What, Exactly, is “Average,” Anyway?


The time for reckoning is upon us!  (Otherwise known as configuring final grades for all these portfolios.)  And what better way to procrastinate than to muse on the process of giving grades!  Actually, I finished up the grading today and turned my grades in.  And like clockwork there have already been a few queries and whining about grades.  “Why is my grade a C+ when I made a bunch of corrections to my portfolio?”

Well, because regardless of those corrections, your portfolio is still just on the high side of average.  Because that’s what C’s are supposed to stand for:  average.  B’s are above average and A’s are superior.  Most students usually won’t argue for an A; but good luck convincing an average kiddo that she’s not above average.  Everyone thinks they’re above average.  That only begs the question, what is average, anyway?

Here is where the pudding gets sticky!  Fortunately, I use rubrics so I have something to show them in terms of both skills they are supposed to learn and how each assignment demonstrates those skills.  I have fewer problems with grades because it’s more difficult for a student to argue they can demonstrate rhetorical strategies appropriate to an audience in a “superior” way as opposed to an “average” way.  But that’s usually only because the student doesn’t want to figure out how to make a case for it, if they have a grade they don’t want.  If they can make a case for it, they’re usually a superior student anyway…

…and that is what is so difficult for some of us to reckon with.  If you  have no rubric or department guidelines, what then?  I noticed that my department’s guidelines for citing your research said something along the lines of C portfolios demonstrating “no significant problems with documentation although some details may need further attention.”  What this really seems to mean is that it is now the average for students to sort of get it right.  If they actually do cite the source properly, they’re superior!  Would we take this sort of thinking in our journalism?  What if a regular column routinely “sort of” made sure its facts were properly cited?  Would we want that to be our standard?

I think a sad truth that often goes unstated is that if we held most students to the standard it took to get work done, most of them would be below what we would consider average.  In other words, they’d have D’s.  It is becoming the norm to have terrible trouble distinguishing between your vs. you’re and their/there/they’re.  To teach the lesson of apart vs. “a part”, I banished the class clown from the room over and over again.  “Wesley is now apart from the group.”  Motioning him over, “Wesley is now a part of this class.”  LOL.  It made the point, but I wasted most of a class period just on the most commonly screwed up words.  I don’t expect perfection.  I’m certainly not perfect.  But the truth of the matter is that what we would’ve considered normal standards of communication have probably fallen below what many older folks would consider “average” into D territory.

I know that times change.  I remember my fifth grade English teacher being extremely aggravated that “ain’t” made it into the dictionary and she would not let us use it.  I personally really enjoy the shorthand that online chat and text-speak has provided.  I like writing “ppl” for “people.”  But I know the circumstances in which I can use that sort of language (because I have a “superior” understanding of “audience context,” snicker).

As a result of changing times, I think many of us create the A standard by holding a student’s work against the work of their peers.  In other words, if Amy is the brightest tack in the box, Amy then becomes the “superior” standard against which all other work is judged.  I’ve seen many teachers work this way, including one crotchety old literature teacher I had as an undergraduate.  In fact, he outright stated that standards had fallen so low that the only fair thing to do (?) was to grade you in context with your peers.  I haven’t been above that strategy myself.  I had several Amys this semester, clearly head and shoulders above the rest.  But their documentation wasn’t without its flaws, either.  Perhaps none of this might matter if you teach in giant lecture halls and have scantron tests.  Portfolios…well, those are grades of a different stripe!


One response »

  1. Love the new template, BTW! Very glamorous!

    Ohhhh the vicissitudes of the C. The real truth is, yesterday’s C is today’s D. Students are insulted by it…and if, as you point out, “average” means to “sort of get it right,” they ought to be insulted. Oddly, students seem to have less trouble accepting a failing grade than a C grade.

    Rubrics help. I associate a numerical value with each rubric (students start with 100 points and then lose specifically assigned points for various crimes and misdemeanors, ranging from -5 for a couple of grammatical errors to -100 for provable plagiarism. Quantifying your assessment seems to cut down on the crowds of people who show up in your office trying to talk you into a higher grade; apparently numbers seem less open to challenge.

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