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.

Retiring The Doughnut Rule: Why I Began Allowing Phones In Class

When I first began teaching undergrads – 2007-ish, as a grad student – I would boast about what I thought was, at the time, a wildly creative way of removing cell phones as a classroom distraction. I called it the “Doughnut Rule.”

The Doughnut Rule had a prominent place on my syllabus, which read like this:

Cell Phone Policy:

Yes, these days everyone has a cell phone and they’ve become integral components of our lives.  As such, I welcome such technologies in the classroom, but if you have the need to use one (i.e. let it ring, send a text message, take a picture of your neighbor) I ask that you repay the interruption of your fellow students’ educations with enough doughnuts for everyone at the subsequent class meeting.

I got the idea for the Doughnut Rule from someone else who did it with cookies, but I figured cookies weren’t enough of a punishment. Students can fulfill a cookie requirement by stopping into the campus store on their way to class and picking up an over-priced box of Chips Ahoy!. But doughnuts – the Krispy kind or the Dunkin’ kind – require more thought and effort.

Whatever you do, don’t bring those cheap, tiny, store-bought powdered doughnuts. That’s a quick way to earn an F in my class. But I digress…

I would tell my teaching colleagues about the Doughnut Rule as a way to promote my pedagogical brilliance or my classroom management creativity or some other misguided self-delusion that wasn’t true because, back then, I had no idea how to teach anything. Regardless, at the time, I thought the Doughnut Rule, in all its cheeky glory, was an effective solution for limiting class cell phone usage.

To be fair, the rule did minimize cell phone usage. The first time in a semester I called out “You owe the class doughnuts!” to a texting student would usually be the last time I saw a phone in class. However, in retrospect, the Doughnut Rule wasn’t actually punishing students. I was punishing myself. I used the rule to delude myself into thinking I was a better instructor than I actually was. “My students aren’t getting distracted by their phones,” I’d think, “so it must mean they’re paying attention and appreciating my lessons.”

As I’ve gotten more experienced in the classroom, I’ve gotten more lax with my cell phone policy. You might argue it’s because cell phones have become a more common part of everyday life, but, from what I hear, most of my peers are as strict as ever about cell phones. Some are equally strict about laptop usage.

Many teachers – grade school and college – view digital devices as classroom distractions. While they’re not entirely wrong, by blaming the devices themselves, they’re shifting blame to the wrong place.

I know this is true because it’s what I was doing with the Doughnut Rule. While my use of the Doughnut Rule might have been a creative solution to a legitimate problem, it was also a pedagogical cop out. It allowed me to put the blame for distracted students on digital devices. Instead, I should have been asking questions about what I was doing – or not doing – in my lessons that caused student attention to wander.

If something else in my classroom is more engaging than the lesson I’m teaching, that’s not the fault of the thing that’s more engaging, nor is it a problem with my students.

It’s my problem.

It’s my fault.

I need to take responsibility.

Once I recognized the importance I play in whether or not students get distracted by their phones, I retired the Doughnut Rule and removed any sort of formal policy for digital devices in my classrooms. However, I still don’t welcome them. Instead, I’ve learned to use digital devices as a barometer to help me measure the quality of my lessons. When I notice more people paying attention to their Instagram feeds than what I’m discussing, I don’t punish my students; I punish myself. I force myself to sit down after class, review the lesson I taught, and identify ways to improve. And yes, if the lesson was particularly bad and I’m feeling especially depressed about how many students cared more about their phones than me, I might even make myself feel better by eating a doughnut.

On Days Like Today, I Wish I Was A Better Teacher

After the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11th, most professors at Duke canceled their classes. My Music In Society professor refused to cancel his. Instead, at 1:00 on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, while all my peers were staring at their TVs in disbelief, I went to class.

My professor entered our small seminar room, sat in his chair at the head of a long conference table, and said:

I know you’re wondering why I didn’t cancel class. I couldn’t do it because the work we do here is so important that, during World War II, while German planes were dropping bombs on London, professors were teaching classes in the subways. Think about that for a second: they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is.

The room was silent for another few seconds. Then my professor wiped away his tears, shuffled his papers, and began the day’s lesson.

This morning, I had to teach a class in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy. I’m not writing about it to put the Las Vegas shooting on par with 9/11 — they’re not comparable. But it did seem like an appropriate moment to share perhaps the most important lesson I ever had.

…they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is…

Today, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in US history, I shared this same story with my students. I told it to them while standing in the exact building where I’d been on 9/11 as a Duke student — perhaps the exact same spot where I’d stood when the first plane struck a tower.

Once I’d finished my story, I didn’t know what else to say, so I continued with my prepared lesson.

On days like today, I wish I was a better teacher. If I was a better teacher, maybe I would have had something more impactful to say. Maybe I could have explained the significance of the tragedy. Maybe I could have helped my students better understand the violence of the world. Hell, maybe I could help stop some future violence.

But I’m not a better teacher.

So I stood at the front of my classroom, reminded my students about the importance of education, and then continued with my lesson.

…they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is…

Exploiting Arbitrage For Beer Money: An Early Sign Of A Successful Entrepreneur

When I was in college, we didn’t have an Innovation & Entrepreneurship program. I’m not sure I’d ever heard the word “entrepreneur.” Even if I had, I certainly didn’t call myself one.

But these days, I have high school students handing me business cards listing “entrepreneur” as their job title.

While I don’t know where the line is between entrepreneur and non-entrepreneur, I’m pretty sure calling yourself one doesn’t make it true — just like calling yourself an astronaut doesn’t make you an astronaut. However, as I look back on my college days, I wonder if the teenage version of me would have had the appropriate combination of audacity and naivety to call himself an entrepreneur.

Although I didn’t launch my first official company until three years after undergrad, I was, in retrospect, running a business in college. That business was an Ebay arbitrage business. I would buy Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs (early smartphone-like gadgets) that were selling for cheaper than what I knew they were worth, have them shipped to my dorm room, and then re-sell them for a few bucks more than what I’d paid. I eventually got so good at understanding the market and the Ebay platform that I could buy a product, immediately re-list it for more money, sell it, and then have the person I bought it from ship it to the person who bought it from me without either one knowing I’d been nothing more than a middle man.

Ebay arbitrage isn’t a way to get rich. But, for a college kid who had all his expenses otherwise covered, the extra income (and constant supply of new gadgets) made me the envy of my friends. Did it also make an “entrepreneur”?

I don’t honestly know, and it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I was undoubtedly being entrepreneurial while learning the basics of business building.

Fast forward 15 years to today, I teach in an Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, and I meet hundreds of aspiring young entrepreneurs every year. The ones that seem to have the most potential as future entrepreneurs are never the ones that call themselves entrepreneurs. Nor are they the ones actively running companies.

Instead, the students who appear most likely to succeed at building their own businesses are the ones exploiting some sort of arbitrage hack for extra “beer money.”

I’m not ready to make any sweeping theories about what all this means, especially because I’ll probably need another decade to see which, if any, of my students build successful companies. But it’s something I’m watching closely.