Friday, January 4, 2008

"Extra credit?"

I find it difficult to take "extra credit" seriously. In my high school, there was none, at least none that I knew of. When I failed my algebra midterm, there was no "extra credit" to boost my grade. There was though "extra help," offered 45 minutes or so before the school day began. I went in for that help morning after morning, learned some algebra, and ended up with a B or B- for the semester. (Thank you, Mrs. Waibel.) In college, my only extra-credit memory involves an intro poetry course in which we could memorize and write out poems or partial poems on several occasions throughout the semester. We were paid by the line.

While I have trouble saying "extra credit" with a straight face, I'm not completely opposed. I sometimes add a simple bonus question to a quiz (for some reason that happens only on Fridays, so some students never know about it), and I sometimes add a question that can be answered only by someone who's shown admirable diligence in reading. I once offered an enormous amount of quiz extra credit for anyone who had looked up verst, a word that comes up in passing in Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin. One student had the definition, and I was happy to make good on the offer.¹ I suppose that I see extra credit as something like a surprise party, to which I bring the goodies, of my own generosity, on a whim.

I'm opposed though to extra credit as it usually functions in college life. Sometimes extra credit amounts to a private arrangement between student and professor, typically a student who has already struck out and now seeks another chance at bat: "Do you give extra credit?" Such arrangements are ethically indefensible, violating the grading policies of a course syllabus and cheating every student who takes the grade he or she has earned with no attempt at negotiation.

And sometimes the offer of extra credit is made to all, usually for showing up. E-mails announcing fiction- and poetry-readings often include a sentence or two encouraging faculty to offer students extra "points" for going. Having gone to many readings with largely captive audiences, I wonder about the effect on readers' morale. I remember going to a reading by Alice Munro, many years ago, and watching as a professor took a count of her students while Munro waited to begin. You can always spot the extra-credit seekers at the end of a reading: they're the ones who are up and out before the questions-and-answers start.

The tipping point for me came when I was teaching an intro lit course focusing on themes of faith, survival, and progress. It was a good class, with a reading list that included the Book of Job, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, and Art Spiegelman's Maus. Eva Kor, a Mengele twin and Auschwitz survivor, was giving a talk on campus that semester, and I encouraged my students to go hear her. What could be more relevant? "Extra credit?" someone asked. The question made me crazy with exasperation. Here's a woman who survived the Nazis, I said, and you want me to turn her life into points to add to your grade? I couldn't do that. The best kind of extra credit, as I told those students and still tell my students, is the kind you give yourself: by working harder on an essay, by doing some extra reading, by taking in an exhibit or lecture for its own sake, because you might find it interesting, because you might learn something.

I was curious about the history of the term extra credit and did a little snooping before writing this post. The Oxford English Dictionary, I am happy to report, offers no extra credit.

¹ There was a point, by the way, to the verst question: the word is an early hint that the novel's narrator is a Russian émigré.

comments: 7

Chaser said...

I don't offer extra credit simply because there is entirely enough grading in the world as it is. Also, I'm with you on what happens when you get students to go to readings or lectures with promises to fix their otherwise cruddy grade. Two things happen:

1. The good students who don't need extra credit go;

2. The poor students go and make it obvious to everybody they are too cool for whatever activity this is.

Once at my former university, the political science department sponsored a talk by a Cuban feminist theorist. A group of guys sat together and talked in a loud and disruptive fashion the entire time. Finally, one of the professors (an elderly German professor) stood and motioned to the speaker "Forgive me a moment. Just a moment." He walked over to where the guys were and said "You are being rude and boorish. Please leave now or I will call security to have you removed." They were beet red--as they well deserved to be. She was able to finish her very good talk in peace.

Chaser said...

Oh, and although this might not be an appropriate request would you please post the book list from the class you mentioned? I should very much like to see what you choose for the class and add to my reading list.

Michael Leddy said...

Major props to that professor!

The reading list for that class is long gone, Lisa, but it probably also included the Odyssey. Maybe Modern Times too (in which case it was a reading and viewing list).

Michael Leddy said...

And we listened to Steve Reich's Different Trains.

JuliaR said...

This was an excellent post, thank you. I may pass it around among my colleagues.

Patrick said...

I can't recall a time I've requested extra credit, though I certainly have taken the opportunity for it. One of the best was 5 points (that I did not need) in German class, to go to a lecture on challenges of translating the Bible (essentially translation versus transliteration, if I recall correctly). While I'm not religious, I'm very much into languages and linguistics--one of my degree programs is a Spanish major/French minor--and I found the talk fascinating.

By the way, I never made much sense of Waiting for Godot, but I read it for Modern Dramatic Lit, twice, and loved it.

Michael Leddy said...

Patrick, you sound like the sort of student any prof would be happy to have in a class. :)