July 26th, 2011

Final Lesson: You Don’t Get an A for Just Showing Up

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Editor’s note: In the first part this article, the author shared a personal account of this past semester when he was met with student resistance in terms of assignments and grades. The article concludes today.

Students’ expectations for top marks, whether they earned them or not, unfortunately can be coupled with foolish tendencies on the part of some teachers (this writer excepted of course) to play the role of the avuncular professor. The kindly avuncular professor is easily deluded to think that “encouraging” students with exaggerated praise and slight grade inflation will be helpful. It isn’t. How do I know? For me, the tell-tale sign is that often after handing in my grades, I feel a mild self-loathing. This is the feeling I get when I give grades that don’t truly reflect the totality of what I experience from students.

For professionals in the psychology field it is particularly important to be evaluated in this way because our patients give us marks on an experiential level. For that matter, spouses, friends give grades too. They grade us by the feelings we give and receive. For too long I felt an undeserving, inappropriate loyalty to test scores, the totals, the “numbers.”

Not this year. This year I would give grades that would reflect performance as people, as students as professionals. How would they manage the side of them that was good, and the (unacknowledged) part that was not so good, that was snide, selfish and denigrating and well, bratty? I and others had seen that in the class, felt it, knew it was there as sure as the air we breathed.

I anticipated wrath and hatred from students and was frightened. Yet when I allowed myself the very freedom that I gave them, the freedom to exercise just a tad of healthy cruelty, the smallest dollop of therapeutic hate, I felt energized. Why attack myself (through depression and disappointment and the usual despair) why not use the aggression to help the educational relationship that I am sworn to uphold.

So what monstrous, “cruel” thing did I do? I gave them just a tad below what they were expecting. An A- instead of A for the most part, although some did score slightly lower based on their performance.

Shortly after logging in the grades I received emails from five of the students. Some of them were incensed. “Why did I receive only an A-?” One irate student wrote: “I will not accept less than an A for this class. I will go straight to the dean and complain about you.” A classmate wrote something quite similar. Clearly the A- (and in one case, a B+) were attacks on their sense of self, or perhaps just their academic vanity.

I did not answer any of the emails. My silence more than my words, I determined, would help them reflect. But had I responded, here is what I might have said: Why indeed did you get an A-? You got an A- because you did well enough in the class to get an A-, but not well enough for an A.

Woody Allen is famous for saying that 90% of life is just showing up. But that’s just it, you don’t get an A for just showing up. You have to be extraordinary to get an A.

You do not get an A in life for just showing up and complying or even for cooperating. You get an A for adding to the experience, for giving, for risking, for showing enthusiasm, for adding life.

After several days of email messages unanswered, I received one this morning from a student whom I love dearly, but to whom I gave a B+: “I wanted to say thanks,” he wrote, “because you know what … I failed this semester (B+ was a failure for me) [but] it just gives me the fuel to push myself and remember that I have to work for things…, thank you for considering me enough to not lie to me and just place an A because [you and I] have a good chemistry. Thank you, that means a lot and is the ultimate lesson….much love and much respect to you Dr. F.”

My dear students: Hating me is one of the most constructive things you will ever do if it leads to reflection for you and for me. Thank you for your candor and have a wonderful summer.

Simon Yisrael Feuerman, PsyD, LCSW, is the director of the New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies (NCAPS), and an adjunct professor of psychology at Kean University.