Many American colleges and universities convened classes this week, and as students take tours of all the safe spaces and water parks (or, if they’re in Texas, as they burnish their firearm collections), they are likely feeling more pressure than ever to maintain high GPAs. Whether due to financial aid requirements, sports scholarships, naked ambition, or just plain fear of their parents, many students care deeply about their grades.
This leads thousands of them, every semester, at every postsecondary institution in this great land, to utter one fateful plea to the person on the other side of the lectern. They make this plea to help them achieve their goals, yet it is one of the most ill-advised things any student can do. It usually arrives via email at a strange hour of the night. It goes like this:
“Professor, I NEED an A in this class.”
All right, I admit: I’m indulging in the time-honored rhetorical device of hyperbole. Not all professors get this all the time. Sometimes the grade students “need” is a B or a C; on rare occasions, they’ll send a plaintive appeal for a D-minus. But seriously, anyone who has taught a college class has probably come across a version of the “need-a-grade.”
Alas, no peer-reviewed article exists in the Journal of Transcript-Based Pedagogical Outcomes and Definitive Assessment Precis Rankings on this demand’s exact frequency, so you will have to make do with this veritable shitstorm of anecdotal evidence that occurred on my extremely scientific Twitter feed within a single hour of this meek inquiry: “Professors and professor-adjacent, show of hands: Has a student ever told you they “need” a certain grade? What did you do?” (Responses ran the entire spectrum from extreme compassion to “out of office reply.”)
Yes, there’s a lot of need in the college classroom these days. And it needs to stop. Not only because it’s disrespectful, grating, and woefully ignorant of the way college assessment works, but, more importantly, because the deluge of “need” obscures some actual needs.
When a student claims to need a certain grade, she is operating under the assumption that grades are doled out arbitrarily—the result of a professor’s whim and mood. This stands in stark contrast to reality, which is that in an ever-more-tortured aim at transparency and fairness—even in so-called “subjective” disciplines like the humanities—a professor’s grading system often comes courtesy of multiple tortured rubrics. Those rubrics are themselves tied to ever-more-intransigent “learning outcomes,” resulting in an intricate web of math and check marks, all of which are explained in detail on pages 450-499 of the 900-page syllabus.
Assessment metrics are meticulously thought-out these days. They’re specifically designed to eliminate extraneous subjectivity. The assumption that they can be chucked on the basis of a particularly forceful series of emails is enough to make an overworked professor scream, Oh, you NEED an A, do you? I didn’t REALIZE! I was just giving you a B-minus for fun! MY MISTAKE!!!!! and then break down in sobs and then retrench and outright refuse to budge on the grade. This would defeat the initial purpose of the plea.
Claiming to need a certain grade conveniently ignores the fact that the grade is already likely the highest it can possibly be whilst still maintaining even the hint of professorial integrity, to keep up with the inflationary Joneses and stave off complaints. This sort of “need” language also moves the onus for meeting that need from the person earning the grade to the person assessing it. This transfer of power takes away the very agency and self-sufficiency students are allegedly attending college to gain. (For now.)
Most importantly, claiming to need a grade often gets in the way of legitimate professorial help. The pressure students are under to keep their grades up is real, and students deserve the benefit of the doubt, because so many are legitimately struggling. And so, any professor who gets a “need-an-A” message must immediately add to their substantial workload the job of crisis detective:
Is Johnny’s grade bad because he’s trying his best and still underperforming?
Or because he blew off a bunch of assignments and stopped coming to class?
Wait, did he stop coming to class because of a crisis at home—or because he’s too busy doing kegstands with his bros at Sigma Kappa Douche?
Wait, are those kegstands recreational, or a cry for help?
There are innumerable real problems that get in the way of student success: mental health struggles; relatives with health issues; children; working long hours; PTSD due to military service or other causes. Students dealing with these problems deserve compassion. But it’s difficult for professors to make these kinds of calls when every other Johnny “needs” a certain grade and acts like it’s a matter of life and death.
Believe it or not, if a student wants to get a higher grade, there are things she can do that work better than saying But I NEED a C-minus or I’ll lose my sportsball eligibility! For the student who actually is working but underperforming—i.e. a student who should be her professor’s top priority—the second an assignment comes back with a less-than-optimal letter on it, that student should show up at office hours. Not to demand a better grade, but to go over that assignment in detail and make a work plan for future study or tutoring. For those who miss class but have legitimate, non-kegstand-related issues, the professor can direct them to the correct support office (advising, disability, counseling), and make the appropriate arrangement to get extensions, incompletes, or withdrawals, all of which are preferable to a sub-optimal grade.
And finally, for the Johnny who blows off class and assignments because he’s young and his frontal lobes aren’t fully formed, and he correspondingly acts like an asshole sometimes, the solution, of course, is simplest of all: Don’t tell your professor you “need” a better grade, because you don’t. You want one, but you didn’t earn it, and that’s that. And if you ignore my advice and send that ridiculous email anyway, don’t be surprised if she answers with an out-of-office auto-reply—or, better yet, with “new phone who dis.”