This Blog Doesn’t Deserve an A. Do You?

Confession time: I’m bad at blogging. Just look at the dates on my articles. I post as consistently as an MTA train during rush hour.

If that weren’t bad enough, instead of writing concise tutorials and easy-to-follow “how to” guides — the kinds of things that make blogs useful — I tend to write rambling essays about things only I care about.

I bring this up because I believe in the value of taking responsibility for substandard work, especially when I know I’m producing it. In the case of this blog, I know what would make it more successful, but I have priorities in my life that take precedence, and, as a result, the blog isn’t as good as it could be.

In short, it’s not an “A level” blog, and that’s OK. I accept that reality and recognize I’m the cause.

In contrast, as the end of another semester approaches, I’m about to encounter the bi-annual ritual of students refusing to take responsibility for their substandard work.

Or, as I like to describe it…

Hell hath no fury like a student who receives an A-.

I understand why students hate A-minuses (and B-pluses): a “not-quite-an-A” feels like they’re just barely missing out on the grade they wanted, so they place the blame on the grader since the grader could have pushed the grade slightly up to get it passed the admittedly arbitrary cutoff line.

While believing a grade should be raised (or lowered!) regardless of the actual work submitted ignores numerous logistical, educational, and ethical concerns, that’s not what I’m interested in discussing.

Instead, I want to discuss the question of who’s responsible for grades. Specially, I want to know why the instructor is responsible for grades. Yes, we assign grades, but we give grades based on the work our students submit.

In other words, grades are earned, and grading is a descriptive process. By the time I’m assigning grades at the end of a semester, the grades were already determined by the work submitted throughout the semester. But when students don’t get the grades they want, instead of looking inward to ask themselves what they could have done better, they tend to look outward. The result is a handful of emails at the end of every semester either arguing for higher grades, begging for extra credit, or pleading that I’m ruining someone’s life.

I don’t like ruining people’s lives. In fact, I feel terrible when I receive emails implying otherwise. But it doesn’t get me to change a grade, and it doesn’t solve the real problem.

The real problem is that students need to accept that not everything they do is going to be perfect. Sometimes we aren’t as good at things as we want to be. Sometimes we don’t prioritize things as much as we should. And sometimes our lives take unexpected turns and we simply can’t accomplish what we hoped. None of it is “bad,” and none of it is “wrong.” It’s life, and it’s 100% acceptable.

It’s OK to challenge yourself and produce something that isn’t perfect. It’s OK to prioritize some commitments over others and, as a result, produce substandard work. And it’s even OK to try your absolute hardest and still fall short.

Let this blog post be an example. I’ve been revising it for three months, and I’m still not happy with it. It doesn’t explain what I want to convey as ellegantly or clearly as I’d like, and I have plenty more I’d like to write about the topic that I haven’t included. But I’m posting it for the world to read, and every time I get an email questioning a final grade in one of my classes, I’m going to respond by linking here.

While I know this blog post isn’t a perfect response to those emails, I also take full responsibility for its lack of perfection.

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I teach in Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program and founded RocketBolt. I write about startups, pedagogy, entrepreneurship, engineering, and poetry. They’re all related, I promise.

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