How can I ask why I'm getting such good grades?
November 5, 2008 9:47 PM   Subscribe

How can I ask my professors if the grades that they're giving me are inflated or not?

I've been getting really good grades this semester on the papers and exams that I've been turning in (B+ to A) in a range of upper level undergraduate political science classes and I can't help but notice that I'm not putting very much effort into them (mostly because I'm taking 21 credits and don't have time to devote to each assignment). Because I don't believe that I'm preternaturally gifted or anything, I'm starting to wonder: am I getting these grades on the basis of the work or because I speak up in class and am friendly to the professors? I do know that these grades are not being given to everyone in the class. I am at the higher end of the grade scale.

I plan on applying to and attending graduate school in the near future and am thinking of pursuing political theory, so knowing my actual skill level at research and writing would be helpful so that I can improve where necessary. How can I broach this issue with my professors without looking a gift horse in the mouth or risking my grades for the rest of the semester?
posted by youcancallmeal to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
so knowing my actual skill level at research and writing would be helpful so that I can improve where necessary

This is your real question. Ask your profs what you can do to improve your skill level in these areas, and where you need the most improvement. Specifically mention that you'd like your skills to be on par with those pursuing political theory in graduate school.

Do not ask about your grades.
posted by nat at 9:53 PM on November 5, 2008 [7 favorites]

I would approach it by asking what they think you can do better and how to do so. Just leave the grades out of it, unless you want to make it clear that you're not asking for better grades.
posted by Airhen at 9:54 PM on November 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Are these theory classes, or classes in other subfields? I ask because performance in other subfields is a poor indicator of performance in political theory, anyway. (Performance in philosophy and/or classics classes is better, as is performance in political theory qua political theory classes.) And, frankly, there's not much intellectually going on in the other subfields at the undergraduate level (that's not the case at the graduate level) -- so people who are talented enough to do political theory at the graduate level ought to be able to breeze through those classes.

If they are, in fact, theory classes, then it seems unlikely that the professors would cut you a break on paper grades for being talkative. Most classes have an explicit participation component for that, no? Personal experience: when I've TAed theory classes, I've tended to actually be a little tougher on students who talk a lot, if they turn in bad papers, because I know they have the ability to do better.

(Political theory grad student in a top program here; I know of which I speak.)
posted by paultopia at 10:38 PM on November 5, 2008

There's one theory class, a comparative class, an American systems class and an IR class. All getting the same grades, all upper level, all taught mostly seminar style.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:42 PM on November 5, 2008

Well, just a general point here. If you want to pursue this subject in Grad School then it makes sense that you find this easy. Indeed I would broach the conversation with this in mind. I would tell your professors that you really enjoy the subject and as you are considering applying for Grad School in this field you would like to know how to improve. I wouldn't bring up grades.
posted by ob at 10:49 PM on November 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Well, I'd disregard the other classes as indicators. How hard are you working in a theory class? And what kind of material does it cover?
posted by paultopia at 11:00 PM on November 5, 2008

Paultopia: I'm not working particularly hard. It's a contemporary class, so we've covered Kant, Nietzsche, Weber and Strauss so far and are currently into Arendt and Foucault. I am curious to know if there are certain standards for academic writing in theory that I should be aware of. I know that I have a grasp of the material and am a decent writer as a whole, but I feel like grades of this level should not be coming this easily.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:04 PM on November 5, 2008

It would be suicide to ask about the grades being inflated as you would thereby indirectly state that you doubt the professors ability to judge grades in class.
posted by flif at 11:34 PM on November 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

I work at a university. I have never met an academic who believes they are inflating grades, even with evidence to the contrary. I agree with Nat & Airhen to ask what you can do better, explicitly, rather than talking about getting too high a grade.
posted by b33j at 12:31 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

nthing that you shouldn't ask. I agree with flif that it could be construed as your doubting their judgment. Even if they don't take it that way, it would still be awkward, I'd imagine.

Since you already know the big answer to how you could do better -- being able to devote more time to the class -- I don't feel like you need to say anything at all. But if you're looking for other input then yes, say you're interested in grad school and ask what you can do better without mentioning grades.

On a different note, have you actually read any papers that were graded lower than yours and felt they were better? Even at good schools, you would be surprised how many people can't write well or make a coherent point. I have a B.A. in political science and even some of my classmates that would participate and make decent points in class sometimes had awful papers. I slacked off and made consistently better grades than they did.

Additionally, often when grading a paper a professor has a checklist of things they want the student to have mentioned to demonstrate a grasp of the material. Since you speak up in class, chances are you're attuned to whatever the professor has been stressing; you may mention his key issues in your papers whereas other people miss some.
posted by Nattie at 2:14 AM on November 6, 2008

Definitely do not ask about grade inflation! Speaking as someone who has taught at several universities (though, in math, not philosophy), let me give you an outline of the method professors use to give grades, as I've experienced it. There are three main components:

1) The professor's opinion about your work, on its own terms. (Does it meet some minimal objective standards? Have you demonstrated mastery of the material? etc.)

2) How your work compares to that of the other students in the class.

3) The general conventions about what the grade distribution in the class in question should look like. (For instance, upper division seminars tend to have more generous grade distributions than introductory courses.) This is something that the members of each department usually have loose agreements about, so that the grade distributions don't swing wildly from class to class and semester to semester.

If you got an A, then that means that your professor thinks that within the context of your course and university, you deserve one. (Note, depending on where you are, this could still mean that your paper is mediocre. But, as noted above, if you're concerned about this, then you should approach it from the "how can I improve?" angle, rather than the "did you purposely give me a higher grade than I deserved?" angle. The latter would come across as rather disrespectful.)

As for grade inflation in general, it's is a relative term. There is no decree from some higher authority about which papers should get A's. It all depends on the culture of the particular university/department, the quality of the students, and the professor's preferences.
posted by epimorph at 4:14 AM on November 6, 2008

Do you think that your research skills are lacking and you don't have enough information in your papers? Or do you think that your writing skills are lacking and your papers aren't written well enough?

I've had plenty of professors that pretty much ignore how the paper is written and just look at the information presented. Something like that could be happening.

But I agree with the others and think you shouldn't ask why you're grades are so high.

First off, you might cause the professor to start grading your stuff more harshly or to take a more critical look at it.

Second, it's illegal (or unethical, I forget because the way my education major girlfriend talks about the two terms they might as well be the same thing) to discuss the grades of other students. So the best you'd be able to get is a comparison to the class average.
posted by theichibun at 4:44 AM on November 6, 2008

I would approach them with the "So I'm thinking of graduate school; what do you think my chances are and what should I be doing now?" tactic.

But if you don't think you are preternaturally gifted, I would not generally recommend pursuing political theory. Unlike the rest of political science, their market is amazingly harsh. Like, literature harsh, with the odds of tenure-track employment anywhere being pretty low.

By all means apply; dreams are dreams. But unless you have Chicago and Toronto and Harvard and Stanford and Duke and so on all stumbling over themselves to see who can give you the best offer, I would move along.

(again, that's not remotely true for American, comparative, or IR)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:40 AM on November 6, 2008

Second, it's illegal

Illegal - Buckley Amendment
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:48 AM on November 6, 2008

Chiming in to agree with others here: don't ask about the grades. Ask your professor(s) to critique your work with an eye towards your grad school ambitions. Ask them how the kinds of papers you're writing at the undergrad level compare with the kinds of papers you'd be required to write at the grad level.
posted by Orinda at 5:54 AM on November 6, 2008

Why ask for critique? Ask for advice about succeeding in grad school. Profs love talking about academic career paths.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:56 AM on November 6, 2008

Why ask for critique? Ask for advice about succeeding in grad school.

There's no reason why youcancallmeal can't ask for both. Why do you think a critique would be unhelpful? (Or is it that you think profs would be unwilling to give one?) Remember that the original question explains:

I plan on applying to and attending graduate school in the near future and am thinking of pursuing political theory, so knowing my actual skill level at research and writing would be helpful so that I can improve where necessary.

A critique is a thorough evaluation, covering both the strengths and the weaknesses of the thing being evaluated. I suggest a critique with an eye towards grad school because youcancallmeal's work is currently being evaluated on an undergraduate scale, and the expectations of one's work as an undergrad are usually different from the expectations of one's work as a graduate student. Getting a critique would be one way of "knowing my actual skill level."

Of course, it's not the only way of approaching the problem. youcancallmeal, take your pick.
posted by Orinda at 8:03 AM on November 6, 2008

ROU_Xenophobe: I'm not pursuing Theory with an eye toward teaching, I'm pursuing Theory with an eye toward also getting a master's in urban planning and starting my own commune knowing the theoretical reasons why I think things should be the way I think they should. Well, that and I really love the subject and the thought of never taking another class or writing another paper about it sort of makes me want to cry. PhD for self fulfillment? Yeah, sort of.
posted by youcancallmeal at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2008

If you really love the subject, that probably comes across in your written work. See what happens if you put your best effort into an assignment. Flexing your abilities would be wise before you invest time and money towards a graduate degree. It also should help the instructor give you an honest assessment of your potential.
posted by woodway at 12:37 PM on November 6, 2008

I ended up taking the mass's advice and telling my theory prof about my grad school plans and asking for a critique on that basis. She's going to do that and give my term paper a closer reading with it's done with an eye toward it being part of my portfolio for applications. So, thanks for the advice, all!
posted by youcancallmeal at 5:08 PM on November 6, 2008

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