Real Live Prof

Social Comparison, revisited.  It was a late afternoon, as I recall. I was chatting with two of our junior profs, when one said, “I am just so puzzled by my students. I give them an easy assignment to do and they just seem to ignore it. Don’t they understand that not doing it will impact their grade in bad way?”

So I told them this story:

The famous "A" row,  situated near rthe front of every classroom.

The famous “A” row, situated near the front of every classroom.

I recalled being equally disturbed about student apathy when it came to their grades. Five years ago, I was teaching an intro to sociology class when I did one of my favorite first day exercises. I was teaching in Marshall Hall 107, which is an amphitheater -style room.

As we were starting the first day, I asked, “Is every one comfortable with their seats?” Everyone agreed that they were.

“Well”, I said, “That’s kind of sad…because you all have to find a new seat. Here is what I want you to do. Starting with this seat (far left, front row, I demonstrate by pointing), I want you to seat your selves in reverse alphabetical order.”

Someone always asks, “Can we have the roll?”

“No. You have to do it yourselves”

They groan. A lot. And then they stand up, and someone begins by stating, “My name is Zach Zedikiah, so this is probably my seat…” and he sits down. It is painful and awkward as students state their names, introduce themselves to each other, and slowly find their seats. After Alyssa Amanda Applewhite has taken the last seat, we check it, and then (always) correct it. And then, I tell them they have already begun seeing sociology…leadership, lack of leadership, social loafing, meeting someone who will turn out to be a friend,  etc., with the added bonus of being reminded of the alphabet song. (They always manage to look really unimpressed.)

After this part, I state that there are some, for whatever reason, who need to be really close to the front of the room.  And, I suppose, it might even be possible that some may need to be towards the back. If you can persuade someone to change seats with you, you may switch. However, I always point out, the front row is where the most “A”s are made…and the back row is where the most “C”s are made.

As I share this story with the junior profs, I tell them this is my “Aha” moment in to the enigma that is the modern student. One student, James W., who was unwittingly placed on the front row by virtue of his name, stood up and announced, “Dr. Miller, I only want to make a “C” in this class, so I will happily trade with anyone on the back row.”

Fortunately, someone on the back row needed to be on the front row, so I let them change seats. As I followed James’ semester in the grade book, I soon realized that, though very bright and active in and out of class, James really only wanted to make a “C”. I was astounded. Why be so smart and aim so low?

I asked the two profs, “What kind of students were you in college?”

They both humbly replied, “”A”s and a very few “B”s”.

“Who did you hang out with in college?”

“Other good students”

“And when you got to grad school?”

“Other good students”

“Did you or your friends you hung out with ever start a class and not try to get an “A”?

At this point, they proved their sharpness and mental acuity by realizing that perhaps they were (socially) comparing themselves to students who were in school for very different reasons and with very different goals, than they had been.

“At some point”, I said, “We realized that good grades would help us in our careers. In fact, if we are honest with our nerdy selves, we liked school and studying. I think we unwittingly (and unfairly) compare our experience as good students who wanted good grades, with those who only want or need, to pass.”

The great irony, of course, is that James W. went on to grad school…and by his accounting, did very well.

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Mark Miller

Associate Professor of Sociology at East Texas Baptist University

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