Final Grades and the Fiscal Cliff

posted in: Politics, Teaching | 0

‘Tis the season to be taken to account. The US federal government has just averted a financial cliff of cuts and ups that would have, according to financial experts, thrown the country into a downward spiral. This is not news. During the agonizing attempts to reach some sort of compromise, I thought, “Hmm, maybe it would be better simply to fall off!” But this approach would have dragged many millions into precipitate hardship, or so we thought. Partly because, for the past sixty years, this country has been predicated on rising expectations and a rising standard of living. For a good portion of the 20th century, the promise also extended and was even realized for the working class. That is, until President Clinton’s North American Trade Agreement allowed US companies to ship jobs overseas with little penality. Then the US working class suffered a significant decline in job offerings and wages.

     During this past month, I’ve also been handing out final grades to two groups of students, one mid-level college writing class, and the other a master’s level graduate class. Something happened to me during this semester: I became hard as nails. Yes, I still brought food treats to these evening classes and asked students to sign up to bring their share. I still wrote long (though hardly folksy) comments on student papers and even phoned up a few who seemed to be wandering in the wilderness of confusion or idleness. One I even reported to the “authorities” for rarely being in class and turning in assignments.

     But these measures I’ve largely followed in the past. New this semester was my tone of insistent, direct requirement. “You MUST do such and so, if you want to pass this class.” Or, “No, that is NOT right. A bibliography MUST include author’s last name, title, date, etc.” I squashed the notion that I should make friends with my students. That I should coddle them like tender shoots, lest they wither and die.

     Over the past few years, I’ve read articles by child psychologists bemoaning American youths’ belief in their superiority coupled with an unwillingness to work hard. Stands to reason: if you are superior by all definitions and evidence, your middling efforts should be sufficient, even praised. Everyone should earn an A. We have taught our young people entitlement. Raised them well into the age of adulthood to believe that the world/the economy/their parents owe them an easy, good time.

     This is hardly the case with some of my students whose lives are so complicated and troubled–with single-parent work and childcare, with fractured families sometimes spread out across the globe, with mental health troubles that bring them up short–that they can’t begin to function in a college class. 
     But for many others, I have come to realize that they engage in far too much partying and expenditure, neither conducive to college performance. They buy fancy expensive tennis shoes, they down so much alcohol and eat so little real food that their electrolytes take a nosedive and reduce them to a quivering mess.

    This past semester, I told my mid-level writing class exactly what would happen if they pursued such ridiculous behavior. After the first paper revealed serious deficiencies in American English among some immigrant students, I took them immediately to the writing center and told them they MUST bring every single one of their papers there for help before turning it in.

     So with the graduate students: I was also much more directive. I told them what was acceptable and what was not. I led them through outlining, writing opening paragraphs, using quotations in insightful ways. Of the mid-level writing students, many did outstanding work. They turned in weekly assignments, which previous classes had rarely done. They did the readings. They did a lot of research and they wrote clearly and well. Only a few faltered. These had such serious family problems that no teaching of mine could compete.

     Back to this national cliff. I am a registered Democrat. I believe that government in some form (local, regional, national) MUST regulate food, water, pollution, environmental standards, traffic,building safety, GUNS, on and so on. But I also realize that we as a nation have built up an enormous debt. It is not my doing: I abhorred the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. The minute I heard MPR describe the North American Trade Agreement, I felt in my gut that it would leach jobs from this country, to the advantage of already huge corporations who hardly need the help. Yes, it would reduce the cost of clothing and other manufactured good, but it would not necessarily promise better products as a result.

     As we confront the debt which we failed to manage with the recent tax measures, I, for one, will grit my teeth and urge significant belt tightening for all of us except the very very poor. Cuts to the military, cuts to some domestic programs, and yes, plans to reward companies who bring jobs back to the United States. It is the right thing to do. Let’s return to a clear-headed vision of the importance of hard work and saving. Let’s support our young people by helping them into college and requiring them to perform at their very best.

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