‘Tis the season for boots, scarves, cider, pumpkin spice lattes and midterms. Indeed, don’t forget that between apple picking with “bae” and watching the leaves change colors you have more salient activities to attend to, such as studying, stressing and sleepless nights. Yes, like the Elephant Graveyard in “The Lion King,” midterms are just over the horizon, Simba. However, none of this really bothers me. What bothers me the most about midterm season is the dismal reality that it’s five weeks into our classes and I haven’t said a word yet. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t volunteered my thoughts on Newton’s Fifth Law of Science or whatever it’s called; it bothers me that I keep forgetting I’m actually being graded on my choice to remain silent. Like incarnations of Simon Cowell for academia, our professors are judging and grading our vocal chords during every class, and that grade is a factor in our overall midterm and final grades. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fault in our participation grades.
I think I speak for all students when I say that participation grades are like secondhand smoke: the thing that we forget is slowly killing us when we try to be “hip” and hit up those cool outdoor bars in SoHo everyone is talking about. Yeah, great idea. In my time at the College it seems that the value of participation grades and my willingness to participate are on an inverse scale. Not always, but generally speaking, participation grades are bordering on 30 and 40 percent of your final grade by the time you reach 400 level classes, also known as a time when simply making an appearance in every class and meeting all work deadlines feels like enough. And why shouldn’t it be enough? Are you telling me that Larry Lethargic over here, who only comes to class four times a semester, but dominates the class discussion each time he makes an appearance, gets a higher participation grade than me? This must be a sick joke.
Another reason I question the ethics of participation grades is because professors don’t always value some comments over others. That sounds harsh, but let me explain. If you give perfect, analytical, in-depth comments in class about once a month, those rare comments should be valued higher than the kid who relates the topic to something her grandmother said every time she gets the chance. Now the whole class has to listen to her tangent as the minutes go by, decreasing everyone else’s opportunities to jump in the conversation. Additionally, forced conversations are about as awkward as … forced conversations in general, am I right? Students everywhere have said this time and time again, and yet it comes in like a wrecking ball in millions of classrooms around America. I’m assuming. No official statistics. What am I talking about? Calling on students when their hands aren’t raised. I guess I can understand why professors enjoy doing this so much. I’m having stress dreams about it, okay? That’s how out of control this epidemic has gotten.
In short, there is entirely too much pressure on what should be the most enjoyable part of the classroom experience. Students come to class with a variety of personality types. I know that life isn’t fair, but it seems avoidably unfair that those with more timid personalities are personally victimized by participation grades. If the goal is to make sure that each student is completing the assigned work, then why not throw in a pop quiz, or require some sort of weekly written feedback to allow students the opportunity to comfortably express themselves. If the goal is to feed your ego when we are inevitably stumped by your surprise questions, then please make like Drake in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video and have a seat. Please, I only want to stress about midterms and the high sugar levels in my daily Candy Corn intake, not about trying to find this mythical perfect formula for a high participation grade.
Zoe Johnson is a Confusion Corner columnist who recognizes that there are probably things worse than the participation grade out there. Total war, for example.