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Final Grades: Or, Jay’s Last Lecture

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It’s the end of the Spring semester, 2013. That means college undergraduates all over the country are freaking out over final grades. It’s odd how these grades become important to them at the end of the semester in a way that they weren’t at any other time during the semester, but I digress. What follows is a final email sent to my students this morning in response to a number of emails I received from them over the weekend:

All:

I owe a number of you an apology.

I’m sorry for ignoring the several emails I’ve gotten over the last few days regarding final grades and points reported on Blackboard. I’m sure this is a stressful time for many of you and I should have been more sensitive to that and responded immediately. Frankly, my expectation in your ability to perform basic math in the face of what the Blackboard App on your smartphone or PC says was unrealistic–I mean, this isn’t math class, is it???

In reality (in case you didn’t recognize the sarcasm above), I had a bit of an epiphany (an awakening) over the weekend. You see, at first those emails annoyed me, almost to the point of anger (I say “almost” because I rarely anger); then, my second response was to laugh. I figured y’all were sending those emails to rib me, hahaha, LOL, ROTFLOL, whatever. But by this morning I’ve come to think that all this confusion reveals a deeper communication problem.

Here’s what I think: I think that our reliance on technology may be conditioning us to a Pavlovian response–do you know of Pavlov’s Dogs? Regardless, what I’m saying is that we’ve begun to associate what an app on our smartphone says with truth or fact, even when we know better. So here’s what’s happening: many of you are looking at grade reports generated by Blackboard that are calculated based on some number (572 or 639 or 1002.25 or some other random number) and, even though you know without a doubt that your final grade will be calculated using a 1000 point scale (you know this because it says so in the syllabus and because I’ve repeated it umpteen times in class, even going through the math on the whiteboard on several occasions), many of you get confused. This is a communication problem on a couple of levels.

First, this appears to be a mass-media effect. In other words, our use of smartphone apps and other online media is, perhaps, causing this phenomenon. We trust media more than our own ability to think. Second, on an interpersonal communication level, it’s noise–i.e. it’s interrupting the flow of communication between us. These are actually the kinds of things many communication scholars study.

The lesson I’d like us all (me included) to learn from this is to be aware of the possibility that we may be unconsciously being conditioned to doubt ourselves and to defer to the “wisdom” of electronic media. This is dangerous because it is people who program and enter the data that apps run on. Therefore, apps are still limited by human constraints and, as critical thinkers, we must remember this and think for ourselves.

Critical thinking is a skill and, like a muscle, must be exercised to stay in shape. Like all of the lessons in this course, this goes well beyond public speaking class and into our broader private and professional lives. You must learn to critically assess information, measure it against what you already know, question your assumptions, consider the source (without privileging electronic sources) and trust yourself to draw conclusions on your own. Work at it. It’s worth it. Over the course of your lives bosses, co-workers, clients, teachers, media, politicians, corporations, governments, police and other bureaucrats will all be feeding you self-interested, agenda-laden and (even) occasionally useful information. Your ability to cut through the crap will be your only hope to avoid being a credentialed idiot (i.e. someone with a college degree who can’t think critically). This doesn’t happen without some effort on your part.

So, for the last time (I hope), your final grades will be posted on ISIS. I will be taking the total number of points you earned this semester (you can find this total on Blackboard in the column labeled: “Total”) and dividing that number by 1000. Period. Full-stop. Your grade WILL NOT be calculated using any other number than 1000 (one-thousand).

I do understand that the Blackboard App reports various other numbers. This is due to glitches in the system. If I could fix it, I would. One thing is that I offer more than 1000 points over the course of the semester in order to give you all more chances to score points and earn the grade you want. I do this because I know public speaking is new and difficult for many of you. It’s a skill that takes more than 16 weeks to develop. The people who programmed Blackboard didn’t foresee this as an option a teacher might choose so, consequently, it isn’t accurate when it comes to calculating final grades. Another glitch revolves around the online quizzes. If you didn’t do them, Blackboard doesn’t count them as part of the total points possible unless I manually go into Blackboard and input a zero for each missed quiz, and even then the total number isn’t right. In short, the grade reported by Blackboard is WRONG. But this isn’t a problem because you have the information to know that Blackboard is wrong. You’ve had it all along. It’s up to you to use it. The skill I hope you all develop over the course of your college careers and lives is to use what you know to critically assess new information, identify it as credible or as BS, and take the appropriate action.

You can consider this as Jay’s last lecture…but I’d prefer you think of it as advice from a friend…In either case, I hope it serves as a good reminder of what college is all about as you all head into summer.

Be well…

Jay

Mr. Baldwin is a doctoral candidate of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas. He is a self-described free-market anti-capitalist harboring anarchist utopian fantasies. The best that can be said of him is that, presumably, his mother loves him.

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