January 22, 2005


I had heard about Ahmad Al-Qloushi before -- the Kuwaiti student whose college political science professor in California failed his pro-US paper and told him to get psychiatric counseling -- but until I read this post at the Rottweiler, I didn't know I could actually read Al-Qloushi's essay. The English teacher in me was intrigued.

A lot of people in the 'sphere, political science profs included, said they also would have given the essay an F. Several commenters have expressed the idea that if a student can't perform at a higher level than Al-Qloushi, he has no business being in college. That brings up a very delicate issue that I struggle with every day.

The university I work for is specifically designed for soldiers. There are no requirements of any kind for entrance, other than a high school diploma or GED. No ACT, no SAT, no high school transcript; if you want in, you're in. Some of our students are very bright, others are not. Some want to get an education, others want promotion points and couldn't care less about the content of the class. Some, I hate to say, probably have no business being in college, but they are.

So when I grade their essays, by what standard should I grade them? By my own, based on my classes at Truman State University? By a universal standard of Perfect Writing, as if that exists? Or by the standard of other students and how they match up to each other and what we've learned in the class? I generally have taken the latter approach, for better or for worse. I don't know of any other way to grade them; I walk the fine line between grade inflation and concrete benchmarks every day. I teach them structure, and if they follow it (or attempt), they do well. My students do not leave my class thinking like Den Beste or writing like Lileks, but hopefully they leave my class a little better than they came in.

Ahmad Al-Qloushi's essay ain't the greatest in the world. But I've seen far, far worse in my classes. He was also attending a junior college, not a top-rated university, which is where many of his critics work. I'm not saying that he deserved an A, only that perhaps his peers' papers weren't much better. He'd fit in perfectly in my class, where I have many non-native soldiers who write quite poorly. Hell, even my American-born soldiers make the same grammar mistakes Al-Qloushi made.

I'm not trying to justify a grade either way for this student, since I'm not a political science professor, but I can't help but wonder what the rest of the class' essays looked like. Were they similar, and thus did they also fail?

Posted by Sarah at January 22, 2005 09:41 AM

I was hoping to hear what you thought of this. I almost sent you the link to read, but see that you found it without my help. (lol)

Not being a teacher, but being a trainer, I do agree with you. It would be nice to see what the other students' essays looked like, just for comparison. I honestly didn't think it was a bad as so many said.

But that's just my humble opinion. I was more interested in yours! ;-)

Posted by: Tammi at January 22, 2005 02:51 PM

That seems a fair assessment

Posted by: Chase at January 22, 2005 04:59 PM

I've read the essay. I'm afraid I would have flunked it too. Although while I teach at a junior college, I teach comp sci.

My main beef, and the reason I agreed with the professors who flunked him, had little to do with grammar.

The essay did not adress the topic. The topic essentially required the student to show how the formulation excluded the majority of the people living in America at the time.

The arguments the student presents are all based on rhetoric, are not backed up, and don't address the question.

I teach comp sci; if you submit a beautiful program that doesn't solve the posed problem, I will assign an F.

Posted by: Eowyn at January 22, 2005 05:09 PM

You bring up a relevant point.

As a soldier in Korea, I attended U of Md classes at the Yongsan Garrison (Seoul). They had a disparity of student levels, and both American and non-American students. I appreciate the teacher's dilemma of shaping a grading policy in a class with a wide range of abilities and motivations.

My English instructor in Korea, David Norris, is the best professor I've ever had, Columbia University profs included.

On the other hand, a standard is a standard, and a student isn't helped when a training/education standard is not enforced to, well, standard.

Hypothetically, what if I attended a class where the standard was anti-Americanism? I can certainly write a paper critical of some aspect of my country, but I'd drop any class that compelled me to write an anti-American propaganda piece.

Posted by: Eric at January 22, 2005 05:26 PM

What if all of your students write poorly – does the one who misspells the fewest words get the A? Your dilemma intrigues me, because of some debate I had last semester with fellow students. We were in our late 30’s to early 50’s, and all were working cops in a degree completion program. The students were similar to the soldiers in your classes as to the range of their abilities and why they were attending school. The few that were griping because they did not consider it challenging enough were targeted for abuse by those who just wanted to graduate.

Posted by: Cerberus at January 24, 2005 12:04 AM

I got an A on an English essay that didn't properly address the question way back in my Freshman English class but the teacher made me come to her office so she could explain that she had to because my writing was so far above the class level, but she was only going to give me one pass and next time please to answer the essay question. ;-)

What I wanted to mention, though, was that when I was in college I noticed that quite often foreign students had a real problem with the concept of arguing a point they disagreed with. I think it feels like lying. My mom told me when I went off to college that there wasn't anything wrong with answering a question the way a teacher wanted it answered. If I recall the essay question it was asking to show how a certain thing was true, that the question itself assumed a particular outcome. With my mother's wonderful advice I'd put a lot of "so-and-so postulates that" and "so-and-so argued that" and lay out the answer as an opinion and spit back out what the teacher wanted to hear.

Did he have a choice of answering other essay questions instead and were those questions similarly slanted?

I homeschool my children and in my research about how children learn and my contact with other home educators I found that some children find it next to impossible do timed math tests because guessing feels like lying, answering a question knowingly falsely.

I'm not saying it's so, but I would suggest the possibility that it's not academic ability that is the problem but either a personal, or cultural, inability to do what amounts to a complicated process of responding contrary to personal belief that most people do automatically.

Posted by: Julie at January 25, 2005 06:15 AM

It seems to me that if you're advertising yourselves as offering a university education, offer a university education.

Just because you don't filter people out doesn't mean that they all have to pass. Really, is it worse for them to flunk out than to never even get the chance to try? Should a real university education only be offered to those that meet admissions standards? Why?

A university degree has value only because you can't get one without demonstrating competence at college level work - if the work gets easier, the degree gets less valuable.

Posted by: Ken at January 26, 2005 07:21 PM