This is how you get associates who tell you how hard they worked on things.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t hate them. I just prefer them fried with a nice Chianti. (I am not a fan of fava beans.)

  2. Scott Spencer

    Don’t forget grades can also be sexist or misogynistic if they are given by a man. The university I work for has a performing arts conservatory with a dance and theatre program. Unproven (as of yet) accusations are that grades and roles were given out based on things other than skills. Whether its true or not who knows yet. But, I suspect its possible that some students can actually be attractive and be exceptional dancers. Who knows.

    Side note, we are seeing more and more students ask for an increase in free psychological support. But they don’t want to pay more tuition. So we eliminate admin staff or housekeeping to pay for it.

    1. SHG Post author

      On your side note, I’ve watched as mental illness has morphed from something that shouldn’t be stigmatized into a badge of honor, to be openly proclaimed and bask in the adoration of the deeply empathetic. How the hell did it become a good thing to be, or claim to be, mentally ill?

      As for your conservatory, it’s obviously ableist to promote those with the ability to dance over those without.

      1. Scott Spencer

        I think there has been sort of a weird case of ??Munchhausen by proxy?? epidemic of sorts.

        Diagnosis of things like autism or Asperger’s have gone up. People draw attention to it, get some recognition, their kids get some needed extra help at school and then the person next door wants the same thing for their kids (extra help) so they find someone willing to make a diagnosis. Then they can also say look how hard my kids/family/I have it. The cycle perpetuates.

        I picked autism as an example, feel free to put any diagnosis in there. It makes no difference.

          1. Guitardave

            Wow. I think Twenge had a crystal ball..

            “This rise [in narcissism] could prove problematic for American society in the near future and may have already had a negative impact…. As the number of narcissists grows, the United States could experience even more social problems as a result.”

            …and I’d bet it’s even worse than she imagined.

            1. SHG Post author

              She was prescient, indeed, although I think she underestimated the danger of a society of narcissistic children.

            2. Nyx

              Twnege observed something that was already happening; the real Nostradamus was Christopher Lasch who rang the bell back in 1979.

            3. SHG Post author

              While Lasch was way ahead of his time, I have some doubts that he was talking about the same thing that Twenge was observing. There are some significant differences between the world of the 1970s and today (social media?) that substantially changed the calculus.

  3. Chris

    They are just completely ignoring the existence of the real world. The workplace has a formal language, they way I write and speak outside of work isn’t the same as inside of work – pretending that context switching isn’t important would be a huge disservice to all of these students.

    My main complaint with all of the college grads I see these days is that they haven’t learned to communicate effectively as it is – now they want to make it worse!

    1. Erik H

      The workplace HAD a formal language, back when things like ‘being a college professor” also implied extreme levels of both intelligence and subject-matter expertise.

      I’m not entirely certain that “workplace language” will exist much longer. Who is going to speak it? And who is going to teach it?

  4. DaveL

    I have to wonder, does Prof. Friedman want her drinking water to be safe, affordable, and continuously available? Or does she just want somebody to work hard at it? Should the trucker barreling down the mountain in the oncoming lane maintain control of his rig, or is it okay if he just leads an additional roundtable discussion at some point? Should grid controllers keep the lights working, or just put in extra shifts? Should all your wheels have the lugnuts tightened to spec, or does it even out if they torque down some of the wheels extra hard?

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I’ve been saying for years that higher education is a scam. Now Sandie Friedman is saying it for me. Education has fallen by the wayside and kids are entering a lifetime of debt in exchange for an increasingly worthless piece of paper.

    1. SHG Post author

      If competence comes at the expense of self-esteem (and, inversely, depression), is it really worth it?

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Proving some minimal amount of competence was the only thing that gave that piece of paper any value. Removing that destroys any remaining vestige of value. As these ideas become well-known, even the illusion of value is lost.

      2. The Real Kurt

        What an odd concept – competence engenders loss of self-esteem, or the onset of depression.

        As Spock might say: “Does not compute”

        I sense that tongue was planted firmly in cheek.

        The Real Kurt

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s not quite what I said, Kurt. Please don’t reinvent my words. You’re not up to the task.

  6. Jardinero1

    There are various commentators in the black community who maintain that this type of norming is the true institutionalized racism and the real oppression. The purpose of such efforts is not to lift up people of color, but keep them down. Tacitly, this kind of norming is a statement that the student of color is incapable of change or improving himself. I once dismissed such arguments as crazy and paranoid. I still believe they are crazy and paranoid. But increasingly, I see them as true.

      1. Jardinero1

        I have heard the same argument applied to BLM. BLM is a tool of oppression, because BLM will not address the fact that much police brutality is preceded by and precipitated by resisting arrest. Failure to address this is a tacit statement that people of color are incapable of not resisting arrest. The logical connections in this argument are more tenuous; but resisting arrest is what we would call, in the insurance industry, the proximate cause of the loss of life. Resisting arrest doesn’t justify the loss of life, but the causal connection cannot be denied.

        1. SHG Post author

          There are direct connections and more existential connections. Take chaos theory far enough and one can usually manufacture an argument like that for anything. In the BLM case, the argument requires the logical fallacy of begging the question about resisting, a particularly vacuous claim in many instances where any lack of docile cooperation is considered resisting. And sometimes, even complete cooperation is called resisting when the cops are in the mood to give someone a quick tune up.

          But more to the point, resisting isn’t tantamount to justification for execution, so even if ordinary folks would (mistakenly?) be not entirely cooperative, it does not give rise to death as a response. So while it may be a factor, it’s not necessarily the proximate cause.

          1. Jardinero1

            I stand corrected. Proximate and causal have distinct meanings and are not interchangeable. Also, the argument presumes lawful arrests. It also fails to consider other types of violence by state actors such asthe type you mention as well as when the police execute a no-knock warrant or even a knock warrant at say, 4:30 in the morning.

    1. Pedantic Grammar Police

      Just because you’re crazy and paranoid doesn’t mean nobody is out to get you.

  7. Edward

    It takes a lot of time to meticulously review a written statement and grade it. To be honest, few teachers at any level of instruction will take the time these days. Students need a strict asshole to make them better writers.

    I was taught bottom line up front and sparsity of words. That is a dying art.

  8. Jeffrey Gamso

    A grading issue from my first career (English prof), if you’ll indulge me:

    It was a long time ago (I’m old), back when a big issue in the academy was called “grade inflation.” The idea was that the curve had moved up so that rather than peaking around the C the average grade had become a B and was climbing. What I discovered, as a TA in graduate school and then an actual faculty member (all teaching mostly freshman was that some number of students would just disappear as the semester wore on. They wouldn’t formally drop the class. They’d just be gone. (Were they deported without notice? taken by pirates? abducted by the KGB and sent to Siberia? teleported to another planet? who knew?) And, of course, they wouldn’t turn in any work or take any tests.

    Of course, I gave those “students” (I use the term advisedly) Fs. The problem – and here’s where grade inflation kicked in – was what to do with the students who showed up and did the work but it sucked.

    Did you give them the same F? It didn’t seem fair. The disappeared ones devalued the F for the students who earned it. But there was no F+, no E. So did you give them a D? But that meant the D students got a C. And up the ladder.

  9. George

    I’ll just say this: the most profound maturation experience in my life was being told by my first university I was not welcome back due to my lack of academic performance. Big hole to dig out of, of course, but an incredibly strengthening experience in the end.

    1. SHG Post author

      That was the opening speech when we arrived on campus. “Look to your right. Look to your left. One of you won’t be here at graduation,” and they meant it. There were consequences if you failed to put in the effort. There were consequences if you did, but didn’t have the goods to cut it. And the diploma meant something.

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