Tag Archives: passive voice

Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

At the end of every semester, I hold what I cheekily call my “group therapy session” about grades.  For about 20-30 minutes on one of the last days of class, I go over how I calculate grades, appropriate ways for students to talk to me about grades, and what frame of mind they should bring to their grades as they view and think about them.  In order to combat the inevitable anxiety, I usually say a few words about how employers generally don’t care so much about grades earned in lower division courses, that the difference between a B and an A in a sophomore level lit class doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run.  Then, one of my innately brightest students (who also struggled that semester for a variety of reasons) called me on what he pretty accurately judged was a bunch of happy horseshit.  “The difference between an A and a B,” he said, “is the difference between Flagship State University Law School and Regional College Law School.”  And you know what, he sort of has a point.

I’ve written before on this blog about grade grubbing, and given where we are in the semester, just a few weeks before midterms (how is it October already?), it’s no surprise that conversations about student laziness, excuses, “snowflakiness,” and sense of entitlement to unearned grades are starting to pop up on academic sites.  Though really, as someone who actually did get mono during exam week as an undergraduate, someone whose grandmother did pass away during the final week of classes just two years ago, and someone who had a student nearly die due to a chronic illness last term, I have this to say to the haters:  Don’t be a douchebag.  Treat claims of illness and family emergency as legitimate unless you know for sure that they aren’t.  Don’t treat these things as an occasion for a free pass, but help students work through the situation in a way that satisfies requirements for successful completion of the course without, you know, sending them into therapy, prompting them to quit school, or compromising their health.

But back to grade-grubbing:   I wonder if we, as instructors, spend so much time complaining about the way they expect awesome grades for merely average work and treat instructors like magical A-dispensers, that we’re missing a bigger point about the pressures that students face in a vastly more competitive and ever-shrinking labor market.  I wonder if we are too quick to explain this behavior away as selfishness, immaturity, and the result of a consumer-based education system that we miss the fact that such behavior may, in fact, be a rational response to the shrinking of opportunities for all but the most exalted (not to mention well-connected) individuals.

My extended family members are frequently astounded by my generation’s approach to education.  On both my mother’s and father’s side, their generation was the first to ascend to the middle class.  My father’s parents had no college education.  My mother’s father went to college–much later than the traditional student–after the Korean War, on the GI bill.  Both of my parents and all of their siblings, by contrast (there are 9 of them, total), have at least some college education.  Many of them have graduate degrees, and most of them own their own businesses or occupy senior management positions in national corporations.  But most of them will confess to having spent their teenage years in a state of total rebellion, not really giving a flying frack about grades.  Most of them scored about 1000 on their SATs (I know that scores are inflated now) and still got into the best two public universities in the state.  A few of them dropped out of college for various reasons and then returned to get their degrees.  I doubt that my grandparents were really thrilled about that, but they accepted it and seemed to manage the expense of those lost years without too much trouble.  My father put himself through medical school, which cost less than $1000 a year in the early 80’s. I say this all just to point out that the costs and outcomes of higher education are, by all measures, changing radically and rapidly.

The grandchildren–my generation–were all raised to care intensely about performance in school.  Part of that increased emphasis on getting good grades was, I think, a result of generational differences in parenting, but it also seems to have been an acknowledgment of the shift in college admissions standards and the fact that a college education is now compulsory for anyone hoping to make a middle class income in adulthood.  My sisters and I all scored 1300 and above and still sweated about getting in to the very same universities our parents sailed into without a worry with much lower grades and test scores.  College admissions have gotten ridiculously competitive, resulting in what is, effectively, the professionalization of the teenage years, when every class and every extracurricular experience is carefully selected based on how it will look on a transcript or a resume, when students are increasingly encouraged to begin thinking about college in middle school, when top high schools routinely engage in the practice of grade inflation in order to give their students an edge.

This is a system in which it becomes very difficult to learn how to deal with struggles and failures, because you can’t afford to have them. In my junior year of high school, my grades began to slip, not because I was lazy or unmotivated but because I was mired in an undiagnosed and untreated depression, a slip that most certainly cost me my top choice college.  The teenage years are fraught with experimentation, crisis, and yes, failure, and those are all experiences that contribute to adult growth, but the consequences of that period is frequently so dire and unacceptable that it’s sort of no wonder that students begin looking for dishonorable but frequently effective ways mitigate those consequences.

Much of this thinking is catastrophizing.  Plenty of people make B’s in various classes and move on to gainful employment.  Plenty of people drop out of college and return.  Plenty of people do not get into their first choice college or law or medical school and have rewarding careers.  But students occupy a space that is part alternate reality and part actual reality, a space in which the stakes for being slightly less than extraordinary increasingly feel bleak.  Middle class wealth is shrinking, not growing.  The only group that continues to get richer is the superstars, the celebrities, the CEO’s, and many students still operate under the assumption that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, that brilliant grades and admission to a top business or law school signify entitlement to all of the riches the world has to offer and that all they need to do is keep presenting the case that they are meritorious (even if they aren’t) and the rewards will follow.  My grandparents aspired to join the middle class back when it really was something to aspire to.  Now, increasingly, it isn’t.

So why do they care about grades so much?  Because they think they have to.  That’s not a call for instructors to indulge them in their quest for unearned rewards, but it is a call for empathy and a call for those of us who have the opportunity to intercept these kids at a particularly delicate time to help them successfully enter adulthood, to educate them about how to manage setbacks responsibly.

Passive Voice Shenanigans

In the wake of Kathleen Parker’s absurd column on Obama’s use of the passive voice in his speech on the Gulf oil crisis, Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log has been doing blog posts on this much maligned grammatical construction.  His dismaying finding is that many of the people clutching their pearls over the passive voice are completely incapable of correctly identifying it.  The subject of today’s post seems to be completely unaware that the passive voice is a verb construction.

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we’ve been taught to write “formally” in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying “Responsible for management of three direct reports” change it up to “Managed 3 direct reports.” It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve seen or heard people in business combine irritating grammar snobbery with ignorance, and the consequences for students and college graduates entering the professions is disheartening.  As Pullum says:

This is serious business for America’s economy. It does nothing for getting Americans to get into employment, realize their talents, and contribute to tax revenues, if we simply extend into resumé-writing the promotion of nervous cluelessness that seems to be the main strand in English language instruction in the USA. It is so easy to get sensible and intelligent native speakers terrified that their language isn’t good enough. And the business of getting people into that state is being managed by teachers and tutors and advisers and columnists whose lofty opinion of their own expertise is matched only by their utter failure to grasp even the rudiments of sentence structure.

Awesome.  But hold on a sec.  Pullum here picks on “English language instruction in the USA” as if it’s some sort of monolith.  In fact, there’s a substantial body of pedagogical theory on composition, pedagogical theory with real, immediate implications for practice in freshman English classrooms and writing centers.  Many teachers staffing freshman composition classes in Rhetoric and Writing departments are trained to help cultivate fluency, not simply pick apart sentence structures until students become so nervous about their comma placement that they forget about the need to write an arguable thesis.

The problem is that there isn’t much cooperation, from what I can tell, between academic departments that specialize in composition and other parts of the university–including career development services.  Writing Across the Curriculum programs tend to be organized around the principle of getting students to produce a certain volume of writing throughout the semester, without much attention to what kind of writing instruction is being advanced in those classes.

So, you know, the utopian solution to that would be better funding for departments that staff comp classes and more outreach to other parts of the university.  But our department just got cut back by about half while the college that houses and funds it builds a new building.  It also wouldn’t hurt to get all the university faculty that deals with writing in a room and allow some Comp people to box them about the ears with the Clue Stick.  Too far?  Maybe.

Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.