Protesting in a world of “partial credit”

So I had some responses to my last blog post which I appreciated.  I welcome the dialogue on my blog, even if the dialogue disagrees with what I have to say.

I googled the demands coming from Occupy Wall Street, as I wanted to get more information than what I had. published a piece by Nomi Prins, with the headline “Occupy Wall Street protest demands outline complete and complex reforms to our financial system.”  Take a read.  It’s a helpful piece.

I understand a bit more about what the protest wants to accomplish, but I can’t help but take issue with one of the main points in the article.  Prins writes the following:”Protesters want jobs and the financial security that comes with them.  As in countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Egypt, more than 25% of the youth in this country are unemployed – and that number is growing. Add that to the 16% to 17% of underemployed individuals, and it’s no wonder that desperation has reached this visible point.”

OK.  So what does the writer mean by “youth”?  How are we defining this today?  For me, “youth” implies under the age of 18, but my gut tells me that Prins is talking about young adults in their 20s, the new “late adolescents.”  Interesting.

As someone who teaches these late adolescents as graduate students, I have lots of questions about these unemployment numbers.  Prospective students often ask me if they’re going to have a job once they leave with their degree.  My response is that I have no way of predicting that.  The institution that I teach for has a reputable brand name in a lot of disciplines, so much so that I’m told that recruiters are beating the door down to get to our graduating students, taking over staff offices in our career center.  (So what’s all this about unemployment???)  I also tell my students that while the brand name may get them an interview, they, and they alone, will need to land the job.  I can’t make any guarantees.

After ten years of teaching of both undergraduates and masters candidates, I can say one thing.  There is a general attitude that partial credit, which I read as partial accomplishment or partial preparation, is an entitlement that belongs to all people.  Let me explain:

In a recent graduate course that I taught, I assigned a final paper worth 40% of the overall grade.  Students received a rubric of assessment, well in advance of the paper’s deadline, outlining the criteria of assessment and the point values.  The paper was worth a total of 40 points, 16 points of which were pretty cut and dry.  Take a look at these:

The paper includes appropriate citations that are formatted correctly.   (yes or no)

The paper includes a “works cited” page that is formatted correctly.   (yes or no)

The paper is within the 1500-2000 word range.  (yes or no)

The paper is submitted by the announced deadline.  (yes or no)

As I read the papers, if I checked off “yes” that the criteria was met, the student earned four points for that area.  A “no” meant zero points in that area.  As you can see, these areas are pretty straight forward.  I had provided students with guides to assist with proper citations and a “works cited” page, and since this was a graduate level course, I believed that the students should have mastered these skills through their undergraduate work.  I also believed that these 16 point out of 40, 40% of the paper grade, were “easy” points.”  Hence, I would not offer partial credit in these areas.  My beliefs were incorrect.

A large number of students lost points in these areas.  For many of them, it was the difference in a final letter grade.  I did not relish giving those grades, but I did feel it was my responsibility as a teacher of masters students, to assign them a grade that they had earned.  A student’s final point total for a course is always a starting point for me, and I reserve the right to adjust grades up or down, depending on class participation, improvement over time, or exceptional performance.  In most of these cases, I did not feel like lost points in such straight forward areas indicated exceptional performance.  As a result, most grades stayed as they had been earned.

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, these final course grades prompted one student to tell me that they should at least get points for trying.  The citations in this particular student’s paper were incorrect and incomplete, but because the student had “tried,” they wanted partial credit.  I responded that there isn’t partial credit in a professional situation, and I have that level of expectation in my classes, particularly for graduate students.  I received no response back from the student.

Partial credit for trying?  Seriously…

Maybe part of the reason the unemployment numbers are so high among “youth” populations is that we’re giving people partial credit all over the place and doing them a disservice when it comes to performing in an employment setting.  What are we gaining by telling students–PEOPLE–that it’s ok to perform well only part of the time?  Or that it’s ok to do work that’s only partly correct?  Should we really be surprised that we’re in the mess that we’re in when this is the dominant attitude?

Students tell me that I’m a hard ass.  Students are “afraid” to take my classes.  I find it all very confusing.  I’m just trying to train students who will be successful on their chosen career path.  I don’t want them to have to spend time down on Wall Street in sleeping bags, behind police barriers, worrying about survival, and screaming themselves hoarse to get someone to pay attention.  I might not be able to stop that from happening, even if I train them well, as I have no control over the job market.  However, I’m certainly going to prepare students as best I can.  I have a responsibility to demand excellence so that students leave my classes feeling like experts in that particular area that we’ve studied over the course of our time together.

People are losing jobs even when they’re performing well.  Employers don’t wait around for partial credit assignments to be completed.  Life does not wait around for partial credit to catch up.    Now more than ever, people need to have their citations in order and the works cited page ready.

Survival of the fittest, everyone.  It’s how the world works.  That’s not changing any time soon.