Heather Cox Richardson
Heather Cox Richardson offers up more wisdom for history undergrads. See previous posts for more Richardson's Rules of Order.
Never tell a teacher that you “need” a certain grade on an assignment. You earn grades; they are not “given” to you. If you need a certain grade to maintain your athletic eligibility or to graduate, it is your job to work all semester to maintain a healthy average. You cannot simply “get” a passing grade because you “need” one.
If you are disappointed in an exam grade, talk first with your TA about what went wrong on the exam, and how to write a better exam the next time. If you feel you still don’t understand how to write a good exam, make an appointment with the professor to talk about it. Do not go to a professor to argue about the points awarded on an exam unless there is a clear error. An example of a clear error would be a case in which a grader did not see one of the answers.
If you are disappointed in an essay grade, follow the same procedure you would for an exam. Ask your TA and your professor for strategies to enable you to learn how to write a better essay. If your teacher has written comments, study them. Learn from them. Never write a rebuttal to your professor’s comments, or otherwise argue with them. If you want to dismiss them, fine, but don’t expect that arguing about the professor’s assessment of your work will get you a better grade. If, after talking with the professor about your work, you think s/he is truly out to lunch, contact the ombuds office for help negotiating your way through—or out of—the course. In twenty years of teaching, I have seen this situation only once, and other professors stood by the student from the beginning. If you’re the only one complaining about the grading, be honest with yourself about the quality of your work.
Few college professors will permit “extra credit” assignments. Do not try to bargain for a passing grade if you have failed the course. Do the course work and you will not need to try to save yourself at the end.
If you are going to make an excuse for your performance in a course, or ask for an exception to the course assignments laid out on the syllabus, recognize that the teacher’s job is to keep the playing field level for every student. S/he cannot simply change the rules for you. If you do need adjustments to the course, take an honest look at your reasons. Are they excuses the rest of the students in the class would accept if they heard them? Death and illness (either physical or mental) are almost always good reasons; “I’ve been busy,” usually isn’t. Actually imagine yourself explaining your circumstances before your classmates. Would they buy your reasoning? If so, take it to your professor. If not, though, don’t hope you can arrange something with the teacher that the other students won’t know about. It’s the professor’s job to be the advocate for the whole class and, even if s/he would like to cut you a break, s/he cannot give you a better deal than the rest of the students got.
Letters of Recommendation:
Do ask teachers for letters of recommendation when you have established a good rapport with the instructor. You do not necessarily need to have an “A” average; you need to have demonstrated an interest in the subject and shown some effort to do well in the class. Ask for a letter immediately after the semester ends, DO NOT wait for several years, by which time the teacher will not remember you nearly as well as s/he does right after the course ends. You can—and should—set up a dossier at the career services department, where letters of recommendation are kept on file for whenever you need them.
You must ask for a letter, not demand one. Always give the instructor the option of declining. Perhaps s/he was less impressed with you than you thought; or perhaps s/he simply thinks someone else can write a stronger letter than s/he can. You do not want a weak letter in your file. Give the instructor room to say no.
Always give the instructor plenty of time to write a letter, provide addressed, stamped envelope(s), and drop the instructor an email reminding him or her about a week before the letter is due. Instructors often have dozens of letters to write at approximately the same time, and it’s easy to get mixed up about what’s due, when.
If you are going to use the professor as a reference again several years after you graduate, drop him or her an email to let him or her know and to remind him or her who you are. Put in the class you took, your interests, anything that will help jog his or her memory. When we deal with hundreds of students a year, it’s confusing suddenly to get a phone call asking us to identify and recommend a student from several years before. It doesn’t help your case to have the employer trying to jog our memories so we can recall exactly why we recommended you in the first place. Give us some warning, and we can be ready when they call.