A rather brief article in the New York Times today addresses something my fellow graduate assistants and I have been learning this year: our students genuinely expect to receive a good grade (by which they mean an A), and are sometimes simply shocked when you assign them anything less. One common refrain we hear is, “But I get As in all my other classes!” Or the if-I-don’t-do-well-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship (or law school/medical school/etc chances) refrain. Or, as I’ve run into already a few times this semester, the pity card- everything from random tough luck to dead cell phone battery to terrible home life. That, and the complaint that the work is too much and the grading scale is too difficult.

What do I do about it? I’m a first year graduate student; I did a stint last school year subbing in high schools, and had the prerequisite half-day seminar our department requires. That, plus the teaching and mentoring I received last semester, is the extent of my teaching experience and training, so I can’t offer myself as any sort of expert on pedagogical techniques.

Instead, here are some things that I try to keep in mind when dealing with students: first, I genuinely want them to learn and do well. I wish I could do more, I wish I had greater control over things, but I don’t- I’m a teaching assistant. My jurisdiction in many ways ends as soon as it begins. But I do largely control the one thing my students care most about: their grade. That a lowly first-year M. A. student with his own heavy load of work outside of teaching responsibilities is the one in charge of determining whether the nearly sixty students under his tutelage pass or fail is itself somewhat disconcerting, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and are considering attending a large research university/have children you want to send to a large research university, well, caveat lector. But anyway, the possibilities open to me for assigning material and teaching style are very limited. I must follow the guidelines laid down by the professor; I cannot go off and do my own thing. This means I must follow the guidelines- this semester, very strict guidelines- for grading. And therein lies the struggle.

When my students complain of the difficulty of the work or protest for a better grade, part of me thinks: I never did this when I was an undergraduate. Granted, I usually made good grades, but when I made a poor one, I didn’t whine to the professor and demand a better one. I am terribly sorry if you worked hard and still came up short. I really am. But I am not grading you on how hard you worked- I am grading you on performance, on whether you apprehended the material, not just whether you read it.Yeah, I know everyone’s been telling you how special you are and how you deserve the best etc etc- it’s not true, ok? Be glad I didn’t grade you on your real merits.

That’s the nastier, be-glad-you-don’t-have-to-read-850-page-economic-history-tomes side of my internal dialogue. It has its merits, I suppose- it’s true that we’re faced with a culture that teaches our students that they deserve a good grade, that they deserve a college education, and that they are exceptionally smart, and so on. But at the same time, I feel- maybe dirty is the best word?- when I assign a bad grade to a student I know has in fact worked fairly hard, yet is still lagging far behind. I don’t want to assign him a bad grade. I know that the reason this student is probably in college is not because he wants to learn all about the Byzantines and Clovis and the rise of modern capitalism, but because he knows that the minimum benchmark for a decent job is a college degree- that’s the minimum benchmark. He’s been fed the absolute necessity of going to college his entire life, and he really does need to go to college- not because anyone cares about the values of a liberal education (it’s hard to type that phrase without an ironic snicker), but because a degree has become the function equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s the least an employer looks for so as to eliminate other applicants. My hard-working student needs good grades and a diploma because it’s just one more necessary marker in the system. He’s probably taking out loans, because the bait-and-hook “scholarship” he was awarded his freshman year ran out when he couldn’t pull a 3.5. Chances are he’ll end up dropping out, still carrying those loans, but without the degree- just debt. Here I am, a nice quiet cog in the system, happy to have my little stipend and my library card, knowing that I have neither the authority or the time and ability to change anything. It’s one of the most insidious things about the academic system- you very quickly learn your place and the advantages of not rocking the boat.

And then I think about what my students’ educational background is- I’ve done a little time in public high schools, I’ve an idea of things. I was privileged- I was homeschooled, then went to a nice little liberal arts college where I knew my professors and hung out in their offices talking history and politics and life. My average student here probably went to a ho-hum high school, maybe was able to get a few minutes in with his adviser, possibly spoke to the instructor of the present course once because he had a technical problem- that’s it. He’s only other point of contact with the discipline of history is a graduate student with fifty-plus other students he only sees once a week. I will assume a fairly similar experience in other classes- maybe I’m wrong. Still, where in all of this is he supposed to receive hands-on, intensive instruction in the life of the mind, in the skills necessary for really learning in the humanities? I expect my students to be able to read well enough to grasp the material and think about it- how do I know they have ever acquired that skill? What am I to do if they haven’t? Sure, it’s partially their fault- no one held my hand and made me learn- but I wasn’t continually in an anonymous, ho-hum educational environment either.

So. I make no claims in the above thoughts to originallity or great subtletly- nor do I pretend to have any particular answers. I didn’t come into academia expecting roses and candy, to be sure, and I had struggled with the whole idea of getting into academia at all- for the reasons above, and others. I still do. I wonder- should I get out while I can? Is this whole thing right? Is it worth it? I don’t spend much time thinking about these things- Friday evenings are a decent time, I suppose, but one tends to stay occupied (I guess that’s part of the genuis of the system…) with other things filling one’s mind. But those questions shall wait- I’ve ranted long enough as is.