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Student emails on Christmas

My phone buzzed with emails on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Aunts and Uncles checking in? Updated directions to a Christmas party? Nope. Students complaining about their grades. This had never happened to me before -- on Christmas! Have we reached some kind of breaking point?When I was a college student -- and it wasn't that long ago -- there was a blissful period of time between December final exams and when I received those semester grades. I would go home for the holidays, just before Christmas, and have a couple weeks of kairos, seasonal time during which I reveled with family and friends. Thoughts of Thermodynamics IIor Cultural Anthropology finals were fleeting, if they came at all. The grades did arrive in the mail, eventually, and there would be a reckoning (especially about Thermodynamics II). But I had at least 10 days of good times with my parents before the grades arrived.Thank God I'm not an undergraduate now. As far as I can tell, students live in a near-constant state of anxiety about grades in late December. Yes, students have always been anxious, but before online grading systems, one could only check the postal mail once per day, there were several mail holidays, and one could be virtually assured grades wouldn't arrive before Christmas.Now I fear that, during the days of the "O" antiphons leading up to the Feast of the Nativity, my good Christian students are incessantlychecking grades andfollowing that "O" with rather less sublime words and phrases.For a while now, several trajectories have been increasing that relate to this issue: mobile connectivity; student anxiety about how their college grades relate to their future success in job-seeking; the rocketing cost of higher education and the concomitant student loan bubble; grade inflation, which invests each incremental difference in GPA with more discriminating value than it used to have; and finally, that favorite of teachers everywhere, a problem with thin-skinned, entitled students. (Note: I don't agree fully with that last one, but it is a common barb.)Despite all of that, I had never received emails about grades on Christmas itself. Multiple emails. From students I know are Christians.I don't know what to make of this, and I'm wondering if all the educators and educated who read and write for this blog have any helpful thoughts. It's not my own email inbox that concerns me. I'm worried about the state of anxiety of my students. I'm sad for the lack of kairos in their lives in general, and now even this widely regarded season of kairosdoes not seem to work for them.My initial thought is thatnext year I will withhold my grades until after Christmas (and tell the students in advance why I am doing so).I know I can't change their whole culture, relationships to their grades ortheir parents, and their sense of time. But maybe we could encourage other teachers -- at least at Christian schools -- to do the same. If so, perhaps the most seasonally appropriate day for uploading the grades would be the Feast of Stephen, the martyr.(Sorry, couldn't resist that one.)

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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My daughter received a grad degree in education last May, and she recently finished her first semester teaching mathematics at a community college. One of the courses she taught is required for students hoping to move on to B.A or B.S. programs at other schools. Final grades for that particular course were due yesterday, and she was deluged by emails over the Christmas weekend from students wanting to know their final grade in the course. Some of the students have transfer applications pending for the spring semester, so one can understand to some degree their anxiety about grades, and it's likely the students are from diverse religious backgrounds (or no religious backgrounds to speak of), but my daughter was taken aback by the volume of the emails she received, especially those that pleaded that she respond on Christmas Day. To her credit (a proud father's subjective conclusion), she waited until Monday to respond to the emails.

I have long argued that the Fall semester (especially at schools that celebrate a Christian heritage) should conclude their final exams sometime in early or mid-December, thereby allowing students to spiritually prepare themselves for the Christmas season. As someone who will have (hopefully!) completed doctoral qualifying exams next October, one of the things I look forward to the most is celebrating the Advent season attentively for the first time since I began taking my faith seriously as an undergraduate. This would also give professors time to get grades in well before it would be a problem to get emails on Christmas (which is crazy!).

I received several work emails on Christmas day, in the evening, and I have to admit that I answered one. My daughter commented at the end of the semester that since the beginning of the semester she had been unable to distinguish Sundays from weekdays. It was all a blur of work, work, work. Some assignments were due on the weekend, some on Sunday at 1pm. Teaching assistants had office hours on during the weekend, on both Saturday and Sunday. One course had its final exam on Sunday morning from 9am to 12 noon (although the instructor did say that students would be allowed to take it early if they really really wanted to.) The freedom, due to electronic hand ins, to set deadlines at any time of any day, had changed the weekend days into mere variations of weekdays. The notion of resting on the 7th day is pretty much gone.

While I understand the desire to reduce Christmas angst, I'm not sure prolonging the agony is the right way to go. Nor do I think unilaterally witholding information from a customer is the best way for a business to operate. Can the schedule be arranged so that the grades could be available to customers spending $40k a year or more so that explanations can be provided before Christmas?

Mark, to do that, we'd probably have to start school at the end of July. When I went to college, we started after Labor Day. Classes ended before Christmas, we had a three week holiday, and then a two week reading period. Exams were the second and third week in January. Then we had a week off, and then we started the second semester.It would be interesting to study, say, the three or four Starbucks near a college. The first couple of weeks in December, the seats are filled with students studying for finals. The next couple of weeks are filled with teachers grading them

I would send a polite e-mail to the entire class list stating that you will not be checking your e-mail from 9:00 pm December 24, until 8:00 am December 26, and that they can send as many text, e-mail and voice messages as they please, but you will only answer after Christmas. I suspect that many will be just fine with that -- so long as they know they will have the answer by a date certain. This calls to mind a funny story -- A TA friend and I went back to his apartment to check in with his roommate, who was waiting on pins and needles for a phone call from his dissertation advisor to see if his committee had conferred the degree on him -- Apparently, a student of my friend had been calling the apartment EVERY 15 MINUTES for hours, in an effort to pin down my friend on what his final grade would be. I thought the roommate was going to spontaneously combust when we walked in the door.

Is all that anxiety really necessary, or is it simply contagious, spread from one peer to another? Is everyone frantic simply because it's expected? Much of the angst attributed to the culture and the times is mostly of our own manufacture.

The anxiety over the grade itself is what strikes me as the biggest change in academia, and seems a significant difference from my own memories of college; the desire to see the grade as soon as possible is, to my mind, just a reflection of the desire for instant results, one that's met in other areas of life.When I was applying for an MFA in creative writing a few years ago, I had to dig up my college transcript to send to schools, and there it was--my first semester of college: a B-. In College Writing.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, the first semester ended after the Christmas holiday. No grades until the end of January--by then, we were already into the second semester (And Horrors: our parents got the report cards!). During the holiday, we studied for exams, finished up term papers, and went to parties, etc. Of course, we weren't paying gazillions of dollars for a Jesuit higher education either. So some suggestions Michael: don't read your e-mail on holidays, get the exams shifted to early January, or let students take their final first week in December and hand out grades on the last day of class. This puts me in mind of my favorite after-Christmas stanza from Auden, "For the Time Being":...But, for the time being, here we all are,Back in the moderate Aristotelian cityOf darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometryAnd Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streetsAre much narrower than we remembered; we had forgottenThe office was as depressing as this. To those who have seenThe Child, however dimly, however incredulouslyThe Time Being is, in a sense, The most trying time of all....

I've read that these days parents don't hesitate to call college profs to see how their darlings are doing. These are the hovering "helicopter" parents who were unheard of in my day. I think that's more than patronizing on the parents' part -- assuming that these college kids can't manage their college days for themselves. So in their anxiety, the kids feel free to be rude to their teachers. As to their anxiety, I think that the job situation probably has something to do with it -- kids think good grades with get them a job. Little do they know that when it is time to get a job that grades -- unless they're cum laude or something -- have little or anything to do with getting a job -- or so I've read, and this confirms my experience working in the employment office a huge, well-paying corporation (granted, that was many years ago). We never checked anybody's grades, nor whether the applicants had *really* graduated cum laude. Sometimes a specialist engineer or someone with very special qualifications was hired without going through the usual process of submitting an application to the employment office. Maybe those specialists' records were checked, but they would be big exceptions. I have long complained that grades don't mean much except in getting into grad school. It was for that reason that I would tell my students that straight As from me would get them a recommendation to the best grad schools, B's meant that I'd recommend them to lower rung grad program. What that meant was that not too many kids got straight As, and that helped solve grade inflation. Of course, i caught hell from my chairman, who thought that I should give 1/4 A's. So goes academe, and the poor kids don't even realize it.

Ditto for me: "Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, the first semester ended after the Christmas holiday. No grades until the end of Januaryby then, we were already into the second semester (And Horrors: our parents got the report cards!)."I never knew what my grades were until my parents handed me the letter. And they had NO compunctions about opening it before giving it to me, either.

Exactly! They could blame you for your grades rather than your professors. What is the lesson here?

This issue s just one small part of a larger one: the commodification of education. For an excellent, and well documented study of the problem with American colleges and universities today I recommend Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.

That should have been "a small part of a larger problem."

MOS: I went to a Jebbie U (Marquette) and there was NEVER any question in my parents' mind about whose fault any bad grades was. Never. Ever. Ever....

I managed to graduate cum laude. Found myself in boot camp 2 weeks later. Assigned to a river buoy tender for nearly 2 years as a deckhand. After getting out of service, eventually applied to Uncle Sam for civilian job. Got it, working for the very agency (U.S. Civil Service Commission local office) where I had picked up my federal employment application in the first place. I saw my personnel folder for first time about 8 years later and discovered my name was first on list of candidates. Everybody had rating of 100 --- except me with 105 and veterans' preference.College study got me the 100.My time working on the Arkansas River, etc. got me my civilian job!And eventually --- thank God --- my retirement!I'd hate to be facing the job market out of college today.

It just occurred to me -- with all of the privacy laws these days, would it even be legal for employers to write to colleges and ask for verification that an individual student had such-and-such a grade point average or graduated with honors? Hmm.

Ann Olivier,I believe transcripts are public records. Colleges require that they be requested in order to collect revenue for sharing the information. The requirement of a transcript is certainly still part of a graduate or professional school application. If graduate and professional schools can obtain a transcript, why not an employer? The question is why would an employer want one, according to some of the above posts?

Why do you set up your email to buzz into your phone?

Margaret, when I attended the same institution that you did, albeit in the latter part of the dark ages, our semester ended before Christmas break, leaving us scot-free for shopping, family and debauchery for a couple of weeks at home.My freshman year, the CTA (the local transit authority) went on strike, making it impossible for me to get to the downtown campus for a final. The professor let me take it in his office on the very last afternoon before Christmas break. He couldn't sit with me - he had to catch a flight to get home for the holidays. So I took a final in a room by myself with no monitoring. Cheating would have been very easy - he pretty much out-and-out told me to do whatever I needed to do - but as an honest person, or a sucker, I took the exam without opening a book (we didn't cell phones or Internet access in those days).

Prof. Mitchell -- I googled college students' privacy rights and came up with some surprising information. According to the Pacific Union College site, students must sign forms permitting their * parents* to receive their confidential education information -- " students education record, which consists of all records directly related to a student and maintained by Pacific Union College", I assume this include grades There is another form for releasing the information to non-parents, which I assume would include employment offices.Let's see now -- parents have no right to this information even though in many cases they are paying for the tuition, etc., of their children? Hmm. (I always did think that the 18-year-old right-to-vote amendment to the Constitution was a bad idea. (I think it should have covered only 18-year-olds in the military. Going to war grows a kid up fast.) This nonsense seems to be another unintended consequence of that amendment.The Pacific Union address is:

"This issue is just one small part of a larger one: the commodification of education"I took a series of financial planning courses a couple of years ago which brought home to me for the first time what bad financial value higher education is in the US. College costs over the past 25 years have increased at more than 2 and half times the inflation rate. I believe it has been the second fastest growing expense after medical costs.I had always assumed my children would go to a private college, as I did, but those numbers give me pause. I can absolutely understand the angst over performance when the financial investment is so huge.

Hi, Irene, I couldn't agree more.

The financial investment need not be so large for private colleges and universities. These schools need to shrink their oversized and overpaid administrations. Some schools inflate their costs to appear to be "worthwhile". If they do not charge fees comparable to elite schools students won't enroll, thinking that a cheaper tuition means that the school is not a good school. It is a vicious circle.

Ann, college students are by and large adults, and their parents pay tuition to varying degrees based on their voluntary decision to do so. Just ask children who have tried to legally require their parents to pay tuition. They don't have to. Even a very large gift does not entitle the giver to have access to personal information about the recipient.

Ann, the federal government cannot obtain personal information on a job applicant or prospective hire without the subject's permission. So far as I can ascertain, there are two basic forms used for this purpose, specifically:+ Declaration for Federal Employment Questionnaire for Non-sensitive Positions are also variants of the SF85 for positions at different security levels.)When I was a civil service examiner years ago, we specified the forms and other information needed for basic qualifications review and, if necessary, ranking. At this stage of the process, we did not ask for or need a certified copy of a transcript. A clear photocopy would suffice. It was up to the agency receiving an application from our office to verify the truthfulness/accuracy of a candidate's application. If there was a discrepancy, the agency, if I recall, could investigate or return the application to us for investigation. In the latter case, we would refer a suspicious application to our Investigations staff (out of state) for followup. There are penalties (fine and/or imprisonment) for knowingly and willingly submitting a false application. If an applicant initially failed to submit required information to our office (at the basic review stage before referral to a federal agency), we could rate the individual as "Ineligible - Failed to reply to official correspondence".Anyway.......

To clarify, if an individual did not submit a complete application, we would ask him/her for the additional information needed by our office. Then, if no response within a specified time frame, we "FROCed" the applicant.In addition, if during *our* review stage, we discovered something seriously amiss from a *suitability* standpoint, we would generally forward the application to our Investigations unit for further review, possible field investigation, and final determination. In certain cases, Uncle Sam can *debar* a person from federal employment as well as remove a federal employee from his/her position.

Barbara 12/30/2011 - 11:34 amAnn, college students are by and large adults, and their parents pay tuition to varying degrees based on their voluntary decision to do so. Just ask children who have tried to legally require their parents to pay tuition. They dont have to. Even a very large gift does not entitle the giver to have access to personal information about the recipient.

Barbara, would you say that in the West, the legal concepts behind the terms "parent" and "family" have lost a great deal of importance in the past century - or even the past fifty years? It's my sense that you're saying that so far as children are concerned, there's little legal difference between a parent and a bank or between a parent and an employer.

David, Parents pay out of love and concern and don't require repayment. I would say that's more than a little difference.

Barbara --In my experience college kids were mostly on the way to being adults. Some were childish, some wise beyond their years. The idea that the function of parents is only to give to their children is not even a good idea for the children. Family implies mutuality, or it won't be worth much. And, yes, some parents do need to know their child's grades for the good of the child, for instance, if the little one is goofing off and the parent can't afford tuition for five or six years. Better for the kid to sit out a year or two.There's a simple solution to who gets the grades -- send them to both parents and kids.

Barbara 12/30/2011 - 2:45 pmDavid, Parents pay out of love and concern and dont require repayment. I would say thats more than a little difference.

Yes, Barbara, but that's not a legal difference, is it? How about the law? Does the law no longer privilege parents?

Ann Olivier 12/30/2011 - 3:25 pmBarbara In my experience college kids were mostly on the way to being adults.

Ann, many years ago a wise, experienced, well traveled Russian friend remarked that in America, children do not mature until they're in their thirties.

But Ann, there is nothing that prevents parents from conditioning their largesse on seeing the grades. Nothing but their own inhibitions and fears. And if they are too afraid to lower the boom if they can't even see the grades, what makes you think they will all of a sudden find the productive bravery to do something about bad grades when they see them? Coercion doesn't work well in family relationships of any kind. If your kid turned out to be an ungrateful slacker things won't turn themselves around by threatening to withhold tuition.

Coercion doesnt work well in family relationships of any kind.

Oh, my.

Barbara --Coercion should be a last resort, and it's always painful. But you also seem to think that sometimes the boom should be lowered. True, in most cases college would be too late. But kids differ so much individually it must be hellish to make hard and fast rules.I dunno. Must be hell being a parent these days. Kids are pulled in so many directions by the general culture (as well as being stunted by it in some ways) that I can even sympathize with the hovering parents who try to take the decision-making burden off their kids. But that is lethal for the kids' maturity.There are some good things about being single -- you don't have to deal with such issues.

I wonder why anyone would choose to be a parent in this culture. All pain, no gain. The need to have someone to carry on the family farm is gone. The desire to have someone carry on the family business is probably a seldom thing, since small businesses don't seem to last long any more. The need of a woman to be fulfilled isn't valid any longer - women are told that having children is bound to stunt their growth, and people believe what the culture tells them. On the minus side, parents are held legally responsible for their children's misbehavior and children are valued largely, it seems to me, for their ability to purchase stuff and keep up with their cultural peers, who are locked into cultural models that exclude the family, except as a font of funds. Add to that the most important thing - that a parent's life inevitably, in this culture, is that of a child's compliant assistant, and you're left with very little - I'd say nothing - that's predictably overwhelmingly positive about parenting.So what could be a motive that makes it all worthwhile? The need for a family nest? Do we still feel that? A strong desire to see one's genes slouching away into the future? It's no wonder, I think, that the West is becoming depopulated and will, if current trends continue, soon sink below the waves of history.

"So what could be a motive that makes it all worthwhile?"Love.

David S. -- You list the trivia and leave out the important stuff.

Jack, what are the important stuff?

See Irene B. (7:53am). Especially in the middle of the night or on the 2000th repetition or when you are delightfully surprised by something you never could have imagined.

"get the exams shifted to early January, or let students take their final first week in December and hand out grades on the last day of class."At most schools the professors have very little control over this sort of thing. The semester ending in January, in particular, is dead nearly everywhere and would be impossible to revive.

David S et al: the people I know who choose to be parents, as opposed to those who do so by mistake, do so out of love of children. This is particularly true of those same-sex couples who adopt, a large number of whom adopt children with learning and/or physical difficulties, including such things as fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, etc. They aren't out for the perfect blonde, blue-eyed neo-Nordic little darlings. I think their own experience of rejection (society, parents, church) leads them to also seek out some of the rejected ones to try to share their experience of overcoming with their new children.But, of course, we know that they won't be doing this through "Catholic" Charities in so many areas of the good old US of A.

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