Chaos in Print

I have this one classmate. Everyone marvels at how she freaks out over every little exam and assignment. One time I was privy to her thought process and why she gets so stressed over every little thing. We had just gotten our midterms back, and the instructor was listening to arguments as to how people were screwed out of marks. I just happened to be behind her in line, and overheard her lengthy, passionate defence of her incorrect answers. That’s when she finally let it slip. “But I need to get a perfect score!” she exclaimed. “When I graduate and I’m looking for a job, the guys doing the job interviews are going to order copies of my transcripts! If they see I only got 75% in this course, it could cost me a job!”

The instructor sighed and said, “Out of all the years I’ve been teaching here, do you know how many employers have ordered transcripts?” He held up his thumb and forefinger, shaping into a “0.” He then continued. “In the end, no employer is going to care about your marks here. All they’re going to care about is that you’ve got that diploma.” I began grinning like an idiot at that point. Out of the 3.5 years I was at university, it was at the start of year 3 that I finally came to that realization on my own. Until that point, I was a lot like my classmate. But once I learned of and embraced the fact that no manager in the world will care about my grades, I was able to take things at a more relaxed pace.

So now that I’m a university graduate and I have four years of experience in the world behind me, you can imagine how relaxed I am this time through school. My heart rate no longer jumps when midterm exams came around. If I find an assignment is a few words short of the required amount, I no longer care. That’s not to say I’m completely apathetic. I still study. I still do my research. I still get my assignments in on time. I simply no longer see the point in fearing everything.

But without fear to motivate me, I find I can become quite the troublemaker. No fear for my grades means I have more confidence in voicing my concerns over how a class is taught. If I think the instructor’s lesson contradicts something I’ve now seen or done in the real world, I’m more inclined to get up and say, “Hey! I think you’re wrong.” The most glaring example of this had to be my computer course.

I had to take an introductory course to Microsoft Office. It was some of the most basic stuff that most anyone knows. How to change wallpaper in Windows. How to underline stuff in Word. How to sum a column in Excel. Adding insult to injury was the fact that it was a correspondence course. I was to do all the work in the course at home, online, and only show up for the classes once every two weeks to write the unit tests. I wasn’t a fan of correspondence courses when I did it in high school and I wasn’t looking forward to doing it again.

Things were going fine until the unit test for Word came around. Now, the unit for Word was mind-numbingly easy. “This is how you underline.” “This is how you spell-check.” But on the test, there were questions that weren’t covered at all in the correspondence material. “How do you sum the columns in a table?” “True or false: a page divided into columns can hold more.” “How do you insert a JPG?” I was distressed. But, thanks to my years of experience, I was still able to ace the test. I considered mounting a protest, but decided to hang back for a while.

Two weeks later, it was time for the Excel unit test. And again, I was presented with question after question that wasn’t even touched upon in the course material. Well, in the way I play the game, it’s two strikes and you’re out. I fired off a somewhat harshly-worded e-mail to the instructor. It was along the lines of, “The Microsoft Word and Excel tests were filled with question that weren’t covered in the course material. I think this method of testing is highly unfair. Where do you get off rigging the tests for failure like this?”

The next day, the instructor replied. “This is a very harsh accusation, Mr. Cappis. I’ve attached the Microsoft Word and Excel tests. Please indicate which questions you feel weren’t covered in the course material.” Of course, in my paranoid interpretation of the world, what I read between the lines was, “OK, smart guy, make your case.” Back in my university days, I probably would have backed down from a challenge like this, but this time, I had four years of real world experience and the truth on my side.

It took about a week before I had the chance to make my case properly. When a free Friday afternoon came around, I printed out the tests, brought up the course material on my computer, and carefully poured through the course material and tests. Whenever I found a question that was addressed in the course material, I’d circle it. This all took about an hour and a half. Now that I had a proper argument, I sent off another e-mail to that instructor, simply saying, “THESE are the questions not addressed in the course material,” and listing the questions. I felt rather smug as I went home that night.

This time, the instructor took a week to get back to me. And it was more than I hoped for. “Well, Mark,” he said, “It seems that you’re right. The questions will be stricken from the tests and the class’s marks adjusted accordingly. And, starting next semester, it will no longer be a correspondence course. It will be a lecture course again.” I was elated! I fought the system and won!

I think my favourite part of this adventure was the denouement. With the last day of classes done, I was packing up my books and preparing to go home for Christmas. The instructor was walking past me in the hallway when he turned to me. “Uhh, Mark,” he asked, “You’re not a TV student, are you?” I replied that I was in radio, to which he just nodded and said, “OK. Just curious.” Since he is a TV instructor, I won’t get him at all next semester. I wonder if he was afraid he’d be teaching me again….

But it seems to be the TV instructors that I cause the most trouble for. I’m currently waiting for a response from another TV instructor I had. In the next-to-last class with this instructor, we were given the task of marking the fellow members in our group. (We had just finished a group project, you see.) Now, there were four other members in my group. I had to give them all a mark out of 25. But, the total of all their marks could not exceed 80. Let me spell this out mathematically:


w + x + y + z = a

w,x,y,z are whole numbers from 0 to 25.
a cannot be greater than 80.
Do you know what this means? If I thought everyone in my group did a top-notch job and deserved 25 out of 25, then that would mean the total mark is 100. That just was not allowed.

Many asked, “Why can’t we give 100% on this?” The instructor was quite clear. “Well, to get 80% would suggest that you did everything perfectly, and since you are just students, you can’t do everything perfectly.” I was infuriated. In the “additional comments” section of the grading sheet, I quoted 1984: “Freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Once that is granted, all else follows.”

But this still bugged me. Having a physics and math education, I can’t accept a number that’s randomly thrown at me. I must know the reasoning behind the number; the data, the equation, everything. Once I simmered down a bit, I fired off an e-mail to that instructor. I essentially asked, “How did you arrive at 80% as being the maximum? And if 100% is a perfect project, tell me, how do you define perfection?”

The only reply I got to this was when I ran into this instructor in the hallway. “I got your e-mail, Mark,” he said to me. “It’s going to be a while before I reply to it.” I’m still curious. I still want my answer. When the next semester ramps up, I’m going to continue pestering him for an answer. What can I say? I want to know what perfection is.

But it is still pointless to strive for perfection. I don’t want to become like my classmate, upset over every 95%. I’m a lot more relaxed now, and I’d like to stay relaxed. But I think it’s wrong to say, “The best you’re ever going to do is 80%.” I’m relaxed now. I’m in control of my fear. So I’m going to keep pressing for an answer here. While it is true that perfect marks don’t matter, I think it’s unfair to say it’s unattainable. I’m going to continue being a troublemaker for a lot longer.

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