Friday 3 January 2014

Spineless in the Face of Privilege

I've been working at The Institute for a year now, but for the previous 20+ years, I worked in two of the top Irish Universities, occasionally doing so at the same time.  I held various titles and had a few job descriptions but was never a Lecturer.  Nevertheless, I did teach undergraduates when called upon to do so by my line manager. Earlier in this century, I was asked to give a three session course in how to read DNA.  Where and how the string of . . .ATTCCCGGGA. . . made sense to the biological machinery and induced transcription, splicing, translation.  That was fun and at the end of it most of the students had begun to internalise Willie Taylor's Venn Diagram.  But you can't just learn stuff in modern universities, you have to be assessed in it.  So at the end of the session, I gave out a quiz to see what the students had learned and marked it out of 20.  Nobody failed and only a few people got 100%, so it was discriminatory but not punitive.

The following week, I was visited in my lair by one of the brighter students in the class who thought that her 13/20 (65%) should really be 14/20 (first class honours material).  The answer she had given to one question was formally wrong although, if you looked at it with squinty-eyes, a case could be made for it.  This young woman was the daughter of two professors, as well as being symmetrical and persistent.  Instead of accepting my explanation of why her answer was wrong-wrong-almost-right, she argued that it was right enough to deserve the extra mark.  Uncle Bob advised her that she could/should choose her battlefields better, that she was being annoying, that it didn't matter with me, but that she should be careful not to make a habit of mark-grubbing. I also pointed out that one extra mark on a fragment of a module would be invisible in the sea of marks that she would accumulate over the whole year. But she persisted (bzzzzzzzz) in making her case, so eventually (I had my real work to do and this had taken 20 minutes) I gave her the extra mark and she went away.  I realised immediately that I had been bullied. But at least she hadn't flushed my head down the t'ilets, so I wasn't both devastated in my self-esteem and wet. It took me longer to twig that the young woman's obsession was to obtain first class marks across the board. I blame the parents for allowing their child to develop a self-view that depended on external validation. Quite sad, really.

Several weeks later, my gaffer told me to go listen to some presentations by the undergraduates.  She, the boss, had a more important meeting off-site and I was to delegate for her.  It was all quite work-a-day, mostly watching the backs of student heads as they read off Powerpoint slides.  But one of the talks was stunning in its professionalism, clarity and precision: the kind of talk that would impress you if it came from a late-stage post-graduate student.  It was, of course, the girl of the extra mark.  So she's smart but I wouldn't give her a job until she's grasped the math that (13/20)/5000 is insignificantly different from (14/20)/5000.

This all happened several years ago and I'd forgotten all about it until I read recently about grade-inflation  in Ivy League colleges in America.  The article by Allison Schrager explained why she gave privileged young thrusters extra marks because she couldn't stand the whining. "Anything less than an A- would result in endless emails, crying during office hours, or calls from parents. One student once cornered me and said: 'I hope you’re happy you’ve destroyed my chance at Goldman and ruined my life.' ”.  Been there, done that.

1 comment:

  1. I was tutoring a fetac level 5 group before in a vec training centre (now ETB) and had a similar problem with a lady who claimed that the issue was my consistency not her need to get a higher mark than her class mates...I was similarly harangued...but stood my ground. I now work with the person from time to time, and am paying for the "mistake" still!