He needed an A; she needed to be fair

I can't remember his name, or quite recall his sport. Though I managed to block the specifics from my mind, I do remember, vividly, the awkwardness of that after-class conversation.

I'd just handed back the first papers of the year. Freshman English atGeorge Washington University is often a wake-up call to the many bright young people who'd breezed through high school English with a night-before attack on the computer to bang out a paper.

I wanted these 18-year-olds to understand that college is different. It requires more work, deeper thinking, a higher level of commitment. So I gave out very few A's in the first batch. This always got their attention. An A, I told them, was achieved by hard work, not a checkmark to acknowledge work completed.

Sam (or Joe or Jason) had an athletic scholarship - wrestling, I believe.He also had turned in a slapdash paper full of typos and superficial thoughts: a B-minus product at best.

At first, he thanked me for my comments. How could he do better? We talked for a few minutes. Then he dropped his bombshell: "I'm taking a really heavy load this semester." Science, math, economics, a language. In short, he needed an A in English or he'd lose his scholarship and be forced to drop out. He figured English was his best bet for a not-too-difficult A. He paused, smiling.

Annoyed and embarrassed for him, I recited my stock answer: Anyone is capable of doing very well in my class as long as he reads the book, writes many drafts, and gets extra help when needed.

He persisted, sighing, "I just would hate to have to leave school after all my hard work."

"I'm going to try to forget this conversation," I said, softening the remark with a smile and adding, "I'm sure you'll do just great."

After a conversation like that, I couldn't help feeling that maybe I should've just slapped the A on his entire semester and hoped my good-faith gesture would be rewarded because I gave a promising youngster a little boost. But I couldn't help asking myself: The next time he's feeling pressure, will he look for another handout?

During the Vietnam War, professors knew that a failing grade could mean the draft for students. Today, grade inflation is obviously not such a life-and-death matter, yet many students treat it like one. Teachers increasingly feel that pressure. Rather than wanting to learn to become good writers, many students say, "Just tell me what I need to do to get an A."

Some of my colleagues give out nothing but A's. They rationalize that the system is flawed, so grades really mean nothing. Others let students develop the criteria and grade themselves based on those standards. That option doesn't work for me, and not just because I suspect it stems more from laziness than pedagogical creativity. The truth is that I know things about writing and I have a responsibility to pass that on. I also have a responsibility to tell students whether they've done an effective job.

Did my student-athlete end up with an A in my class? Yes. He worked harder than I expected, brought me early drafts of his papers to review, and pulled his writing up to an A, fair and square.

Was I influenced, slightly, by the realization that an A mattered more to that student than to students whose families didn't need scholarships to send them to college? Probably. I'm human. I grow very attached to my students and want them to succeed.

But did he actually earn that A? I believe so, because while I try enormously hard to grade each student fairly, I do make one concession to the students who pressure me. For them, I scribble long paragraphs of explanation justifying the imperfect grade; I need to argue the case for a B or C. That's what I did with Sam.

A C- paper is still a C- paper, but those worrisome students do get more red ink - and indirectly more help - for their persistence.

It's a solution that lets me sleep at night.

Debra Bruno is assistant editor at Moment, a magazine of Jewish politics, culture, and religion.

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