One of the more shocking things that I have encountered since becoming a professor is the sense of entitlement that some students bring with them to the classroom. They assume that because they (1) paid tuition, (2) showed up for class, and (3) submitted the assignments that they therefore deserve an “A” in the course. I confess that I have been forced to disabuse a few from this type of thinking.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see my role as torturer in chief who only finds satisfaction by ruining the GPA of students. I am also not one of those professors who doesn't give out A’s. I do, when they have been earned. I admit that I set a high bar in the class and I set it high intentionally. I suspect that if the bar is too close to grasp then the student won’t try. Set it high enough and the students who exert themselves not only will reach the bar, but will have a better grasp of the information that I am trying to deliver. In reality, I want my students to do well and succeed. But I also want them to learn at the same time. I spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that my lectures are well prepared. I expect/hope that my students will also put in the effort necessary to learn.
In a recent Forbes Magazine article, Art Carden who teaches economics at Rhodes College wrote a letter to his students. I think he gets it just right, and echoes my own sentiments. Here are three of the points he makes in a letter to his students.
First, I do not “take off” points. You earn them. The difference is not merely rhetorical, nor is it trivial. In other words, you start with zero points and earn your way to a grade. You earn a grade in (say) Econ 100 for demonstrating that you have gained a degree of competence in economics ranging from being able to articulate the basic principles (enough to earn a C) to mastery and the ability to apply these principles to day-to-day affairs (which will earn an A). I’ve hurt my own grades before by confusing my own incompetence with competence and my own (bare) competence with mastery, so trust me: I’ve been there, and I understand.
Second, this means that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that you have mastered the material. It is not on me to demonstrate that you have not. My assumption at the beginning of each class is that you know somewhere between nothing and very little about basic economics unless you were lucky enough to have an exceptional high school economics course. Otherwise, why are you here? You might say that the course is a prerequisite for other things you want to do, but if that it is the case and you know the material, you’re more than welcome to simply show up for the exams, ace them, and be on your way.
Finally, I’m here to be a mentor and instructor. This means that our relationship differs from the relationships that you have with your friends and family. Please don’t infer from this that I don’t care about you, because I do. A lot. I want to see you make good choices. I want to see you understand basic economics because I hope it will rock your world as it continues to rock mine and because the human consequences of lousy economic policy are enormous. That said, you should never take grades personally. I don’t think you’re stupid because you tank an exam, an assignment, or even an entire course. is hard. A D or an F on an economics exam does not diminish your value in God’s eyes (or in mine) or indicate that economics just isn’t for you. It probably means you need to work smarter, and I’m here to help you with that.
So to the students of the world who think that your self-worth is wrapped up in your grades or that your professors are simply out to get you, take heart that some of us are in it for you. And just because you don’t get an A does not mean we don’t like you. I want to help you succeed. But you need to do your part. And if you don't get an A it doesn't mean you are a bad person. It just means that you didn't earn one.