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Fiddling on the Grading Roof

Knowing all the stresses and pressures faced by adult students, it can be difficult to assign fair grades. Photo by Photoinsel.

When recording final grades for my adult students, I have long discussions with the gods of transcripts about what grade to assign. Like Tevye, the beleaguered hero of Fiddler on the Roof who, upon confronting a dilemma, would contemplate options by considering, “on one hand, or on the other.” So do I.

On the one hand, these are people with families and mortgages and jobs who could be spending their free time at watching mindless television instead of slogging through a course—matriculating to a degree. On the other hand, not everyone can or should get an A. On one hand, they might deserve a C or worse; on the other hand, if they don’t pass the course, they won’t get tuition reimbursement or may forfeit their student loans.

On one hand, they may have put very little effort into their work and certainly spent minimal time on written assignments. On the other hand, they will protest all the way to the university president if they receive even an A minus and I will carry the burden of extra work by dutifully explaining my decision.

In these moments I search for flashes of wisdom from which to make my choice. Usually this leads to, pun intended, much wringing of hands. What, I ask, is the value of a grade if increasingly we as a faculty are so constrained by student and employer pressure, not to mention potential loss of revenue? Is there any magnitude in differentiating an A student from his or her A- counterpart? Or on the other hand, as Tevye might say, a B+ (heaven forbid!). And who, exactly, cares?

As the college degree becomes pro forma and the Master’s (with the exception of the elites) a minor differentiator in the workplace, should we consider—with the exception of out and out pre-meditated plagiarism—grades for adult students important at all? Should we rather reward the adult student for perseverance, for dragging into class after a long workday and subsisting on warm yogurt? Should we strive to infuse curiosity and critical thinking rather than bothering the single, working mother with APA/MLA and other such folderol?

Keep in mind that we do not make it easy for the adult student. The government says that to be considered for financial aid, one must be carrying a significant course load. Two courses combined with a full-time job, a family, a mortgage, a sickly parent or family member, or a lost job, can easily be overwhelming.

And overwhelming may have been the cause of the adult’s original departure from higher education. There was a reason that the adult dropped out in the first place. Now, in the eyes of the educated world, that person failed and that failure is internalized. Their return to the classroom, online or in physical space in the dark of night, is to give higher education one more try. The grade is no longer merely a grade. It is not a measure of superior work but of fortitude. It says, “See I could do it all along!” to their children and others. The adult who can only attend a graduate degree part time has equally multiple obligations. Their ego is equally on display. Sometimes so is their reimbursement. Their grade is not personal. It belongs to human resources. To all of these adults students, to fail (and an A- is considered failing) is why they protest to the President.

These are the Tevye-esque dilemmas I face each time I stare at the form to send to the registrar. On one hand, not everyone can or should get an A. On the other hand…

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