This is what I told one of my first year writing students when he complained that I graded too hard: “someone has to be average.” When he stared at me as if I’d suddenly turned into a monster, I added, “you can’t all be exceptional.”
I went on to explain that “fulfilling the requirements of the assignment is what is necessary to pass, and a C is a passing grade. That’s what most students earn because most students meet the requirements. However, if they move beyond those requirements and are successful in doing so, their work might earn B or B+. And, they meet and exceed requirements in a particularly interesting or skillful way, their work might been seen as exceptional. That’s what ‘A’ work is: exceptional.”
I’m not going to blanket all my students with this claim because many of them don’t expect to get an ‘A’ just for showing up, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that some do. Too often these days I get the “I’ve come to class and done the work. I deserve an A” speech, and I’ve grown weary of trying to explain that doing what’s required doesn’t equal an ‘A.’
Now I could go on about how young people today expect something for nothing or cite claims about how millennials think they’re special or exceptional; that they’re needy and entitled and self-centered; and that they’ve been pampered by helicopter parents, and so on, but I won’t. What’s the point? It won’t change anything. I’ll continue to have teary-eyed 18 year olds in my office hoping I’ll change my mind and find their work to be outstanding no matter what, and I’ll have to explain again and again why meeting minimal expectations doesn’t earn them an ‘A.’
So, what to do? That’s the important question, and I think I may have come up with an idea. I’m going to use my dogs–my beloved dogs–to illustrate the difference between exceptional and average. Because as much as I love and dote on my dogs, there are clear differences between them. Yes, they have different personalities, different backgrounds, and joined our home after very different circumstances, but as dogs, they also respond to tasks in very different ways.
First, we have Reilly. He’s a great dog: a Husky-Shepherd mix, big and sweet, calm and loving. But he’s not the kind of dog you’d call a “go-getter.” He doesn’t chase a ball, or anything other than cats, and he doesn’t play with toys. When he’s been stretched out on
the couch or the floor, he’ll sit for a treat, but it takes him minutes to do so. First he looks at the treat-giver as if to say, “sure, you can give me that.” Eventually he succumbs to the “sit” command, stretching his way up from the floor or off the couch with great effort. If he’s moving off the couch, he’ll put his front feet on the ground, then stretch slowly into a forward lean; it’s the kind of stretch one might do after a good night’s sleep. If he’s on the floor, he takes his time getting up, first stretching his butt up and eventually bringing his entire body on all four of his feet. In either case, he eventually makes his way over to where the treat-giver is standing and sits, although sometimes the effort to cross the room is just too much and he collapses on the floor while looking up to see if he just might get the treat anyway.
I don’t mean to imply Reilly’s lazy; it’s more like he doesn’t see the need to exert himself unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll even stand in the backyard and lean forward when he pees rather than go through the effort of lifting his leg.
The three things that Reilly responds to with zeal are cats, my or Mr Desert’s return after being away for a few hours, and belly rubs. In the first case, he’s a barking, jumping, pawing in the air maniac; if he could break out or off the leash, he’d be after a cat in a flash. In the second instance, he’s leaping around, howling and twisting from head to toe in sheer joy; he’ll wrap his front legs around a torso or place his paws on our shoulders and move in for slurp if we allow it. As for belly rubs, they cause him to continuously thump one or both back legs like he’s a drummer for a rock n’ roll band. He’s wonderful, but as dog behavior goes, he’s average.
Then there is Bonnie, a.k.a “The Princess Pooch.” She’s a Lab mix and has two speeds: full and turbo. She’s rarely still. If she’s not chasing a ball, chewing on or shaking a toy, she’s pacing around or swimming. And she embraces each of these activities with abandon. If
she thinks someone might throw the ball, for instance, she takes off and runs so fast that she’s waiting yards away before the ball is released. This gives her time to gauge the toss so she can catch it. But, she doesn’t wait for the ball to come to her; instead she leaps in the air like a champion frisbee dogs and grabs the ball. Sometimes she’ll throw in a body twist so she’ll catch the ball in the air while facing in the opposite direction from which she leapt.
Now, if by chance one is able to throw the ball while she’s still running, she’ll kick it up a gear or two, over run the throw, skid in the dirt, grass, mud, rocks, turn around, excel, and grab the ball as she flies past it without ever coming to a stop. The only time she stops is when she arrives at the thrower’s feet; then she sits, drops the ball and waits for the next throw. And she’ll chase the ball as long as someone is throwing it. Her tongue might be dragging the ground, but she’ll hit the turbo booster to get to the ball before it hits the ground.
It’s the same with swimming. Although she won’t necessarily go into the pool just to cool off, if someone picks up her ball near the pool, she leaps in, walks to the end of the pool bench and launches herself into the water. She’ll tread water until someone throws her the ball, and she’ll catch it if she can; otherwise she’ll swim to the ball, grab it, swim to the end of the pool, jump out, run around the pool twice, step back in, drop the ball, walk to the end of the bench and wait until someone throws the ball again. And she’ll repeat this process as long as there is someone who’ll throw the ball. In fact, a few pool parties ago, she tired of treading water and swam over to Mr. Desert, nudged him, dropped the ball and swam back out to the middle of the pool waiting for the toss.
She’s a dog who gives everything she does her full attention and maximum effort, and this is the case even though she is now 9 years old. If she hears the treat container open, even from a dead sleep, she’ll fly over to the treat-giver, skid to a halt, sit and wait for a treat until she’s drooling like a teething baby. Whether she’s watching birds in the yard, snoozing on the couch, or in a deep, deep sleep, if someone says “jump,” she doesn’t wait to hear how high but instead leaps into the air as if gravity had no influence whatsoever. She’s eager to please and goes above and beyond what’s required of her.
Reilly and Bonnie are both wonderful dogs, and I love them both with all my heart. I’d throw myself in front of a car coming toward them, grab a vicious dog trying to bite one of them, and spend every dollar I had to care for them. But in the category “dog,” Reilly is average while Bonnie is exceptional. It doesn’t mean I don’t like Reilly or that he isn’t a good dog. It means he’s dog while Bonnie is a DOG!
So, what do you think; will this help my students see the difference between exceptional and average and so make clear that doing just what is required is to be average and that’s fine, but it won’t earn an A?