Friday, June 8, 2012

The Rodney Dangerfield of Philosophy?

I've had a number of unpleasant interactions with students in the past couple of months. One in particular involved a student to whom I had to assign an "F" in an introductory ethics course. Although it was a high F, it wasn't close to a D and there was no way in good conscience to give her the benefit of the doubt--there wasn't any real doubt that this was a failing performance. She emailed me as soon as final grades were released to students, informing me that she does not fail classes and demanding to know why I found it necessary to grade her various assignments unfairly.

(I thought this last was kind of interesting. Not that it's literally impossible, but there's a clear sense in which you just can't accept the premise of the question. It's possible, I guess, that The Joker was going to poison Gotham City's water supply unless you gave this student an undeservedly low grade and that's why it was necessary to grade the assignment unfairly. Or that you were just being malicious; but it seems to me that in that case the unfairness was clearly optional, not necessary. Other than that, it seems to me that if you were really trying to grade it, you were trying to grade it fairly. I feel like there's something akin to Moore's Paradox here.)

Anyways, I wrote back with a set of detailed explanations of the grading of her various assignments--her work suffered from the same set of problems all semester. She didn't listen when I had explained what I was looking for, and kept making the same mistakes. She replied a day or two later with an iPhone screenshot of her report card, showing all As and Bs and one F, and some accompanying text about what a shitty teacher I am, what a shitty person I am, how much more valuable to society than philosophy her major subject is, and which contained sarcastic mockery of language I employed in my previous message. The screengrab was taken at 1:00 in the morning; she sent the email shortly after 5 AM.

I thought for a long time about whether to respond, and if so, how. For example, I thought about telling her to try to see this as a learning experience, so that she could understand how this happened and thereby prevent it from happening again. But a) I wasn't sure that it's really my place to offer advice like that, and b) I didn't think she'd accept the advice coming from me, anyways. I ended up just saying that I understand that she's unhappy with the grade she earned, and then I encouraged her to file a formal appeal with the dean's office if she really thinks that the grade is unfair. She didn't write back. I don't know if she went to the dean.

The reason this exchange stood out to me is this: I got a few shitty grades when I was in college, and I got a grade or two that I thought was unfair, to the point where I actually did inquire about filing a formal appeal or grievance of some sort. But I never even considered the idea of throwing a temper tantrum like this. Of sending an insulting letter to a professor and including a copy of my report card. What in the fuck? And although I don't have anything like a set of empirical measurements that would support this claim, I feel like I've witnessed an increasing tendency of students to treat their professors with what I would describe as profound levels of disrespect. I mean, I don't want to be one of those old people who says, what the hell is wrong with the kids today?!?!?!?!. And I'm open to the possibility that there's something I'm doing that is inviting or otherwise failing to discourage this behavior. So I guess I'll just ask: is there something wrong with the kids today? Is there an increasing level of disrespect? Or is it me?

--Mr. Zero