Monday, May 21, 2012

We got the f(*&ing guns...

Another big secret: I don't give a s$&^ about grades!

I suppose I'd better explain for those sensitive and responsible undergraduates out there. It is the end of the semester and I am putting up grades. I am dealing with late homework (didn't you read that syllabus that says no late homework, and why do you think you're exempt?). I am fielding all the inquiries about last-minute saves. People care so, so much about that grade. But doing all the homework after the semester is over is pointless, don't you think?

Well, no, because my students are focused on the letter that turns up at the end of each line on the main section of the transcript. That's natural, because college selects for people with that focus: such people are more successful in the college application process. It's fostered in high school and emphasized by parents. Why would freshmen think at all differently?

I think differently. Let's use the dreaded sports analogy. To me, your grade is a measure of one aspect of your competence just like the number of pull-ups you can do right this instant is a measure of one aspect of your competence. Maybe you're weak, maybe you're strong, maybe you've got a broken arm, whatever. It's not a moral judgement, it's a measure. You can do some pull-ups or you can't.

You may decide that it's important for you to be able to do more: you're after general fitness or you feel it's a badge of honor or you want to improve your gymnastics or pass some PT exam or you want to be able to save yourself at that pivotal moment when you've just slipped off the edge of a skyscraper in your epic battle with evil but you've caught the edge with your fingers and could pull yourself up... if you had the strength. Or maybe you're just interested in challenging yourself.

So you start training your pull-ups. And then, after some work, you can do more.

No one argues they should pass the PT exam because they worked really hard. They just work to get the number.

Pretty simple. And that's what your calculus grade reflects as well: how well you can do calculus and convey your understanding of it at certain moments in time. I repeat: it's not a moral judgement. It's also not a measure of how much I like you or your future success. It's pretty irrelevant, in fact, to both of those.

Either the material is important or not. You're learning how to think, you're learning something to help you in economics or chemistry, you're learning computational skills, you're learning about the history of intellectual achievement in mathematics -- or you are wasting your time.

If you're fully engaging in this process of learning, communicating, and challenging yourself, you'll get something out of it (and often your grade will be alright as well). This is what life is about, challenge and exploration. Whether you're engaging is actually a better measure of your future success than your grade.

If you're ignoring it, I'll only respect you if you're doing something more interesting and not whining about the consequences at the end.

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