Thursday, December 24, 2015

I need a 3.5 to get into the XY Degree. Also, Arguing about grades and grade points

1. When students tell me at the end of the semester, grades having been submitted, that they need a 3.5 grade-point average, say, to get into a certain degree program, and all I need do is change their grade from A- to A, or B+ to A-, my immediate thought is what were they doing in their other classes--not doing well, telling their instructors the same story, suddenly discovering they were not where they needed to be. Students who tell me they "always" get As, may well be just lucky, and ought to have gotten at least one A- or B+, or again did they tell all their instructors such stories. We always talk about the 4.0s at graduation, or sometimes the 4.0+s, but what I keep wondering is whether those persons are really good at something. They surely deserve their summa cum laude. I just don't know what I should take from such a grade point average. 

2. I received the following argument, from a student who received As on five projects and a B on a sixth, the projects to be weighted equally in the final grade. My point here is that such arithmetic is highly suspect, and there are arguments that are both reasonable and not at all inconsistent that come to a different conclusion.:
What this survey of the university regulations shows is 
A = 4.0 points
A– = 3.7 points and so on

This indicated that an A- is 3.7 out of 4 points, which is a 92.5. 

I received a 96! percent in your class (23/24), an A, not A-!

The analysis is defective, since there is a mixing of percentages with grade points. If we look at the chart above, it is surely the case that you would get an A if you did 3.85 or better work (3.85 is halfway between 4 and 3.7), which is as little as 96.25% of the maximum grade, and if you got as little as 3.5 you would still get a A-, which is 87.5% of the maximum. You assume that an A means 100% but it could mean 96.5% in percentage terms. And a B might be as low as 2.85/4 which is 71.5% of the maximum. I have here assumed linearity, but in my experience excellent work is much much better than good work--you see that in your most distinguished professors who are much better than your quite good professors (who are very strong indeed). You really do not want to get to percentages when asking about excellence.

Actually, it is likely that your A's, were you graded in percentage terms, might well have been 95%.  Virtually no one does a perfect job. (Nor do we give A+ or say 110%, for spectacular.) So the letter grades tend to be a bit more generous than percentage grades, at this end of the scale.

If we were to go to the middle of the range of A's, that would be 3.925 and the B's would be 3, so the total of 5 As and 1 B would be 3+5x3.925, or 22.525 grade points, and dividing by 6 it is 3.777, well in the range of the A- (3.5 to 3.85). You might well have been in the upper tail or lower tail of the distribution, but that is not known here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Obstructions" Laziness, embarrassment, slowness, cynicism, digressiveness...

from the description of a new book by Nick Salvato (a prof of performing arts at Cornell...):

that for those engaged in scholarly pursuits laziness, digressiveness, and related experiences can be paradoxically generative. Rather than being dismissed as hindrances, these obstructions are to be embraced, clung to, and reoriented.  . . .  Salvato finds value in five obstructions: embarrassment, laziness, slowness, cynicism, and digressiveness.... Salvato expands our conceptions of each obstruction and shows ways to transform them into useful provocations. ... Salvato demonstrates the importance of these debased obstructions and shows how they may support alternative modes of intellectual activity. In doing so, he impels us to rethink the very meanings of thinking, work, and value. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Doing Your Best may not lead to Excellence, and That is All Right

1. Some of you wish to see me about your work, so that you can have the benefit of my counsel about how to make it better--a few days before the Final.  Whatever advice I can offer now will not necessarily lead you to a much higher grade--for you have set up your projects and done the fundamental work already. I have tried over the semester to help you, but many of you have not had your preliminary work ready to show in class. More to the point, no matter what I say and what you then do, your work may not in the end be very strong. That you come back to me more than once at this time of the year only means that your work, as it is, will be better--but it may be a very good B rather than an A-.

2. (No matter what I do, I cannot achieve my son's stature of 6'5", since I start out at 5'7". I could stand up straighter, wear clothes that emphasized height, maybe even elevator shoes (Adler Elevator Shoes were surely available once and may still be available), and I can buy the right clothing at Jimmy Au's. But none of that will make me look even close to 6'5. No matter what I do, I am unlikely to achieve an A in a graduate course in algebraic geometry, either, and probably not in a course in Torts or Contracts. Talent and aptitude are differentially distributed. 

(As for your GPA and getting into law school or wherever: The best way of getting a leg up in the admissions world is for you to have good grades and lots of relevant experience. So if you want to become a dentist, perhaps you can work in a dental office. A lawyer, maybe even office work at a law firm, etc. Then there is a sense of your purposefulness and there is a chance that someone in the profession or field can write a letter of reference for you that is informed by their experience of your performance.

(One last point. In no sense has many a university been considered a nationally-ranked university prior to the previous 30 years, although each has grown and improved significantly in that period so that its prestige and ranking are much stronger now. Yet its earlier graduates, whose grades may not have been stellar, have gone on to distinguished careers. The campus and the distinguished professors you encounter are a consequence of their generosity. )

3. I appreciate you kind words, such as "I hope you have had a good weekend," or that your Hanukkah was good, or your ..., but that does not help you when you ask for something. It is much better to be direct. If you are in some difficult situation why not write something like, 

Dear Professor Krieger,
I am being forced into marriage by my parents, and my psoriasis has flared up. Might I have an extension of one week for handing in the work.
OR  I screwed up, overslept, and missed a crucial deadline. I will get the work in tomorrow.
OR  It is hard to believe, but three of my grandparents are in different hospitals. I am close to all of them. I will need a two-day extension.

By the way, most successful people rarely ask for favors. Rather they extend favors to others, so that when they really need a favor it is a matter of others owing you rather than you owing them. Very powerful people are in a different realm.

4. And, by the way, showing up in class, participating, showing up on time, is actually noticed by instructors even if they do not take attendance and the class is large. If you are regularly late, or if you show up infrequently, and do not appear before holidays and the like, you become a stranger--and when you want a favor you are pressing your luck. People who show up, on time, participate, and in general are good academic citizens, will find that the world is more likely to grant their special requests. None of this need affect your grade directly, but the question always being asked is whether the professor could trust you with a major task. You often act as if you are anonymous and not noticed. And perhaps that is the case. But in a class of 45 students that is only rarely the case. And students who are good citizens are noted in conversations among faculty.

Put differently, you are always being noticed, watched, evaluated. Even at a large university.