Get Better Grades

As a TA, undergraduates often ask me how a simple letter grade is supposed to summarize their understanding of a whole field of scholarship. Just kidding! They usually ask “How did I get a B? I’ve never had a B before in my life!” Then they cry. This is why TAs keep tissues handy—we learn this in our “training” as teachers.

Your professors and TAs probably tell you things like come to class, ask questions, revise your notes the same day, lay off the crossword during lecture, brush your teeth in a circular motion, blah blah blah. But what do they know? They’re just the Man, trying to keep you down. The important points are all gained in the regrade.

Sometimes there’s an emergency and you need to e-mail your paper late; say, you “kept throwing up and had to go to the emergency room”, or your “grandfather” suddenly dies (it’s always the grandfather, for some reason). Remember, TAs can check the date created, and see whether you’d actually started it before the untimely death. Learn how to set the clock on your computer back a few days.

Request a regrade for everything. Protest that you “covered all the points listed in the answer key” (you don’t even need to have read the answer key to use this one). Quote selectively from your answer and add some helpful explanations to show what you meant all along. Bad words to use in regrade requests (and anywhere else) are “obviously”, “basically”, “of course”, and “We all know…”. TAs mentally translate them as “I’m clueless and bluffing”. Avoid.

But say the worst happens and you grade is still a B. Well, life’s effectively over now, isn’t it? Kiss Harvard Med goodbye. No naches for your parents. How did you even get into Duke, anyway? Repeat these phrases over and over; it will help when you go to the TA and cry. Yes, if you have the acting skill, regrade requests should be made in person. An air of humble, wounded optimism works best. Furrow your brow and nod a lot. Try not to ooze aggrieved privilege. I know this is hard, especially if you have a stock portfolio and your loser TA lives close to the poverty line. But being deferential is not just polite, it’s good practice for dealing with other overly powerful mediocrities in later life, like auto mechanics and police officers.

Between tears, claim your “friend” got a better grade for the same answer. In a course with multiple TAs, consistency in grading is a sore point, and they may bump you up out of guilt. Snarky TAs may point out it’s as likely that your friend got too much credit as you too little. If you have a snarky TA, consider switching sections.

Try claiming, over and over, “I don’t care about the grade—I’m just trying to understand what I did wrong.” It’s a lie, of course, and your TAs know it, and you know they know it, but if you keep saying it they’ll eventually dole out a few points to get rid of you. Success!

Finally, count your blessings. A former student of mine who shall remain nameless once wrote me, “I received a 6 out of 10, a grade I would think justifiable for someone who did not understand the assignment or gave entirely incorrect answers.” My immediate response of course was “why, yes—in Dreamland.” The real world, just to remind you, rewards folk who give “entirely incorrect answers” with a grade of zero. But Duke is more forgiving.

Here’s how it works: you get zero points if you didn’t actually do the assignment. I know, it’s unfair, what with your astronomical tuition, but them’s the breaks. Double-spaced, 1-inch margins, and your name: 1 pt. Two points for getting your TA’s name correct, or your professor’s, or the course number (3 for all three). Four for writing out the question, and 5 for rephrasing it as a statement. Add some random words and phrases from your notes, and there’s your 6 out of 10! So my anonymous student (Hi, Jessica!) was right after all.

See? It’s not so hard, as long as you come to class and revise early. Just kidding! Enjoy that crossword.

(Duke Chronicle, January 15, 2005)

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