Saturday, July 9, 2011


"The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself."
- Jane Addams

As a teacher, I suspect that I might see this tendency a bit more than others in many professions, even though in conversation I hear that others have begun to notice this tendency becoming more and more common as well. "I am an exception."

The expectation that I give an exception comes to me certainly weekly but within the past year, it seems to be, almost daily. Sometimes it comes in the form of a demand, sometimes a request, and sometimes a plea. Most times it is accompanied by a complex, often deeply dramatic, story as to why this situation warrants an exception for this particular person.

The exception is requested for any number of things -- a due date, an alternative assignment, extra time, extra credit, or even a complete rewrite and resubmission. The most recent request for an exception came this morning. It was for the actual grade for the course. A student sent an email asking that I 'give him' a higher grade in the class. That's right. He thinks I should give him a higher grade than the one that he earned. He did not come to talk to me in person. He sent his request via email and from the tone of the note, seems to think he is quite justified in asking this. It certainly seems he sees nothing wrong in his request.

This, of course, is not the first time I have received this particular request. It happens most semesters, sometimes I even receive multiple requests. And even though this is nothing new, I'm always surprised when it comes. Think about it. These students are asking me to lie and cheat on their behalf. I'm not their classmate or their BFF. I'm not their sibling or their parent. I'm their teacher and they are asking me to lie and cheat. It astounds me.

During the first session of every one of my classes, I take care to
clearly explain the grading system for the course. Unlike some instructors I had when I was in college, I do not make my students guess about grades. I spell it out. In my course, you do not start the semester with an A and then lose points from there. You start with zero. Zero points. Everyone starts at the same place. Everyone has the opportunity to earn the same number of points. I don't give extra credit.

The majority of the grade, as much as I can possibly make it, is based on objective points. Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through quizzes. Questions are multiple choice and true-false. There is a right answer. And, I give a study guide indicating to students the topics that will be on each quiz.

Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through in-class exercises and activities. The majority of those points are also objective - matching exercises, identification exercises, application and analysis - where there are X number of questions with an equivalent number of answers. Again, there is a right answer.

The remaining 1/3 of the points are earned through a group presentation and an individual paper. For these points, students are given detailed assignment sheets that clearly articulate every requirement and also clearly articulate the criteria that will be used in evaluation. While there is, admittedly, some subjectivity in evaluating this kind of work, I have earnestly attempted to make the evaluation procedure as objective as possible. And, given that 2/3 of the course grade is based upon objective work, it seems that even if I were biased in some way it couldn't be enough to really damage a student's grade.

So, the criteria are spelled out. The points are there to earn. I provide the appropriate supplemental material to the textbook. I advise students on ways to study. I give hints on test taking. I willingly read rough drafts of papers before the due date. But once the time comes, students earn points. They earn what they earn. I can't give them more points if I like them particularly well. I can't take away points if I dislike them. They earn points.

I'm not sure when this "I am exceptional" attitude gained so much ground. I suspect it might have started when we stopped keeping score in T-ball and started giving a medal to everyone for 'participation.' No matter where it started, it seems that it is here to stay.

Maybe you are exceptional. Maybe you do deserve special treatment. Maybe I don't really understand how truly unique and deserving of deference you are. And, if in all your 'exceptionalness' you need to cheat and lie to make it through life - that's your decision and needs to be on your conscience. Don't ask me to do it for you.

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