Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What if I just don't like you?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, William Major worries not about political bias influencing instructor's behavior, but about bias stemming simply from the fact that we like some students and dislike others. Major mentions many examples in which he was tempted to change a student's grade on the basis of these likes and dislikes. Is there reason to be worried here?

Obviously, we should want our grades not to be infected by unwarranted biases and to reflect our students' academic performance and mastery. (Though you know how I feel about grades in general!) It's hard to argue with sentiments like these:

Just as we need to be aware, for instance, of overt preferential or prejudicial treatment, we need to be on the alert for all feelings, good and bad, not to purge them — I am not sure how to do this — but to acknowledge them and make sure we understand how they influence us. Teacher: where possible, heal thyself.

But I guess I found Major's own examples where he's tempted to bump up the grade of a likable student, or knock down the grade of a not so likable one, not terribly credible — or at least they don't speak to my experience. I just don't find too many students who routinely fail to attend class (or sleep when they do bother to attend!) that are nevertheless sterling academic performers, for instance. Most of 'likability' will show up or be accounted for indirectly in student grades. I admit I like students who show up, are prepared, ask questions when they don't understand, respect the material I'm teaching, etc. But those students will tend to do well on other performance metrics (and will score well in the area of attendance and participation). Similarly, I admit I dislike students who don't show up, are never prepared, seem willing to let the quarter pass by without seriously engaging the material, etc. But again, those will tend to do poorly on those other performance metrics.

There is one kind of example that troubles me slightly in this area: the eager beaver, let's call the student. This is a student (and they're almost always from introductory courses) who is very taken with philosophy, asks questions, visits during office hours, and so forth, but struggles with tasks such as essay writing and test taking. The eager beaver is often as knowledgeable about the material as other students, but has trouble displaying that knowledge via the assigned tasks. I often feel like I should be able to reward the eager beaver's enthusiasm, engagement, and effort with a slightly higher grade, but the numbers don't support the higher grade.

I've indicated some reasons to downplay Major's worries, but is Major right to be concerned here?


  1. And then there's the eager beaver who only cares, not about philosophy, but about getting a good grade on the transcript. Is smart, but shows no intrinsic interest in the subject at all, and I suspect similarly for other subjects except business.

    I've had some of those, and I dislike them. I think it affected my grading them as compared to others who put in similar amount of effort, and showed genuine interest in the subject matter.

  2. I'm tutoring at the moment, and I find the topic interesting.

    I wonder whether there isn't another variety of "eager beaver."

    I've noticed a trend in some students to display the behaviour of the eager beaver, but without very much verbal competence with philosophy either. Their writing is generally poor too. These students can forcefully interject during class discussions, and are the most likely to interrupt their peers.

    It seems sometimes as if they have a personal investment in the idea of being a philosopher, but that their interest in philosophy doesn't progress beyond their attachment to that self image. That compulsion, however, often seems enough to drive them to monopolize class time with often confused digressions.

    I find it hard to find the correct attitude to such students. On the one hand, I feel obliged to spend as much time as possible helping them sort out their confusions. On the other hand, I feel as if I ought to be annoyed on behalf of the students whose tuition time is being diverted. I normally settle on dealing with the situation, in practice, with a compromise that seems to me a little dissatisfying: I address these students' questions briefly, before explaining that we have to get back on topic. The problem is that such students are nothing if not persistent, and the routine is often repeated many times throughout a period. And each time, I feel obliged to give the new question the benefit of the doubt, at the same time feeling that this student is disrupting the possibility of an optimal, inclusive discussion, involving more participants. It's time consuming, and it seems to me a vain method of self-aggrandizement.

    I do find that, despite their eagerness to contribute, I dislike these students. Professionally, I oblige myself to keep that dislike in check, and to not allow it to influence me in grading. But it's still there. I wonder whether my dislike isn't a symptom of my (possibly mistaken) construal of the situation - my psychological explanation for these students' behaviour. Is it, for instance, that I am irritated that I am professionally obliged to humour the questions of such students with the benefit of the doubt, even thought it becomes incrementally more likely to me that their motivations aren't really based on curiousity at all, and are far more narcissistic than that? Assuming my construal is correct, is this even a valid reason to dislike a student, or to dislike his behaviour?

  3. I think that it is not possible not to be affected positively or negatively by students for a variety of reasons, most of them legitimate. After all, not all of our students like us! Students, I think, are aware of this, but are ultimately interested in being treated fairly based on the criteria set forth in the syllabus; if you earn it, you deserve it.

    Having said that, I do have one grading criterion that I do not set forth in the syllabus, but which benefits all students. I will let them know that I have a 'subjectivity value' that I add to the final grade. It is usually 2 points and is designed to mitigate against any subjective influence that might have been present when I originally graded the work of students. I add this to the final grade total and it often is enough to increase the grade by a factor of one, example: B to a B+.

    I also have students turn in their work without their names on it, but only their student ID number. That way, when I am reading their work, I do not know whose work it is. This way I am not influenced by who wrote the work, but only on how well the assignment was executed. The grade is fair (assuming I know how to grade).

    There is also one assignment where the grade cannot hurt students if it is lower then their average to date. This is usually in student presentations to the general class. Assuming that the student was diligent in his/her effort to complete the assignment to the best of his/her ability, as long as the grade is within one letter grade of their average, the grade can only help maintain or improve the student's average, not lower it.

    Now, for complete honesty time, there have been situations where I have given a higher grade then what was earned if that grade was necessary to graduate at the end of the semester/year and/or I believed that the student had worked hard at trying to master the material/assignments and there was improvement in the grades as the semester progressed. I reward (and like) students who try but fail as opposed to those who do not try and fail (example of a student I do not like).

  4. Fionn - I think you are right about your psychological construal. Genuine intellectual curiosity doesn't lead people to feel a compulsive need to voice their thoughts - it's their fragile egos that drives them. Most other students are bothered by them, and I think professors are often too lenient with these students. It's not fair to the other students in the class, whose learning experience is significantly impaired.

  5. As an student, I've often mildly worried that annoying a professor (even in a trivial way) might ultimately affect my grade.

    I have this anxiety, not only because of my experience in the classroom, but because I think that people act this way in general. Suave politicians win more votes. Good looking waitresses get bigger tips. In one of my classes, a large number of the students strongly dislike a particular student simply because he tends he punch the space bar on his laptop keyboard too loudly. Never mind students who actually show up late to lecture or ask stupid questions. The most insignificant mannerisms can be enough for people to develop a significant distaste for someone.

    I think that if you reflect on everyday interactions, it becomes apparent that people treat one another differently for all kinds of stupid reasons. Why should professors be any different?


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