davidd (davidd) wrote,

Yay for A (minus)

Last Wednesday night I was writing a paper for class. I "worked" on it from 10:50 p.m. until 12:20 a.m., about an hour and a half. Of course, I spent at least half an hour of that writing an LJ entry about it, and checking out phunction's LJ, and responding to phunction's comment on my entry, so I really only put about an hour into writing the paper.

I suppose that's why I scored only 93%.

I should set higher standards for myself, maybe. I should settle for nothing less than excellence from myself, right? Or at least, I should take a closer look at the course grading rubric for the assignments.

There was a time when I would have agonized over something like this "low" mark. There was a time when I might have put considerably more effort into writing a paper like this one. What I'm finally learning, however, is that when papers are graded, the scoring is extremely arbitrary. Throughout most of this master's program, the few times I've been reasonably pleased with my own efforts, the awarded scores have been lackluster. Those assignments on which I felt I did poorly, or those into which I put very little effort, receive equal or better marks.

One of my learning team members has straight A marks, with the exception of one course, in which the instructor (who is no longer a member of the university faculty) awarded everyone an A- or lower. She works hard, and she wants a high GPA. I admire her for her dedication, and for her excellence; not only is she doing well academically, she will, without question, be the best teacher among us.

But I'm sorry, I just don't want to work that hard. Not for these dull little exercises. If I can pound 'em out in an hour for an "A-" grade, well, perhaps I'm merely rationalizing my own slothfulness, but I kinda figure that if I can be almost perfect with a fraction of the work, why work any harder? There's a point of diminishing returns in this grading structure. I seem to be able to hit the 90% to 95% mark pretty consistently without -- I'm not sure how to phrase this -- unduly taxing myself. Putting in extra effort in an attempt to excel, however, generates far less consistent results. In my case, more work does not guarantee better results.

This parallels an observation I've made lately, about what I'd call "overteaching." I noticed an example of this at camp with the students last week. The kids were divided into two groups to participate in various activities. One of the activities was archery. The counselor for the first group was pretty mellow in his approach. He briefly showed the kids how to hold the bow. He basically told them, "hold it like this. Hold the arrow with two fingers like this. Pull it back like this, and let go. And don't walk up to the target until I tell you to, or you might get an arrow in the back of your head, which would hurt. A lot." Most of the kids did reasonably well. That is, their arrows went more or less in the direction of the target, and pretty much reached at least close to the target.

The second counselor, with the second group, was very process-oriented. She gave very precise instructions, and had the kids do each step in order according to numbers which she called out. One, take an arrow; two, put the arrow on the string, etcetera. I think it was step five before they actually released the arrow. This group performed much more poorly. Most of their arrows didn't even reach the target. Many of them dropped their arrows and didn't get a chance to even try. It was sad.

I know I have a propensity to "over explain" sometimes when I'm teaching. I talked this over with my cooperating teachers. One of them told me she knows that's one of her problems, too, and she has to be aware of the tendency and try to keep it under control.

The parallel I'm recognizing here is the point of dimishing returns thing. Too much teaching, or too much effort on an assignment, do not necessarily produce significantly better results. Sometimes it's experience and repetition that produce the results.

Experienced journalists can crank out copy like nobody's business, on the fly and seemingly without effort. I remember back in my video production classes, how we would agonize over our little video edits, taking forever to get things just right. My friend Roger, with whom I took a number of video production classes, had a really tough time getting the hang of some of the editing, and took forever to put together his projects. Now, he's an award-winning TV news cameraman (he brushes aside his SPJ award as "that don't mean nothing;" I sure wish I had an SPJ award to frame and hang on my wall. That's real recognition, not "store-bought" recognition like a master's degree certificate) and he routinely slaps together packages with only minutes to go until airtime. He's been at it for a number of years, and he has a lot of experience. He rarely puts "hours and hours" into a project; but he's won awards and he's respected by his professional peers, so obviously his results are "good enough" to be better than the efforts of a lot of other people.

I don't like to do sloppy work. I like to think I set reasonably high standards for myself. What I'm finally learning, however, is that, practically speaking, sometimes it's okay to aim for a goal of "good enough" rather than "perfect." "Good enough" is achievable with some consistency. It's hard to hit 100% 100% of the time.

There's another facet to this: but I've completely blanked on what it was. Believe me, it was a brilliant observation, broad, deep, and profound. But someone interrupted me in passing, a brief conversation on an unrelated topic ensued, and now I find myself at a complete and total loss as to what I was going to say. The nebulous nature of fleeting glimpses of nigh-preternatural insight become even more nebulous at 11:30 at night. I seem to do a lot of rambling at 11:30 at night, don't I? I'm quite frustrated and annoyed now, actually; whatever it was, I really wanted to write it down, because it did seem pretty astute, and also lent more crediblity to my justification for slackerdom.

There are obviously fields in which effort and accuracy are important, and where perfection with consistency is required. The field of competitive spelling requires nothing short of perfection (I watched Akeelah and the Bee tonight, by the way). Mathematics requires perfection -- but in some ways math is easier than other subjects; that is, there's not a lot of ambiguity in 2+2=x. Science used to require accuracy and effort, until that Korean cloning guy screwed everything up. Actually, science got screwed up thirty years ago, when the astronomy world -- that would be the same bozos who now say Pluto is not a planet -- hyped up Comet Kohoutek as the "Comet of the Century." It's generally a good idea for physicians and pharmacists to work with high levels of accuracy and excellence. Some people would say that athletes need to perform at the top of their game at all times. To that I would counter that the University of Hawaii Warriors football team loses pretty much every game, yet the coach makes a million dollars a year. A million dollars a year, for coaching a losing team. To his credit, they lose consistently. This supports my thesis: consistency in hitting low standards is a worthy aspiration.

I still can't remember what that second brilliant facet (ha!) was supposed to be. But I read some interesting stuff about the Kuiper belt, the Oort cloud, and Trans-Neptunian Objects while researching this post.

I also know what the instructor in my current class is looking for now, so I might even manage to squeeze out another point or two on my next hack-job paper!

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