At the end of last semester, I was sitting in my office as a lot of typical hustle-and-bustle took place outside. While sitting there or walking the halls to class, my mailbox, or wherever, I heard snippets of conversations between faculty and students. At various points, I heard different professors say things like, “On this paper, I gave you a B-” or “On the final, if I give you an A, your final grade still will not be higher than a C+.” I did not think much of such comments until I was returning revised essays to my students by email. When I grade revisions, I do not comment on the essays themselves because students have already gotten ample comments from me earlier. Instead, in my email, I give a paragraph summarizing what I see in their revision and end with a sentence that says, “On this essay, you have earned a B+.”
I am not sure where I picked up saying “You earned” as opposed to “I gave you,” but looking back through my email archives, I see that I have been doing it for a while. But I do remember having my own conversations with faculty when I was a student, and they would say, “I gave you a B on this essay, and here’s why.” But they were not giving me a B. They were giving my essay a B. Or, more exactly, I earned a B on that essay. Or even more exactly, my essay earned the B. One caveat that I have heard throughout graduate school and into my career is that you are not your writing. In other words, if you submit an essay to an academic journal, and the editors reject it, you need to remember that they are rejecting the essay, not you. This is something some of us need to remember so that we do not get bogged down into thoughts like “I suck,” “I’m unoriginal and unclear,” or “I’m just plain stupid.” Oh, I still have such thoughts, but I have learned not to let them get too far in my head before reminding myself that it is my work that failed this particular go around. It does not mean I am a failure.
I think this is a point we need to keep in mind with students. They are not their grades, and we do not give them grades. They earn them. Actually, their work earns the grades. And, if we make our grading criteria clear, students should recognize their active role in earning those grades. Many students have spent years trying to making teachers happy, and many teachers and professors treat grading as a process that is about making them happy. We, however, have to shift the emphasis back to the students. They receive an assignment that hopefully has clearly-outlined expectations and grading criteria. They have to do the work to earn the grades.
I am not sure if students recognize their role in producing work that earns the grade it earns when I tell them “You earned this,” and writing this post has made me wonder about making these thoughts more explicit to them. For now, though, I wanted to present these thoughts to fellow faculty and have us think about the subtler messages behind the comments we give them. For me, “you earned” works more effectively than “I gave you.” But how about you? Let us know in the comments!