As Grade-Grubbing Worsens, Faculty Turn to “Stand Your Ground” Laws


FORT WELCH, Florida.  Lydia Pfeiffer is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at a state college in this panhandle hamlet, and as she finishes grading the last of 47 exams in her Introduction to Post-Neo-Modernist American Literature course you’d expect her to be smiling. Instead, a look of dread comes over her face as she hesitates before hitting the “Send” button on her computer, transmitting final grades to the Registrar’s Office.

“Let the whining begin,” she says with an air of resignation before heading off to the faculty lounge to eat her lunch of yogurt.

By the time she returns there’s a line outside her door that recalls the sit-ins of the sixties, but the students haven’t assembled to protest a foreign war or the rights of a downtrodden minority. Instead, the horde is here to grouse about marks they received from Pfeiffer, and to cajole her to raise them at the risk, so students claim, of consigning them to a life of begging on the streets.

But Pfeiffer has come prepared with a metal-edged ruler and the awesome powers of the state to back her up in case she needs to resort to force. A law passed by the Florida General Assembly permits instructors at state colleges to “stand their ground” when confronted by grade-grubbing students who threaten to appeal to powerful alumni, commit hari-kari or slander a professor’s name through so-called “social media” because they are unhappy with their marks.

“You can all just go back to your dorms or your crummy student apartments,” Pfeiffer says as she raises the ruler to shoulder level. “I’m writing a paper on the influence of television ventriloquists on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and I will not allow myself to be distracted from my pursuit of tenure!”

“but ms. pfeiffer,” yells amy besantz, a budding poetess who had the capital letters removed from her name by outpatient surgery over winter break. “i came to every class, and i kept discussion going even in your friday afternoon classes!”

“Don’t confuse efforts with results,” Pfeiffer snaps, using a saying her father, a former Marine, used to motivate her in high school volleyball.

“I’ve never received a grade below an A!” says Josh Rose, who was President of National Honor Society at his high school.

“You’d better get used to it with all your run-on sentences.”

“Those were written with poetic license,” Rose pleads, but as he advances he breaches Pfeiffer’s sense of personal space. She raises the ruler in one hand and says “Consider your license re-VOKED,” as she brings down the ruler on his clavicle, sending him to the floor shrieking in pain.

The others recoil in horror, recalling the stunned looks on the faces of Kent State undergraduates as they huddled around fallen fellow students in 1969.

“You didn’t have to do that,” besantz sobs sympathetically. “But since you did, does that change the curve?”

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  1. This couldn’t come at a better time. I’m currently buried grading finals and *know* there will be student tears, bargaining, tantrums, etc. Thanks for the light-hearted look at the perils of college teaching in the 21st century.

  2. Honestly, I don’t think this has to be difficult at all. Students grade-grub because they believe they have “nothing to lose,” and I’m convinced they are reinforced often enough that it pays off, even though they have no awareness that it costs them in different ways. I colleague of mine once joked that they thought they should lower a student’s grade who asks for a higher one. Three years ago I added this statement to my syllabus: “Assuming accuracy in grading and computing, any request for an unearned grade increase will result in a lowering of a student’s grade by one letter.” PROBLEM SOLVED.

  3. A piece of advice: assuming that the deadline for submitting grades is actually a couple of days after the last final exam date, why not wait until the very last minute to submit the grades? That way, by the time you do so most of the students will have gone on break and they won’t be there to bother you with complaints. In my experience, most students won’t come by during the break, and by the time the next semester rolls around, you’re home free.

    And if you have a workspace at home, another option is to steer clear of campus for a few weeks, and enter an “out of office” reply.

  4. I was academic assistant, university fellow, adjunct, visitor, and faculty fellow 1995-2011. I recall this fear of pressing the send button or handing off the grade sheets to the Registrar as well. The source of the fear for me wasn’t necessarily the students, as I’m experienced enough to know they will complain. What changed over the course of two decades was the CHAIR or ADMINISTRATOR or VP or DEAN response to the student. As customer service models (many of the automated or standardized) replaced student support wisdom, the ability for a single student to threaten the contract negotaition process or increase the likelihood of a “star chamber”-like meeting (“Some students have problems with your teaching” / “Which ones?” / “We can’t in confidence tell you” / “But you can take an hour out for a single student or two” / “Yes, we share their concerns” / “Interesting: I’ve been trying to get a meeting with you about curriculum and student support for a year now” / “Well . . “)

    It would devolve from there . . .

    Adjuncts need to band together and defend their teaching with sympathetic administrators and full time (tenured or non) faculty. AACUP and AAC&U and unions and adjunct advocacy groups like New Faculty Majority and COCAL and the emerging National Adjunct Walkout and the N1Academy “BurnItDown” campaign on Twitter — it’s time to stand our ground but make sure we’re focused on the source of this problem: corporate-minded administrators who prefer endless paperwork and website surveys to the face to face interaction of a dedicated facullty and executive team.

    -Dr. Baum

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