Contested Grades and the “You Earned It” Retort

A common rhetorical move we professors make when students object to a grade is to reframe the discussion. We’ll say, “Let’s be clear. I didn’t give you this grade. You earned it.” And if it were appropriate we might underscore our zinger with a smugly snapped Z. But stop and think about it. When we make the “you earned it” move, it’s simply an attempt to shift the debate away from the fairness or interpretation of our standard and onto students to justify their effort by our standard, which really wasn’t their complaint.
I’ll admit, too, it feels good to make this quip, but it’s also a bit of a lie because it assumes a lot of things that just aren’t so. It assumes, for instance, that my standards possess a crystalline lucidity that students always understand (and not just on the day I explained them). Imagine how it sounds to a student when I say, “I covered this on the very first day” or “It’s right there on page 14 of the syllabus.” Unless my standards have been front and center at all times, this will sound exactly like what it is: a fine print “gotcha.”
The “you earned it” comment also assumes I never once had to make any subjective borderline calls while grading. And who can say that? Nobody’s standard or rubric is definitive. Fuzzy borderline calls are what we’re paid for. Otherwise, we would have been …