Should a Grading Policy Be Absolute? No,No,No

December 11, 2013, 10:03 am


In the old days at Zenith, I had this sign hanging in my office, given to me as a Christmas present by a student.

OK, so there are some of your students who weren’t listening to Amy Winehouse this semester: too much shot glass, too little in class. Now is the time of year that the chickens come home to roost, don’t they? Their failures are our failures.

And it makes us so mad that we sometimes respond badly. I was privy to an interesting conversation yesterday about having policies that govern late papers, make up exams and whatnot.

The arguments about whether to enforce late paper policies strictly ranged from:

  • Do it: I’ve heard every excuse before; to
  • Don’t be an a$$hat. Give the kid a make up the exam.

I want to emphasize: there truly was a healthy range of views expressed on this issue, and the discussion went on for some time. It reminded me that at this time of year the interests of professors and students split to an unusual degree. Any collaborative sensibility we have built up during the semester erodes rapidly in the final few weeks as the vise tightens on everyone. Professors want to finish their grading and get to those precious few weeks before the spring term starts; students want to get home, but many of them are engaged in frantically making up work that they didn’t keep up with during the semester. Even if the make up work isn’t in your class, it can affect the work in your class; you, the professor, couldn’t give less of a damn about anyone’s class but your own.

In my view, everyone needs a grading policy, and it is a favor to students to have one. Where I work, grading policies are mandatory: telling the students how they will be evaluated, as precisely as possible, is one of the things we must have on the syllabus. In addition, there are institutional policies that must be adhered to and advertised. While you can easily evade these latter policies by cutting private deals with students, I would warn against it: in the event of a grade challenge, it puts you in a lousy position if you let some things go, and then decide to put the hammer down in some way that doesn’t seem to jibe with rules that have been clearly stated. The other reason to have policies is that if you don’t, final work for your class will fall victim to the other professors who do have rigid policies. Forget fairness for a second (although you shouldn’t, as students will find out and resent inconsistency): if you don’t dock grade fractions, all your papers will be late. If you don’t insist there will be no incompletes, you will have half a class of incompletes. If you don’t insist there will be no makeup exams under any circumstances whatsoever you will have multiple absences, announced and unannounced, from your final. In all of these circumstances, you have doomed yourself to weeks of grading as mediocre papers dribble in.

But when you have policies, ones that tame the grading beast to whatever degree is humanly possible, there is no one stopping you from making exceptions to your policies. So with that, here are some excuses you should always accept, and excuses that should never be given in the first place.

Excuses a professor should always accept:

  • I am sick. Who cares whether they are sick or not? But they probably are. They haven’t been sleeping or eating properly, and they are living cheek by jowl with a lot of other germy students. And just to let all of you know: right now there is a horrible gut thing and a flu-ish cold that lasts for about three weeks going around.
  • I am overcome with anxiety. Anxiety is a mental disorder that seems to be quite widespread. It has physical as well as emotional symptoms, and can make you vomit and/or feel as though you are hallucinating. More and more students seem to have chronic anxiety nowadays; it is probably related to high-stakes testing and the inane, inflexible policies they had to deal with in high school. It may also be due to too much off-prescription Ritalin, a campus scourge if there ever was one. My advice? Whether it is organic or drug-induced, don’t risk tipping a student over the edge.
  • I have a learning disability I haven’t told you about before now. A great many students who have a diagnosis want to do college, so to speak, “on their own.” Usually the collapse comes before finals, but not always, and although said student is clearly not following the rules by not presenting official paperwork to the Disability Office before now, by not being punitive you can turn this into a “come to Jesus” moment. Shaming a learning disabled student is exactly the worst response, even though this means more work for you. Suck it up. It’s the right thing to do.
  • My computer crashed/I lost the document. There is a fifty-fifty chance of this being true, in my book, but I always believe it anyway. I have lost enough documents in my time to time pressure and sloppy back up habits that I feel it is bad karma not to believe others. It is also worth mentioning that university computers are about as diseased as they will ever get during exams. Crazed students (faculty) leave multiple windows open as they work, an inducement to crashing if there ever was one.
  • My grandmother is dead. Sometimes further investigation will show that grandmother is not dead, and if you are that kind of person with that kind of time on your hands, go for it: send a sympathy card to the kid’s parents and see what happens. You will either get a lovely note back for your thoughtfulness, or the student will be spending next semester in some special circle of Hell that is parent-owned and operated.

Excuses students should never give:

  • My grandmother is dead (if she is not.) This goes for other family members too. Faking other people’s deaths to cover up your own flaws is lower than low.
  • My printer is broken. I used to tell students at the beginning of class that this was an excuse I would never accept, under any circumstances, since having access to a working printer was as fundamental as having a working car to get to your job — and a whole lot cheaper. Now I only accept papers electronically, which eliminates this as a point of contention.
  • My father/mother/parents’ travel agent already bought me a plane ticket, not knowing I had your exam/paper due on that exact day. Whose fault is this really? Discipline your parents. Extra points off if the family is gathering in Aruba or Vail for Christmas this year. There is nothing that pi$$es faculty off more than you, with an incomplete, taking a vacation they can’t afford.
  • I have another paper/exam in a class that is (choose one) a) more important to me; b) in my major c) more important for my medical school application. It may seem like an explanation to you, but really, it would be much better to be found in the Student Union using my picture as a dartboard than to offer this excuse. Your choice, though!

Readers? What are your your always accepts/never offer lists? And for your grading pleasure, I offer you the dear, departed Miss Winehouse, who also didn’t get a lot in class (but she never really learned that it don’t come in a shot glass.)

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