Instructor, Instructee

Learning (in part) not to accept responsibility for another’s problem, and not to need to make others happy with me, and to accept my own rightful authority in a job.


He asked the same question six times.

I was indignant.

Yes, and you answered six times.

He was amused.

Decades ago, as a novice university instructor, I shared an office with a fellow who should not have been so encumbered. It was hardly a reciprocal deal. My office mate was an accomplished, confident instructor who had seen a good deal of the world. A Turk, he had studied in the USA, professored (professed?) in New Zealand, and managed marketing for the biggest glass factory in Turkey. By contrast, his office mate was a recent graduate without much work experience of any sort, struggling with all elements of the job: to keep ahead of the students, to set fair and meaningful exams, to mark assignments, and to handle the inevitable student whinging.

With two of us in the office, we had regular visits from students. No one came because they were charged up about the material. A very few came to seek clarification on some point. A few more came to make sure we knew who they were, in the hope that we would mark a face less severely than a name. Most came to complain about how an assignment or exam question had been marked: what I came to see as the ‘So what?’ crowd.

So what if the five points in my answer included three things that were dead wrong? Why should that count against me? Why don’t I get full points for the other two?

So what if I didn’t actually answer the question at all? What I said was right. Isn’t that worth some marks?

So what if my answer was written so badly that it didn’t make sense? Is this a marketing class or an English class?

And so on. If I had only known, it was a foretaste of my next career as a proposal cat-herder.

But today’s student was different. Today’s student wanted to know how his marks — reported by me as a percentage score — would translate into the school’s official eight-point scoring system.

Now, rightly uncertain of my ability to hold the line on a standard, I had deliberately adopted the percentage system for assignments and exams to give me some wiggle room at the end of the term in assigning the official grade. I wasn’t about to give up that wiggle room in this conversation, just because he had a need to know. Neither was I about to explain that to him.

So I took him through the official story. That the final grade would reflect performance on all the work, with sustained strong performance scoring higher than brilliant flashes interspersed with junk or even with missed assignments. That the final grade would reflect his relative performance in the class, whereas the percentage score was more an assessment of the objective value of his work. That by reporting the distribution of percentage scores, I actually was giving the class a sense of what their performance was, relatively.

And so on.

I was selling, but he wasn’t buying. Six times he asked the same question in different words: If I get such-and-so on my assignments, what will my final grade be? Six times I gave him the same answer in different words: I can’t tell you. Not that I won’t, you understand; I just can’t.

I finally sent him on his unsatisfied way, and turned to my office mate, ready for some sympathy about unreasonable students.

He asked the same question six times.

But his response stopped me cold.

Yes, and you answered six times.

Ouch. It was a blessedly to-the-point lesson that flipped me from instructor to instructee in a heartbeat; from rolling my eyes, to learning.

Learning that it was not my job to make this student happy with me. Learning to refuse to accept responsibility for what was his problem. Learning to be comfortable with the authority of my position.

Not that I actually learned those things that very day — Life is a journey, not a destination, right? — but at least I glimpsed the Promised Land. That was thirty years ago. Just ten more years to go.

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8 Responses to Instructor, Instructee

  1. Judith says:

    At long last I have learned to answer “yes” to almost all questions because there is always something on which to agree. Which is not the same as giving students or others what they want. We could say it is validating their point of view, but really I do it because it shortens the “conversation”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Hey! I’ll be watching for that now. Not sure how that would work for open-ended questions (not literally, at least), but making common ground is always good. And, as you say, often efficient too!

      • Wasn’t there a movie based on that? Just say yes? Disastrous as I recall…

        But a widowed friend of mine swears it saved her life when her husband died. If anybody asked her to do something, whatever it was, even if she knew she would hate it, she just said yes. She learned how to kayak, joined a choir that took her to Romania — twice — which she adored. And she met her new soul mate…

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I hated marking. So, I learned later, did my father, who spent all his life as a teacher/professor. The important thing to me was how the student had progressed, not how he/she rated against some kind of arbitrary standard. But the system — ah, yes, in the end it all comes down to systems, doesn’t it?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, I hated marking. Without that aspect, I might still be in teaching. I’m not sure I’ve talked to any teachers at any level who do enjoy it; some, I think, come to a reasonable accommodation with it. And maybe without being decades about it.

  3. Dave J says:

    Your note brings back memories. As you experienced, students want to know how they are going to be evaluated and what they need to do to achieve their scholastic goals. The following discussion characterizes how I learned to deal with first year MBA Stats students. I am sure you can relate to this group of eager souls.
    I used to provide each class with an outline of how their final mark would be related to their performance. I gave the students guarantees for each letter grade. If you get a final score above XX you are guaranteed an A. I might lower this requirement, but I won’t raise it. So I still retained some power to control how the letter grades were assigned.
    Another way I retained some control was by scaling. I usually gave exams that had more to do than could normally be accomplished in the allotted time. That way no one usually completed the entire exam with 100% of the points. I was then free to choose the target score for the grade of 100. The best paper might get 100 but might only get 96 etc. Probably easier to do in a quantitative course like Statistics.
    Another way I retained some control was in the way I assigned the final percentage mark for the course. I prescribed a weighted average of the term’s work to get the final score unless a higher score was obtained on the comprehensive final. A higher score on a comprehensive final meant that it would be 100% of your final grade. In courses that had a required assignment component then that portion would still count and so the substitution of the final grade for the term work in that case would not be 100%. So in this system if you missed an exam you could always recover with a good final exam performance. Term exam performance was just a way of buying insurance.

    By the time students have heard of this complex system there are few questions. One common comment that was sometimes forthcoming is that exams that are too long are unfair. Speed should not be a factor, they would say.
    I would reply that speed was highly correlated with ability in the subject matter. Also since I was required to provide discrimination in my grades I had to have a method for accomplishing this. Another way I could do that would be to give a variety of questions with varying difficulty. Some questions would, therefore, have to be tricky and very challenging. In an introductory course I preferred to give questions that were reasonable for most students. The class would then see that this was preferable to the risk associated with having an exam containing questions that were too hard, so to speak.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave J – It sounds like a lot of work – or, at least, a lot of thought! (Maybe that’s why you won all those teaching awards? The effort/thought, I mean, not the specifics of your grading scheme.) The marking of individual assignments and exams might be easier – in the sense of “less ambiguous” or “less subjective” – in a quant course, as contrasted with the marketing and policy courses I was teaching. Of course, you still had to decide how to assign partial marks, and (I suspect) justify that decision, too. There really is no substitute for instructor knowledge of the subject and (directly correlated, I bet) confidence in one’s own judgment of value/worth of a response. But it helps, as you note, to recognize the students’ legitimate interest in their final grade, and use the marking schema to provide useful feedback so they can adjust their approach as needed.

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