Grading Policy

After a particularly obnoxious argument over a final grade a couple of semesters ago, I decided to dramatically revamp the grading policy that I include in all my syllabi. The dispute made clear to me that certain students (by no means all students, and I’d venture not even the majority of my students, but some students, nonetheless) have a sense that, in classes like the ones I teach, everyone begins the semester with an A, and that, barring any serious gaffes, they can end the semester with that A, easy-peasy.

This has never been how I have approached grading, and I thought I might avoid a number of niggling grade disputes if I communicated my actual practice of grading as straight-forwardly as possible. I’ve only used this policy one semester so far — last fall, before I went on leave — but I had no complaints. I’m testing it out again, and thought I’d post it here for comment. And just generally to share, in the event that you’re looking for this sort of thing.

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Notes on Class Blogging

I’ve just posted what follows on Machine, the aggregator blog from this semester’s Theories of New Media class. I’d asked the class to post concluding thoughts thinking about the blog exercise, what they’d gotten out of it, how it affected their writing, what they wish had happened differently, and so forth. Their comments provoked some of my own thoughts on what worked and what didn’t, and particularly on what I’ll do differently next time.

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Last Day

Today’s the last day of classes here in Claremont, and given that I’m very, very shortly outta here (first, holidays; then, vacation; after, blissful months-long period of reading and writing) — well, needless to say, I’m happy. But also sad. And I wanted to take a few minutes to contemplate the sadness before beginning the mad dash to get my leave started.

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The Ticker

Certainly this is more for my benefit than for yours, but here’s what now remains before the sabbatical begins:

  • Seven teaching days.
  • Twelve class sessions.
  • Three sessions of office hours.
  • Four committee meetings.
  • Four meetings with a program administrator.
  • Two department dinners.
  • One set of Ph.D. orals.
  • One faculty forum.
  • One faculty meeting.
  • One graduate student conference.
  • One curriculum revision meetings.
  • Nine job candidate campus visits.
  • Twenty-five rough drafts of final new media projects.
  • Sixteen rough drafts of graduate term papers.
  • Sixteen final literary interpretation papers.
  • Twenty-five final new media projects.
  • Sixteen final graduate term papers.
  • One senior thesis draft.
  • Two final senior theses.

That, and a bunch of packing, in the next month. That is what stands between me and freedom. Looking at it like that makes it seem a miniscule barrier, one easily gotten over. But ask me again in a couple of weeks how I’m feeling about it…

An Ethical Dilemma of a Hypothetical Nature

Meg’s recent hints of students in crisis over at xoom raises a question for me, one I’ve been wondering about for some time. This really is more hypothetical than actual, at the moment, but it’s had moments of actuality, and I’m just kinda wondering how to handle it should it arise again in the future.

Say, for instance, that one of your students, or former students, gave you her LiveJournal URL — she reads your blog, and invited you to read hers. And say that, through her friends list, you come upon a community composed of many students from your institution. And say that, perhaps, you peek into that community from time to time, just to get a sense of the campus vibe. No judgments. No real sense of what LJ belongs to whom. Just a curiosity, as I say, about the general sense of things on campus and an enjoyment, mostly, of the writing.

Say, though, that through a series of circumstances you sorta accidentally figure out who the author of one such journal is — not a student of yours personally, perhaps, but a student of whom you are aware. And say that you become familiar enough with this student through her LJ to get the impression that, of late, she’s become massively depressed, and that her academic life is suffering because of it.

What do you do? You’ve come to this conclusion via information that you’re sorta not supposed to have, and through a source that might indicate more venting and hyperbole than actual factual representation. On the other hand, if the student really is in crisis, you ought to tell someone, right? Someone who can at least do a subtle check-in and see if everything’s okay? But what do you say?

How I Always Manage to Overload Myself

You know what I love? Designing new classes. I love sitting at my computer with about ten browser tabs running, each with some bibliographic source or somebody else’s online syllabus, just imagining possibilities: what if I paired the Bush and Nelson with the Borges? Should Kittler come before or after McLuhan? Oh, yes, and then if I teach Landow, I’ve got to teach Aarseth, because oh, the controversy!*

It’s thrilling, imagining new combinations of material and the conversations that might arise from them. And so I do this nearly every year, and when I’m not designing new classes, I’m redesigning old ones. It keeps things fresh, new, alive.

But here are the problems with this relentless need to innovate: first off, I inevitably get so amazed by the possibilities presented by any given class that I totally overload it with material. A reasonable syllabus, with a reasonable quantity of reading, always strikes me as inadequate, missing several key texts that absolutely must be included.

Second, I never fail to include a few things that I ought to have read by now but haven’t. The up side of this is that teaching new texts is one of the few ways that I actually get to read them, but the down sides are plentiful: sometimes it turns out that the new texts don’t work as well in the course as I’d hoped; often it turns out that I’ve got less time to do a really attentive reading and preparation of the text than I really need.

Teaching new classes, semester in and semester out, is exhausting, and yet I can’t quite stop myself. Every year I say, no more new classes. I’ve got tenure now; next year I recycle old material, and innovation be damned! But every year I wind up tinkering, or building all new syllabi. It’s a compulsion. And I know I’m going to kick myself in the fall for what I’m doing this week, but this week I’m having enormous amounts of fun, just imagining the possibilities.


*Quite obviously, one of the new classes I’m designing for the fall is on new media theory, and I’m completely fired up about it. I’m adapting some portions of this course from the Literary Machine class of a couple of years ago, but a little over half of the class is new. I’m also teaching — for the first time, believe it or not — our intro to the English major course, and as an overload (yeah, yeah, yeah), I’m teaching the first half of the Intro to Cultural Studies course up at the graduate school. This last is heavily adapted from my undergrad Marxism and Cultural Studies course, though, so I’m really hoping that prep can be minimal, and that such minimal prep won’t be a liability.


I just got what is without question — and by an astronomical degree — the WORST set of teaching evaluations I’ve ever gotten. These come from my graduate cultural studies seminar, which I will here admit I totally phoned in all semester. The overload was simply too much, and I found myself repeatedly putting that class last, as I think any reasonable person in my situation would have. (And no fair responding that any reasonable person wouldn’t have taken on the overload. You’d certainly be right, but there’s no point harping on it.) My students picked that up, and really slaughtered me.

I’m alternating between two responses here, one which is a little bruised and one which is a bit more indignant. The latter response comes from my sense, given the comments, that this seminar expected to be taught in a way that graduate seminars simply aren’t, and that some measure of my hands-off approach (admittedly too hands-off) was intentional, designed to force the students to develop their own responses to the material.

But whatever. I forgot the third response, in which I can’t quite bring myself to care very much. My relationship with the grad school is a pretty exploitative one (them of me, not me of them), and if they decided not to ask me to teach for them any more, it would come as a huge relief. Perhaps there are moments when doing a bad job is called for.

How Not to Graduate


— 5 graduate Cultural Studies projects

— 12 Media Studies term papers

I’m still holding out hope that today’s the day.

On a not-unrelated note: I’ve been heard to complain, over the last few days, that my senior majors have come up with an astonishing array of ways to avoid graduation this semester, ranging from the extremely belated recognition of course requirements left incomplete to the failure to pass said course requirements. This has required some substantive hoop-jumping on the collective parts of the students, their advisors, and the registrar in order to make everything right. I love them all, and they’re worth some significant trouble, but I’ll admit it’s been something of a trial.

No more shall I complain, however, as none of them have taken that last statement literally, as has, apparently, a graduating senior at NYU (from the Chronicle; subscription required):

A New York University student who is scheduled to graduate this week was arrested on Friday and charged with bank fraud in what prosecutors described as a complex series of transactions that involved the shuttling of $43-million in bogus checks between banks in Switzerland and the United States.

No more complaining from my corner. No sirree.