Extra Credit for Sale

I’ve sent e-mails, Tweets, texts, IMs, and Facebook updates. I’ve made personal appeals with handshakes in the hall. Finally, I ended the exam period with a reminder to students to fill out their on-line course evaluations. One student said “I hear other teachers are giving points for a certain class response percentage. What do we get if we evaluate you? ” A friendly class opinion leader with whom I have a good relationship, he had the mischievous gleam in his eye of a boy who’s just discovered the closet in which his parents hide unwrapped presents.

Trying not to sound as trapped as I felt, I replied, “Um… the satisfaction of knowing you’ve improved the level of instruction at your alma mater?”

An “A” means somebody has figured out how to impress a professor, employer, or client — beyond stated expectation. It means a student deepens her own education by doing something I didn’t specify in a syllabus or learning objective. It means somebody with passion takes a risk they don’t have to. It means an above-average student goes another hour without sleep because “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” As (or any grades) are not for students who bake us cookies or babysit our children. They are not the currency with which we pay those who further our research. They are not our bribes for favors.

Thus a bias against “extra credit” isn’t simply a crotchety prof murmuring “humbug” while the rest of the world roasts chestnuts. It seems pedagogically important to me — especially in filmmaking — since no one can give you the formula which distinguishes a good movie from a runaway blockbuster or enduring classic.

Some professors say “A point here or there is insignificant. It almost never impacts a student’s grade.” If that’s so, the carrot we brandish offers no nutrition. Worse, we presume our students’ mathematical stupidity will keep them from discovering the worthlessness of our gift. And if the scale is tipped for even one student per term, doesn’t that hollow our rhetoric against grade inflation over time?

Yes, I understand my student’s wish for reward. He and his classmates have been surveyed to numbness. Rate the student life experience. How’s my driving? Evaluate a course. Tell us how we’re doing. Evaluate a major. What can we do to improve your shopping experience? You’ve been chosen at random to review this restaurant. Take an exit survey.

My colleagues and I are desperate to distinguish our surveys from all others. Because we need them. We’re told we need assessment, that we need data as we have never before needed it. To justify budget dollars, promotion, tenure, additional hires, tuition increases, administrative leaves. The numbers are apparently essential, for we lack objective standards of our success.

On the machine shop floor, the quality of work is determined by micrometer, by deadline. On a construction job site, the quality of work is determined by plumb line. But in the classroom — indeed across much of the “knowledge economy” — the standards of success are less evident. Increasingly, they are quantified feelings and impressions. And, evidently, they are for sale.

Dang it, I’m not buying.

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