Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dear Students,

I understand that you all wanted As in my courses and felt you worked too hard not to get an A.  So let me take this opportunity to address your concerns.  I have, for simplicity's sake, bolded your concerns first, and then offered my comments in non-bold, except for the last point. 

1. This is not an English class.  You grade too hard on form.
First of all, I hope your English professors don't take too much offense, for their classes are not solely dependent on form either.  Or put another way, what you say and how you say it both matter.  If I can't read and understand what you've written, then the content is a loss no matter what the class. 

2. Corollary to #1 - After all, I had an A in all my English classes.
Yes, my classes are focused on writing, and after that, on spoken group presentations.  In humanities classes, it is not generally helpful for me to give you quantitative tests, especially at the 300 level. But the fact that in my classes, the grading is based on your writing doesn't mean much in relation to your English classes, except for the fact that I am glad you have taken some English classes.  This is because I teach 300-level ethics courses.  That means the writing will be different and more difficult than in your 100-level English class.  (And your 300-level English class will also be more difficult, I presume.)  I do apologize in advance, but I did think the purpose in taking the course was that you would learn and grow in new ways.

3. Another Corollary to #1 - You focus too much on our thesis statements rather than on whether we know the religion stuff.
Well, on this point, I hope your Sunday School teachers don't take offense, because I'm quite sure that they didn't intend that their class, taught over 9 months and often only one day a week, was meant to "cover" absolutely everything about the faith we profess in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes some of you seem to think that because you took religious education in Catholic high school or because you went to Sunday School, you now know all about religion.  And some of you, perhaps many of you, have rejected "religion" or "organized religion" or "hierarchical religion" (feel free to put in another term if you are more comfortable with that...)  on the basis of knowing it all.

I can only say that if this class was just a refresher in sixth grade catechetics, they would not have hired a full-time PhD to teach you.  They would have found a hapless but loving and generous volunteer (i.e. someone who works for free) who wants to make a difference for the Lord - and that volunteer would know many good things and teach you many good things, but would also not care about whether you have a thesis statement.

I, on the other hand, am worried about your ability to reason in relation to ethical questions big and small.  And that means I want to see a clear thesis statement about what you think, and then supporting arguments.

4. I worked really hard.
I am sorry indeed that I cannot grade based on effort.  It reminds me distinctly of my college calculus-based physics course, in which I received (thankfully) a C.  Others in the class clearly had more aptitude to learn physics principles quickly, and they appeared to need to do almost no studying, and earned As.  I, on the other hand, studied physics in all my free time, spent extra time in the lab, checked out additional books from the library in an effort to try to understand,   and saw a tutor, all to garner a C.   On effort alone, I should have received an A.  But the professor was not grading on the basis of how hard I worked but on whether, at the end of it all, I knew enough about electrical currents that I would not burn up my friends and myself.  Knowing physics well and rightly matters; though I know that many of you do not think humanities knowledge affects people in the same way, still I grade on the basis that knowing ethics well and rightly matters.

5. Corollary to #3 and #4 - And another thing about this class, you didn't let us share our opinions.
If, by opinion, you mean oral statements made in class that refer to the course readings or lectures or other students' points (even if you didn't quite understand them) AND that enable you and others to make at least a beginning toward reasoned, focused thoughtfulness, in a variety and diversity of forms, relating to important topics like the Big 5 (abortion, homosexuality, war and peace, wages, and euthanasia) as well as to small seemingly insignificant topics like what kind of orange juice to buy and how to relate to your roommates, then I sincerely apologize.

I did arrange on the syllabus a diversity of topics and readings from a broad group of people who are generally thoughtful and provocative, but who do not share the same opinions about everything in the hopes of helping you develop and refine your opinions as defined above.  If you thought that the authors we read DID all share the same opinions, you did not read carefully enough. In class, I tend to play to their arguments, in an effort to help you understand the readings.  But if you think that their opinions are mine, and therefore you cannot express an "opinion", then you must think I am the most confused, messed up individual, for I cannot be politically liberal a la John Rawls and also take a post-liberal stance a la John Milbank.  I cannot support the church's teachings on contraception a la Humanae Vitae and also raise significant (yet faithful) concerns about it, a la Martin Rhonheimer.  I cannot reject gender as a concern (a la Andreas Kostenberger) and also think gender is a great concern (a la Sarah Coakley).  To say nothing of all the great patristic and medieval thinkers we also read.

However, if by opinion you instead mean random statements of the kind you could make at 2 am in the dorms while speaking with your friends, then, no, I am not sorry.  This is a class for which you get academic credit and I am trying to help you think in very particular ways.

6. All of which leads me to want to ask you, "Do you just simply think that because it's a religion (or humanities) course, you ought to be able to get an A?"
Do you think that because the knowledge learned in humanities classes seems more opaque, more "opinion-oriented," and more "fluffy" in popular opinion, that you deserve to receive a mark that is supposed to denote the highest caliber work and thought?  Writing a good thesis (or communicating one in an oral presentation), and then supporting it well, is, yes, very difficult work.  In other words, thinking is HARD, and I value demonstration of that skill.  Good writing, good oral communication both demonstrate good thinking.  If the thought is not behind it, the writing won't be as good.  I endeavor, therefore, to give those who carry out the task a grade of the highest quality.  If you did not earn an A in my class, it is because I did not see a demonstration of those thinking skills.

It is possible I am in error and I have not graded you according to these standards.  If you think that is so, please feel free to stop by my office with your paper, and be prepared to show me your thesis statement, your arguments, your careful reasoned analysis of the readings, lectures and class discussions, using the reasoning skills I hope you've learned in my classes and in the classes of your other humanities professors.

TheologyPhD Mom
[NB: This represents comments I've heard over the years - usually off hand remarks made in the hall, and the like. This does not represent any one class I have ever had, but a conglomerate of concerns I've heard especially in relation to religion courses, but also in humanities courses generally.]


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! I think you have just done a favor for everyone who teaches any sort of humanities class, on ANY level. I could have said the same thing ago while teaching high school English!

  2. So true! Thank you for this. I'm grateful that I had a year to work with you and see how you grade and why. I think it has informed me in a positive way. And, even though I get similar complaints, especially about their papers, I am convinced I am ultimately doing right by my students.

  3. Jana, I am sorry I did not have you for a prof many decades ago when I was in college. On the other hand I am gald I didn't because as an undergrad we were always looking for an easy course; now 50 years later,it is the tough ones who taught me how to read, think, and write that I remember, admire, and thank.
    PS. You are so right about English. Some years ago I had to fail a student in third year medical school pediatrics because, although he may have know something about his patients, I could not understand what he had written. His knowledge of English so limited he actually could not write a sentence. And he spoke only English at home and had a BS from an accredited University. How he passed English in 6th grade I'll never know.