02 April 2009

When a course grade is much more than a grade

I am beginning to get a better understanding of Afghanistan, though that has not yet translated into a greater appreciation for living in Kabul or working at the American University of Afghanistan. Most of the students at AUAF are not well prepared for the university-level studies, which is no surprise. Three decades of armed conflict effectively disemboweled any semblance of public education, which is still non-existent in some parts of the country, so students don’t bring a wealth of general knowledge into the classroom, which makes it more difficult to contextualize and make relations with new materials and concepts. All classes at AUAF are taught in English, but very often students’ reading and writing skills are not well developed, though that is sometimes disguised by relatively stronger verbal and conversational proficiencies. Most of the college-level students I have had, regardless of place, are resistant to completing the assigned readings. However, most of those students accept the idea that they should do the readings, even if they don’t. I have a stronger sense from students here that any reading is considered optional.

One of the things I noticed with my Afghan students at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan is that many would repeatedly ask for things, like grade reconsiderations, even after I had responded to them. I didn’t place too much significance on that practice until I got to AUAF, where it is much more common. Many of the requests amount to pleas for mercy: I have so many tests this week (yup, it’s mid-semester and every student here can say the same), I can’t have a grade a less than an A (sorry, but grades are earned not granted on the basis of need), or I can’t make the test because I have to prepare a party for my sister (you’re kidding, right?). At times, the repeated requests are not only annoying but almost pathetic. After one student’s begging for a better grade, I was tempted to say, “You are embarrassing yourself by sniveling and groveling. Have you no pride?”

It is difficult not to look at grade begging as a personal shortcoming but its pervasiveness suggests that it is culturally sanctioned. An Afghan colleague says it is part of the package of “survival skills” you develop after a lifetime of social chaos. When there a few examples of achievement or success based on merit, other means are developed to fill the void. For example, buying grades by bribing woefully underpaid professors was common in Kyrgyzstan universities. In Afghanistan, the request is more likely to be rationalized on the basis that good grades are the reward for virtuous behavior. In other words, I deserve good grades, not because I did well on my assignments, but because I work hard at my job, I am the chief breadwinner for my extended family, or I am a kind person and love my family and respect my elders. I have had explain this to students before and I think I will have to say it again: a grade is neither a measurement of your personal worth nor an assessment of what I think of you. It is simply an evaluation of your performance in this course, nothing more and nothing less.


  1. Anonymous4:06 AM

    Dear Seamus o Sullivan
    First of all you are generalizing about all AUAF students which is not an academic way of writing in your article. Second let me ask you some of the questions regarding knowledge of students at the university:

    A) if students are at the collage level then why these students can be accepted in very good universities in the United Stated and be successfull at the same time ofcourse.

    B) if the university sees this as an issue, why the university admits the students with the lower TOEFL and IELTS scores? Is it the university's fault or the students'?

    C) if students comes to you with unacceptable excuses asking to postpone their test, why you as a teacher accept that, though the university policy clearly states that no-one without acceptable excuse can write a make up test.

    Finally I would like to mention that it is the responsibility of a professor to make sure his/her students know the subject well and can transfer their knowledge to the students in the best possible level. While I can not find such lecturers except few in the university to have that capacity, how can you except the students to be comply with your standards.

  2. True, this is not academic writing, but a blog, and I was conveying an anecdote about a single student that left an impression on me. I find the little stories are often more interesting than objective truth claims.

    Some students can succeed anywhere, but most college-level students in any developing country could not be accepted in “very good” U.S. universities. Many of AUAF students have been schooled in at least one other nation, typically Pakistan or Iran. Afghan formal education, like much of the rest of nation’s infrastructure, remains deeply damaged.

    Most students don’t like to read even in their first language. English is the second language for virtually every student here. They are TOEFL-tested before admission and the required minimum score is 500, but the test version used here does not assess writing skill, which is unfortunate, though perhaps by design. Many colleges and universities admit students who do not have the skills required to succeed. If that’s the school’s policy, then it must invest in substantial preparatory, remedial and supportive programming. AUAF only has a foundation studies program, but many of the FSP students don’t move to the undergraduate program and most of undergraduate students did not first come through FSP. Admission decisions are connected to the need to produce tuition revenue. Enrollment figures at AUAF are already below projections and it’s my guess the administration fears that increasing entrance requirements would lower the enrollment numbers. In the short run, I think it would, but sooner or later they will have to if they expect to gain U.S. accreditation.

    I don’t offer make-up tests or any extra-credit options, though I am happy to review drafts of writing assignments, which are is the only kind of “testing” I offer. Success in the American educational model in the humanities and social sciences requires reading and writing skills, but these are not the most important skills in other models. Another feature of the American post-secondary model is that the instructor has a lot of latitude in how he or she runs his class and I don’t know the approaches and requirements of other AUAF faculty. I would also be very surprised if there was any university-wide policy on make-up tests.

    I can promise any student that if he or she does the required work that he or she will know the subject well enough to succeed in my class. But I promise nothing if the student does not do the work.