How do I complain about a grade without being whiny?

If one were to judge my academic abilities solely from my grades, I am an excellent student. My cumulative average (for three years plus summer classes) is over 90%. In my major, History, it is only slightly lower.

I received a mid-sixties grade on my final examination in one of my History classes, a fourth-year seminar. I was a little startled when I saw my overall average for the course (which dropped almost ten percent). I e-mailed the professor to ask what the problem was. He informed me that I had completely misunderstood one of the questions.

I would have stopped there, accepting my defeat, if not for the fact that the question was not clear-cut. I e-mailed him saying that I found it ambiguous, and that I felt my answer was not so out of sync that it deserved a mark as low as the one he’d given me. He replied that he looked for a certain set of facts, which my answer didn’t cover. This bothered me–how ccould he ask an ambiguous question and then only accept one take on it? I asked him that, and he said that since finals test general knowledge (something I disagree with at the senior level), there is no excuse for losing marks (I’m not quite sure what that meant).

At this point, he’s sent me his rubric and my final, and we’re going to discuss it tomorrow. The problem is that I’m certain he used his rubric correctly–that’s simple. What I disagree with is the rubric itself. How can I bring this up with him without making it seem like I’m just grabbing for marks? Having re-read my answer, I still feel confident that I answered the questions he asked, even if I didn’t answer the one he expected us to answer (but left ambiguous in the question).

The question was this: “Discuss the origins of Chinese Communism.”

His take: discuss its intellectual roots, the founding of the CCP, and early years of the CCP. I agree that that is certainly a valid interpretation of the question.

My take: I decided, since the course is officially on the People’s Republic of China, to focus on the Chinese aspect. That is, what makes it Chinese Communism. Thus, although touching briefly on its Marxist and Russian roots and on the founding/early organisation of the CCP, I spent a lot of time discussing Mao’s influence on Communism in China, and how it ended up where it is today. After all, both Maoist and Dengian policies are still called “Chinese Communism.” I feel that I made that clear in my answer.

Am I completely off base? I don’t want to make a big deal of this if I actually screwed up and I’m just blinded by my own desire for good grades.

Without getting into the test itself, generally what you would do (you’re in college, right) is talk to the teacher, if that doesn’t work, find the Chair of the dept and ask them how to start the appeal process and go from there. If you still can’t get anywhere you then can appeal it with the Dean of Arts (History get’s you a BA right) and I think there’s one more after that, but then you’re pretty much done.

After talking to the teacher I’d go to the Chair and see what can be done.

If the chair gets you nowhere, talk to your university ombudsman. That’s what they are for.

I think you’re doing a good job of not being whiny, at least to us. Make your argument clear to everyone you report to.

Yeah, it’s going to be a problem, though, because I’m guessing that most of the students interpreted it in his way. It’s one of the fun things of college, determining whether it’s a safer bet to give your take on things, or to simply say what the prof wants to hear. I had one professor who would give out mediocre grades for simply saying what he had said. He was an excellent teacher though, and I did much better on his tests when I managed to talk about things in my own way.

A bit of topic, Gentle Robot, please pay the registration fee and become a member! That must be one of the coolest names I’ve ever seen! I’d like to see you stick around with that name!

You’re right. That is the case, which weakens my position. I’m taking that into consideration. I also didn’t ask for clarification. My logic was that you can’t exactly ask “what do you expect me to cover in this question,” since it feels as though you’re asking for the answer.

Amen, Speaker. I always have issues with that sort of thing. That’s why I’d like to take a multiple-choice-only test with a space beneath it to justify your answer. That way, if you pick wrong, you may still get half credit. Otherwise, you’re throwing yourself to his subjective graces.

My last course was horrible. The test question was
“Which of the following is not a formal criterion for evaluating supreme court nominees?”
A. ABA rating
B. Race
C. Gender
D. Private sector career experience

My answer was “D, since most nominees are from district and circuit courts, it’s usually public sector experience that’s a big factor.” When really the answer should have been E-There’s no such thing as formal criterion. Did you know that a 5 year old Spaniard can be on the Supreme Court?

What a horrible question. What was the answer supposed to be?

First, my sympathies. (I’ve never forgotten the professor who gave me a C on an exam because, in response to the question “Discuss the effect of Christianity on the development of western civilization,” I wrote mostly about Christianity in the late Roman empire, having forgotten that according to his completely arbitrary definition, Western Civilization began on Christmas Day in the year 800.)

That said, you might want to think long and hard about whether this is a battle worth fighting, because nobody will care in a few years whether you had an A or a B in that class, and filing a grade appeal could make things very awkward if you expect to take another class from that professor or ask him for recommendation letters in the future. Your call – you know more about his personality and the chances that you’ll cross paths in the future than any of us do.

That’s another concern I’ve taken into account, and it’s less of one than I would fear with other professors. He’s disliked in the department because he runs classes against protocols (3-hour lectures in what are supposed to be seminar classes), and as far as I know, he won’t be teaching here after this year. Thanks for bringing it up, though.

You could admit that you might be wrong but that you just can’t bring yourself to think you screwed up that question and if he wouldn’t mind asking some of his colleagues for their opinion on it, just so it doesn’t keep nagging you, you would be forever in his debt.

If he’s a decent human being and a good teacher, he will do it and be willing to reconsider (or be reassured on) his initial judgement.

If he refuses, then you know you have to eat it or take it over his head.

Hm, that’s tough. I can definitely see his point of view as well - if he feels the question was phrased clearly, and you missed crucial points in answering THAT question, well…

I’ve actually come up upon something like this recently, from the other side. I didn’t write the question, the prof I’m TAing for did, but the vast majority of people misunderstood it. Frankly, I would have had no idea how to answer it properly, either. Once I read the model answer the professor wrote, though, it made perfect sense.

I was pretty conflicted as to what to do (I was grading the tests). Basically, I ended up giving points for answers that a) contained correct information and b) justified how they related to the question. I didn’t give out any As, since none really answered the question asked, but I gave out a lot of Bs.

All of which is to say, I think you’re off-base if you want him to grade your answer as if it was the question you read it to be, not the question he asked. However, he’s grading inappropriately if he doesn’t acknowledge, in terms of grades, what you did write correctly.

And if you’re not worried about ever interacting with him again? Heck, don’t worry about being whiny. Go through the appropriate administrative channels.

Ambiguous? Let me bold the definitive bit:

What part of origins is unclear?

If the instructor wanted a compare/contrast piece on the Soviet versus Chinese implementations of Communist politics, then the question would have been phrased differently.

The question, as stated, clearly wanted a narrative of some sort on the beginnings of the Communist movement in China.

There is nothing wrong with the question that you wanted to answer, but that was not the question asked. We instructor types get rather cranky when a student alters a test query. Answer the question asked, not some sort of tangent question.

Why not: “Discuss the origins of Chinese Communism.”

I agree with DanBlather. Mistakenly thinking that a certain part/word in a test question has more emphasis does not mean the student is “alters a test query.”

Altering the query would be if the question said “Discuss the origins of Communism”, but since it’s a class about China the student assumes the professor really means “Chinese Communism” and therefore they decide to answer the question as if the professor had asked that.

See, even if the professor had asked “Provide a narrative on the beginnings of the Communist movement in China”, I think the student would be fully able to justify writing about “…the beginnings of the Communist movement in China.”

Also, it’s not like Speaker for the Dead completely ignored the earlier roots of Communism. From the OP:

Uh, no, sorry:

The question clearly asks about the origins of communism in China, not about how Chinese Communism varies with Soviet Communism, or of Mao and the evolution of the ongoing ChiCom experience. Relegating a minority of the answer to the origins bit, while dissecting the distinctly Chinese aspects of Communism in China does not address the question as asked:

Discuss the origins of Chinese Communism.

The question is, in fact, an imperative: The subject of the imperative is the student, the object of the imperative is origins, the action is discuss, the modifier is Chinese Communism. It is not a matter of arbitrarily stressing a random portion of the sentence, but rather a matter of parsing the sentence correctly. The essential bit is the origins part, and the answer would substantially deal with origins.

If the student had doubts about the clarity of the topic, that could have been clarified with the instructor.

True, but I’ll chip in as a university administrator. If that really is the whole question, that’s clearly very poor and open to interpretation. If a student complained to me that it was ambiguous, I would certainly have some sympathy. If you are looking for a specific area to be discussed, you clearly have to say so -

Eg. Joe Bloggs stated that communism in China originated and grew from a need to counteract social unrest and maintain control. To what extent do you agree with Bloggs and what other factors may have contributed to the rise of the CCP?

This frames the question from the off, and also allows enough free reign for the student to demonstrate their knowledge.

On another note, I’ve wondered often about how the US system works. We have a fundamental academic quality system in the UK (my job, in fact!) to ensure that individual professors do not wield individual power - samples of work are second-marked and moderated, members of other universities oversee each award to ensure that standards are comparable, etc. I know we are unusual in that respect but do US professors really have total control over every aspect of their class?

I’m with cerberus here. Yeah, I’ve seen less ambiguous phrasings, but I think its a stretch to think he wanted you to discuss anything other than the origins.

“Discuss the origins of the US Government” doesn’t mean discuss how the US Government was doing things different than France and England while glossing over the Constitution.

There really isn’t a way to complain about the grade at this point without being whiny.

You’re looking at a somewhat protracted battle to get the professor to admit that there was possibly another way to interpret the question, and now he’s supposed to go back, and grade your essay in light of this alternate interpretation. . .

Don’t be that guy.

I’m also wondering if this battle is worth it. Almost every serious student gets an unfair grade at some point or another, now it was your turn. I assume you’re worried because you might apply to grad school, and while I don’t know the history field, my experience is that grad schools are not looking for across the board A’s. Rather, they want to see absolutely brilliant performance in some instances, as evidenced by your letters of recommendation. If you have great recs, one mediocre grade in your last year of school won’t be an issue. If you don’t have great recs, it won’t make much difference in that case either.

I graduated over 25 years ago, so take all I say with a grain of salt. Also I’m an American and your location has you as Canadian. With that disclaimer in place…

First, I think you’re smoking crack on what the question asked. It’s patently obvious to *me * that the prof’s take was the correct one. The time to clarify the question is during the test. And btw I do have degrees in Chinese language and East Asian Studies (and some others that aren’t relevant). I’ve also been to many of the CCP shrines including those in real bumfuck places.

That said, I would go talk to the prof and be completely upfront with something along the lines of. "I think I know the course material pretty well, and feel free to grill me right now. However, I interpreted your question to mean blah blah blah. In hindsight, I can see that you really meant it as the founding and early days of the CCP. Whether it was the pressure of the test or just the way my brain is wired, I interpreted the question incorrectly and didn’t ask for clarification. I’d like your opinion on whether I gave a credible answer based on how *I * interpreted the question? Given all of this, I don’t think I deserve high marks because I didn’t give the correct answer to the question, but I also believe I don’t deserve a 60%. Can I demonstrate I’ve mastered the course material and ask that you’ll re evaluate whether such a low mark should stand?

Hint: I would not bring Deng Xiaoping into the discussion. His real influence came much later. Depending on your prof’s views, I would also put some digs into Jung Chung and Mao: The Untold Story aka fiction I made up 'cause I was the spoiled brat of “Uncle Deng” and figured out how to make millions out of it.