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  • Ilan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

Some Thoughts on Grades

Updated: Sep 20


My friend Harold Van-Schaik was venting on facebook, as we all do from time to time, about students.  This time it was communication and attendance issues. It’s a common problem, and one might think he might just give a bad grade and be done with it. Grades...Talk about a thorny issue! Wow! It’s tough all around: students have other classes, often part time jobs, loans, a private life.  Teachers are stuck in a one-on-one setting where they have to face the possibility of spending some quality with an unhappy customer, and let’s face it, when the school has a couple of bands and orchestras to fill, often led by the only well-paid tenure-track faculty around who might act as area coordinator or in some other supervisory capacity, life isn’t that comfortable for the teacher.  So why bother? The students, that’s why. Let’s face it, my career might be nothing like my student’s career.  My income streams are very playing heavy with just a little teaching income.  Income I certainly like very much but don’t depend on. In that way my position is privileged compared to many: tenure-track trombone teachers often have a quota they need to fill, recruiting can be a challenge if school music programs aren’t strong around the university.  They depend on that recruiting to be granted tenure, not to mention student evaluations. It’s even worse if you’re an adjunct part-time faculty and you’re paid per student, often without funding for recruiting activities, compensation for recital or audition adjudication, and weird requirements to hold uncompensated office hours, write a course outline or syllabus, and spend outside lesson time interacting with students in need. Students are stretched too.  On the one hand, advising is almost non-existent in higher-ed, those advisers that exist are often well-meaning and hard-working, but chronically overwhelmed.  Approaching psychological services is stigmatized, and they aren’t always that available either frankly. Add to all that the financial burden of just being in school, spending time outside the workforce often incurring significant debt, an academic class load that can be challenging, and wanting just normal downtime for socializing and self-care.  They all, as we all do, also have background stories, often with significant hurdles to overcome, be they financial, emotional, or just a practical aptitude shortage in one playing area or another - like the multitude I suffer from! In that environment it can be tempting to want that one-on-one trombone lesson to be a safe place from all that stress.  That one place a person can go and have a conversation, take a load off, maybe have a cup of coffee, and just relax for a moment.   I’m concerned for that temptation.  I’m concerned because it creates an environment where the student’s role isn’t clear, with lax expectations regarding attendance and assignments that any other class might have, unclear metrics regarding basic outcomes that are integral to education at any level, but most of all, I’m concerned because it’s in the financial best interest of everybody to just not be up-front with students.  It’s like a scam that everybody is in on, except the student. It’s in the interest of the school to have the numbers to justify its budget, it’s in the financial interest of the teacher to collect that extra hour of often much-needed work and get those good evaluations, and to the student it just...just feels good.

So everybody wins. Except the student.


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