Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When a "C" is a Lifeline... or a Life Lesson

I've got one, and I'm actually damn proud of it:

A "C".

An often misrepresented "C".

You know, the one that many students think is really an "F" in disguise.

Every single term for years now, I have the same conversation over and over again with at least a few students about "C" grades:  Many students equate it with failing.

I've even had students tell me that they'd rather drop a course entirely than receive a "C"--and we're talking at the end of the term!

This always surprises me. Is a "C" what every student should strive for? That's a personal decision, of course, but in my opinion, I would say hard work and grade excellence that goes beyond a "C" is in order.

However, I do believe there are times that a "C" has its place, and not in the "like-an-F" category that it so often gets lumped in. 

I think we need to "re-message" the perception of a "C".  A "C" is a midline grade--typically 70-ish percent.

Last I checked, that's average.

Not failing.

Not high achieving.

Just average.

There are times that "average" absolutely has its place.

As I said, I have one "C" on my transcript from my first two years of college.

And I'm here to tell you that "C" was completely hard-won.

Now for the story (Of course, there's a story!):

It was summertime, Vegas (my hometown), 115 degrees.

I was taking a few core classes at my community college, one of them offered twice a week for three hours.

I could handle it. We weren't talking about twice a week, three hours, for the rest of my days on earth... just six weeks (or whatever the summer term was).

The professor walked into class wearing a tweed sportcoat.

(Yes, the sportcoat had those pleather-looking elbow ovals.)

Did I mention that it was 115 degrees outside? The air conditioning in the college wasn't that powerful.

After a brief review of the syllabus, the professor pulled out a legal pad.

The prof proceeded to lecture from that legal pad.

For. Three. Hours.

Now, I was a diligent student. In my last post, I mentioned that it took me six years to return to school. This class was on my return trip to college when I was striving to become a college prof, so I was extremely dedicated.

The first class session, I took very thorough notes during the neverending lecture.

I hoped that the lecturing from the legal pad would be a one-time event.

It wasn't. This was apparently going to be the teaching method for the entire summer term.

The second class session, I took less thorough notes, but made a few flower and lightning doodles on the side of the paper.

The third class session, I took scant notes and made more elaborate sketchings. I think I drew the Sistine Chapel or Wembley Stadium... or maybe it was just a lopsided 3-D box.

The fourth class session, I took even fewer notes, but found that I was very good at passing notes with an equally mind-numb classmate. 

The fifth class session, I was taking no notes, but passing notes the entire time.

(Hey, at least I was writing something. Two students in the back of the room literally played Gameboy the entire three hours!).

Did I mention to you that I was just under 30 when I was attending this class??? In other words, I knew better. Not to mention, remember that I said I was returning to college to become a college prof?

Right. I'm disgusted by my own reflection of this behavior.

Bottom line: I wanted to scratch my skin off with jagged fingernails in that class.

Even worse, ready to hear how my grade would be calculated?

-Six multiple choice quizzes
-One mid-term
-One final exam

I have been known to stink at test-taking, even when I am not passing notes or watching other classmates play Gameboy.

I was screwed.

After the first quiz where I scored one of those average grades, I tried to talk to the professor about what I could do.

I'd love to say the professor was helpful, but no. I could really answer my own question:

Listen closely. Take better notes. Read the book.

I tried with everything I had in me to do those things. But I let my anger about how bored I was take over. That anger cost me my grade.

I had one thing working in my favor:  The book ended up being the primary source for the test material. So, although I was taking notes in a very minimal way, the reading saved me.

That and the fact that a ton of students also did poorly. Hence, many of the scores were curved.

I did not fail, but somehow, some way, I ended up with a "C".

I have to tell you that I could have thrown a party over that grade.

That "C" represented my weeks of sticking with that class when I so desperately wanted to run out into the oppressive heat and never return.

I attended every single session, sat through every one those drawn-out lectures (in body at least, not always in mind), braved my way through those tests that inevitably covered so little of what those lectures contained.

I shouldn't be proud of that "C", but I am proud that I didn't bail on a bad situation.

I am proud that I learned more about myself as a student in that particular class than in many others.

I am proud that I decided, both philosophically and practically, the type of educator I would and would not be because of that class. 

I am proud that I didn't fail.

So what's the communication lesson here?

There are many, many reasons that "C" grades happen. Here are several:

-You take a class on a difficult subject that you simply can't get into and you make an agreement with yourself that you'll just squeak by.
-You have a life event occur during a term that threatens your stronger grades. You are unable to salvage enough to achieve your usual high grades, so you have to settle.
-You miss the mark on several high points-bearing assignments, earning B-level work or even "C's". You receive "C's" on major exams, too. Combined, all your grades average a "C".
-You are truly fine with getting "C's" in college and plan to be a "C"-career student.

My first communication advice is to have a talk with yourself accepting your decision. However, if you are the comfortable "C" student, you've probably already done that.

I say you need a second conversation. . . with your prof. Why? Because what you may consider "average" work might be substandard "D", or worse, failing work to your prof. You don't want that "C" to end up being lower.

You can say, "I am just trying to get through this class and I'm fine with finishing somewhere in the 'C' range. Can you look at this major paper and help me make sure I am not slipping lower than that?"

(By doing this, guess what? You might end up actually earning a higher grade due to the improved feedback loop! Would that be so terrible? Just saying...).

Let's say that you're the UNcomfortable "C" student. The "C" is not your norm and you are mortified about it, so much that you would almost rather drop the class than see the "C" on your transcript!

By all means, go talk to your prof, as well, and do it the minute you believe your grade will be threatened. NOT at the end of the term!

You can say, "I'm ordinarily a very strong student. This term, I am struggling with ______________ (something about an assignment, your life situation, etc.). I see that I may end up with a 'C' grade, based on my calculations (you can also say that you fear your future work will also result in a 'C' grade). Can you offer any advice so I can raise this grade?"

You may want to also ask the prof to recheck your calculations to be sure you will end up with the "C". 

Do not say, "You gave me a 'C'!" or "I wasn't expecting to do this horribly!" or "I never get 'C's!" Accept your responsibility for your role in the "C". If you believe that there is a bigger problem, such as grades that truly seem incorrect, then this is a different issue that you will have to responsibly and appropriately challenge, and maybe take higher, as I noted in my previous post about "I" grades.

If you end up like I did, and you have that "C" as part of your world, I ask that you communicate with yourself, once again... 

Please, please try not to beat yourself up over it.

Yes, I realize that GPA's are precious. Yes, I realize that scholarships and financial aid are at stake. I don't diminish those important facts, and to that end, I recommend that you communicate proactively about your "C" grade with your adviser, financial aid department, or anyone else who will need to know that your grade wasn't where you expected or hoped it would be. 

But, here are a few realities:

-You can retake that "C" class later and try for a higher grade (financial aid won't pay for it, but you might be willing to).
-A "C" is far better than dropping the class late in the term because what if you never get around to taking that class again, or what if your schedule prevents it? At least you have the credit and the points from the "C".
-You can average out a "C" on your transcript by earning additional "A's" in other classes.
-You can communicate positively about your "C", if it ever comes up. Talk about your pride, not necessarily in the grade, itself, but in the fact that you did not give up, despite your circumstances.

Is a "C" the ideal? No. Not if you are someone for strives for more. I know that the "C" feels like failure and I don't take that away from you.

But a "C" is NOT the same as failing.

A "C" is simply average.

Sometimes, when your world or a college class becomes more of a cross than you can bear with usual excellence, a "C" can be a lifeline... or a life lesson. 


  1. In most institutions (including ours) a C is not average - a B is. Of course there are some classes where a C is above average. That doesn't make your point any less valid, of course. A C is more commonly defined as "satisfactory."

  2. Interesting you should mention that, Eric. I noticed that the GPA IS different than at my last college. However, so is the minimum GPA that a student can earn to pass the class. Both are skewed lower, but doesn't it work out the same? Are there really classes where a C is equated to a B-ish? I'm so glad you started this discussion!

  3. This reminds me of the Sociology 101 class I took in my first semester ever of college. It was in a huge lecture (enrollment count of 178), and while the professor cracked a joke every now and then, it was pretty dry (and only got more so in the second half of the term when we moved from real-life stories to Peter Berger's Invitation to Sociology). There wasn't really any barometer to indicate my standing - we had a midterm and a final. And frankly, when I saw the C grade for the class, I wasn't surprised.

    Granted, had I actually used the professor's study sheet and maybe let some of the book get absorbed (not just in one eye and out the other), I might've gotten a B or higher (also keep in mind that it was my first semester of freshman year, somewhat of an adjustment period). But often, these kind of classes are what you make of them, no matter how boring they are.

  4. Oh, my, Michael. I think our profs went to the same school of teaching. You have a point: You were a freshman. I wasn't. I should have behaved a bit better :-). What bothers me most about both of these situations, though, is the lack of varied measurement that we had. Had I been able to write a few papers or do some sort of project (interacting with others in a better way than passing notes!), I might have actually done better. I'm so glad you shared this!