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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

We would guess that many readers are familiar with Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Well, we got a lot of questions about one of those three things this week.

Current Events

R.M. in Norwich, CT, asks: I'm sure this has been asked and answered before, but I'll ask again. If the pro-Second-Amendment enthusiasts can focus on the second half of the text, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," why can't gun control advocates zero in on the first half, "well regulated militia?"

A very simplistic reading of it by a layman would seem to suggest that it allows government at the local, state or federal level to enact various laws specific to the safe ownership of said firearms. If you interpret "militia" as the founders did, I assume, why aren't all able-bodied males between the ages of 16 and 60 who possess a long gun required to assemble on the town green once a month to drill and make themselves available to be called up at a minutes notice to supplement the military in times of national emergency? What did the authors of the Second Amendment intend with this phrase and has it ever been argued legally?

V & Z answer: Although you already reiterated the key phrases, we'll start by quoting the full text of the Second Amendment, as it was written, because it's important to the answer:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Grammatically, the "militia" portion is a subordinate clause while the "right to bear arms" portion is the main clause. So, we are left, then, to figure out what the purpose of the subordinate clause is. There are four possibilities:

  1. Temporal subordinate clauses lay out a cause and effect sequence of events. If the Second Amendment was rewritten to emphasize a temporal meaning, then it would be something like this: "Any time that we need a militia, we are going to make sure there are no laws that will stop militia members from owning guns."

  2. Conditional subordinate clauses anticipate possible future outcomes. If the Second Amendment was rewritten to emphasize a conditional meaning, then it would be something like this: "Should it be determined in the future that citizens must always be armed, then their ability to acquire guns will not be limited."

  3. External causal subordinate clauses justify the main assertion. If the Second Amendment was rewritten to emphasize an external causal meaning, then it would be something like this: "Since we use militias for national defense, those militia members should not be limited in their ability to acquire arms."

  4. Internal causal subordinate clauses remind readers of the theoretical basis for the main assertion. If the Second Amendment was rewritten to emphasize an internal causal meaning, then it would be something like this: "Since we all know that our militia members need guns, we are going to make sure that all Americans have access to guns."

Now let's simplify this a little bit. If the subordinate clause was meant to be temporal, conditional, or external causal, then it would be inseparable from the main clause. That is to say, the ownership of guns would be explicitly linked to current or potential future militia service. In an internal causal reading, by contrast, the "well regulated militia" portion would be merely a helpful reminder, and only the "right to bear arms" portion would carry the force of law.

So, which is it? Well, conditional clauses were extremely rare in the time the Constitution was written, so it's probably not one of those. And internal causal clauses were even rarer. One well-known analysis of 3.3 million words written in English between 1750 and 1800 found a grand total of one conditional clause and zero internal causal clauses. By contrast, there were 19 external causal and 18 temporal clauses. So, the grammatical style characteristic of that era strongly argues that the subordinate clause and main clause were inseparable, and that gun ownership was specifically meant to be tied to militia service.

Furthermore, the fellows who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were not prone to unnecessary verbiage. If they believed something was widely or universally known (e.g., "Since we know that our militia members need guns"), they did not feel the need to put that thing in print. They were lawyers, most of them, and they only included language that they considered essential to the framework they were laying out.

That said, we are not Supreme Court justices, so our opinion doesn't count. And this question did come before the Court, in the famous (and infamous) District of Columbia v. Heller. That case was a challenge to the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which said that police (i.e., modern "militias") could have whatever guns that they deemed necessary while performing their official duties, but that private citizens could not own handguns, automatic firearms, high-capacity semi-automatic firearms, or unregistered firearms made or registered after the year 1975. Further, even those guns that private citizens did own, if kept in the home, had to be unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock. Dick Heller, a police officer who carried a gun on the job but could not keep one at home, filed suit with the backing of the Cato Institute. And in a 5-4 ruling (the conservatives and swing justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority, the liberals in the minority), the Court found that most of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 was largely unconstitutional, and that the right to own guns was not, and could not be, linked to militia service.

J.T. in Greensboro, NC, asks: I was rereading the decision in Heller v. District of Columbia (as one does following a mass shooting) and it seemed worth noting that the decision is very deliberate in stating that it should not be construed as a ban on firearm restrictions with a "traditional"/"historical" basis in U.S. law and culture. This includes, they specifically note, bans on "dangerous and unusual weapons" (they give the M-16, a weapon that was based on the AR-15, as their example of such a weapon). Antonin Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment argues that because the militia cause refers to the act of ordinary citizens taking up such weapons as they had laying around for day-to-day use to come to the defense of the nation, that the Second Amendment should apply to weapons that are ordinary to the time and place at hand.

To my mind, this actually leaves the door wide open for individual states—if not the Federal government—to pass sweeping, weapon specific bans of all kinds on armaments. Heller, it seems, restricts the ability of states/municipalities to deny arms permits of a general kind. It's hard to imagine that the AR-15 hasn't been demonstrated to be unusual and dangerous in the years since the case was decided, and it's hard to make the argument that the AR-15 has a legitimate, day-to-day use that couldn't be satisfied with a somewhat less lethal weapon.

I wonder if either you or the more legally inclined readers of the site can explain how Heller prevents states from saying something like, "guns capable of firing [x] rounds per second" or "guns with magazines larger than [x] rounds" are banned? While a bolt-action rifle with a five round magazine could certainly do plenty of damage in the right hands, it seems less well-suited for a mass murder while still being plenty well-suited for hunting or home defense or fighting the King of England.

V & Z answer: At the moment, such laws are entirely legal. To take an example, California law says that a resident has to be an adult without a criminal record to buy a gun, they have to purchase from a licensed dealer, they have to wait 10 days before receiving the gun, they can only buy one handgun every 30 days, and they cannot buy magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

However, the courts have been pretty aggressively striking down laws that place such limits. A couple of weeks ago, the generally very liberal 9th Circuit struck down a California law that prohibited the sale of semiautomatic guns to people under the age of 21. That decision is looking just super after what an 18-year-old did with a semiautomatic gun in Texas this week. And the Supreme Court appears to be poised to strike down a concealed carry law in New York State in the next month or so. We'll have more about that on Monday.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: What would happen if one or more blue states started simply ignoring the Second Amendment, and started closing gun shops and clubs, and confiscating and destroying any and all firearms encountered in civilian hands?

V & Z answer: On one hand, the federal government does not have the means to enforce its laws nationwide and so requires the willing cooperation of the states. If the states choose to defy federal laws, or to "interpret" them in a manner consistent with those states' goals, the states can effectively gut federal laws. See what is happening, as we speak, with abortion. Or legalized marijuana.

That said, if a state were to try something like this, it would have unwanted, and possibly disastrous, consequences. It would be politically unpopular, since there are many law-abiding gun owners, and many citizens who resent government overreach, who would be angry. Further, anytime there is talk of a gun ban, no matter how real the threat actually us, it causes an increase in sales. Further, folks who really wanted guns would just go to some other state, or to a gun show. And finally, it could serve to radicalize fringe elements, and to encourage them to start, say, shooting cops who show up to confiscate their weapons.

W.G. in Cascade, CO, asks: It appears that no action will be taken by Congress on the issue of assault rifles. Could Joe Biden issue an executive order to ban the sale of such weapons of war? I understand that executive orders are often reversed by subsequent administrations, but given the amount of public support for this measure, wouldn't it be politically difficult for a Republican president to overturn this particular order?

V & Z answer: Executive orders cannot create new laws, they can only instruct the executive agencies in how to interpret and enforce existing law. And so, the only way Biden could try for something like this would be an... aggressive reinterpretation of current statutes. For example, he could instruct the Department of Health and Human Services to declare gun violence to be a public health crisis, and to begin collecting and destroying semiautomatic rifles. However, HHS would be able to get to only a small percentage of rifles, and none of the ones in the hands of people who might actually do harm with them. Further, the NRA would sue immediately, and would almost certainly get an injunction. And finally, as noted already, things like this invariably increase gun sales. So, it would ultimately be counterproductive.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Does Joe Biden have the power to declare martial law after the mass shooting in Uvalde, TX, so that the U.S. military takes every gun of every U.S. citizen? How likely is it that he will declare martial law? And if you have to make a prediction: In which year will the U.S. Congress pass gun control legislation that will reduce gun violence in general and mass shootings in particular?

V & Z answer: Martial law is the substitution of military authority for civilian authority. It is generally limited in terms of time and area, and is justified by the existence of a state of war or rebellion, or by a natural disaster.

For Biden to declare martial law nationwide would be a dramatic reinterpretation and expansion of that power. Some sizable portion of the soldiers that would be responsible for enforcing such an order would refuse to do so. And even if the majority played along, and the President were to activate all the available reservists and National Guard forces, there would be nowhere near enough people to attempt a confiscation of the roughly 400 million guns in the country. Further, when they tried to do so, many gun owners would feel justified in defending themselves with deadly force, so it would certainly turn bloody. And finally, if Biden were to set this precedent, what do you think would happen the next time a Republican took office, particularly if that Republican was Donald Trump or a Trump clone? For all of these reasons, there is more likelihood that the sun does not come up tomorrow than there is of Biden declaring martial law.

As to when legislation might get through Congress, we have no guess, though we'll have an item this week laying out the case that this might be the time for the Democrats to get serious about this issue.

J.G.P. in Glendale, AZ, asks: The morning after the tragedy in which 21 innocent children and their teacher were shot and killed in Texas in just another senseless act of violence, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. We have differing opinions on gun control.

I expressed that Public Congressional Hearings should be held to flesh out the issues so that a common-sense solution, that we all agree to, can be formulated. Hopefully, legislation could be created that will at least lessen the carnage we see on almost a weekly basis.

My friend disagreed. He indicated that are plenty of gun laws in the books that simply are not being enforced. If such were done, gun violence would be greatly reduced, he claimed. I pressed him on his point of view. I asked him to provide a few examples where gun laws are not being enforced. He could not come up with a single example to support his position.

I have heard this argument from several right-of-center commentators, but I don't recall hearing about any specific gun laws that are not being enforced. Have you heard this argument? Can you provide any examples? If not, would you ask the readership if they know of any specific gun laws that are not being enforced that would eliminate (or at least reduce) these horrible murders?

V & Z answer: This is one of those pro-gun talking points that sounds good if you don't think about too hard about it, but that falls apart on closer inspection.

To start, the laws regarding which people can buy guns, and what type, and under what circumstances, largely are being enforced. The problem is that there are many ways to get around them, whether that means going to a gun show, or traveling to a different state, or having a person buy the gun on your behalf. So, guns end up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

The laws that aren't being enforced are almost exclusively those that punish bad behavior by people who already have guns. Part of the reason these laws are under-enforced is a lack of resources. Prisons are already overcrowded, and law enforcement budgets are stretched thin (in part because Republican administrations tend to reduce funding for firearms enforcement). Meanwhile, many of the laws are poorly written, sometimes deliberately so, so that the politicians can tell voters they "did something" but can tell the NRA/gun lobby "don't worry, it won't matter." For example, the Gun Control Act of 1968 decrees that someone who is "in the business of selling firearms" must have a license. However, it explicitly exempts people from that if they are selling guns "from a private collection." How do you distinguish between "in the business of selling" and selling "from a private collection," especially with the level of clarity and certainty required by a federal lawsuit? It's doable if someone is selling 10,000 guns a year by mail order, but most cases are more ambiguous, and so prosecutions for unlicensed firearms sales are very, very difficult.

K.C. in Hindhead, England, UK, asks: I read your comment about the awful shooting, that the president "managed to put together a pretty compelling speech on just a few hours' notice," and this made me wonder; what are the chances that there is almost always a speech on the speechwriter's laptop where they can just insert the names and locations? We all know there will be another shooting soon (and another and another). I don't mean for this to be in bad taste, but I can see Toby in the West Wing shouting to "just insert the latest names and send it out."

V & Z answer: We are inclined to doubt there was/is a pre-existing template. To start, we are under the impression that some of Biden's remarks were off the cuff and from the heart. Second, there was something like 7 hours' lead time between the news breaking and the speech, and the speech was only 8 minutes long. Any competent speechwriter should be able to knock out something decent, with a few rounds of revisions, in that time. What makes it good, or not so good, is the delivery more than the words. Finally, the details of any particular shooting are just different enough that a generic template probably wouldn't work.

What are written in advance, of course, are obituaries. Newspapers do this as a matter of course, which is why you sometimes see obits written by an author who died before their subject did. It would not be terribly surprising if the White House Press Office has a few dozen or a few hundred "official statements" ready in the event that someone notable perishes. For example, a pre-written tribute to Elizabeth II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, etc.

We are reminded of this bit, where Dana Carvey (as Tom Brokaw) is attempting to pre-record the announcement of Gerald Ford's death, and to cover all the possible causes of the (then still alive) President's demise:

K.F. in Madison, AL, asks: Watching the news just now, when someone said, "Governor Abbott," I thought I heard "gun-runner Abbott." Is there a term, similar to "Freudian slip," that describes hearing what's in the back of your mind? Auditory slip?

V & Z answer: The generic term for hearing word(s) [X] as word(s) [Y] is "mondegreen," a term coined in 1954. However, "mondegreen" generally refers to a situation, commonly in a song, where the original words were indecipherable or nonsensical and the listener "heard" something that was their (often subconscious) best guess. A famous example, because it became the title of a book on the subject, is the Jimi Hendrix lyric "'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky," which is often misheard as "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy." That mis-hearing certainly gives a new meaning to the title of the album on which that song appears (Are You Experienced).

That said, this doesn't exactly describe your mis-hearing, or a lot of other mis-hearings. And so, since 1954, various linguists have coined terms to describe specific sub-types of mondegreens. And the one that describes your case is "eggcorn," which refers to a situation where the mis-hearing has a meaning similar to the original meaning, but that seems more correct to the hearer. For example, hearing "Alzheimer's Disease" as "Old-Timers' Disease" or "expatriate" as "ex-patriot."

D.J.M. in Salmon Arm, BC, Canada, asks: Many years ago, I read an article that argued society transitions through long periods of centrist/progressive politics punctuated by short periods of far-right politics. Unfortunately, I don't recall the reference. What does the local historian think of the premise?

V & Z answer: The stock market rarely remains level; it's almost always going up or going down. And similarly, societies rarely remain in stasis, they are generally either moving forward or moving backward. That said, the formulation in your question is a bit simplistic. First, it is often the case that a society is moving forward in some ways and backward in others. Second, there are certainly periods of far-right backlash that are much longer than "brief" (see Germany, 1933-45). Third, in times of war, traditional political concerns and issues tend to be supplanted by war-related concerns and issues, and peacetime/wartime issues don't really fit together in the same forwards/backwards model.


J.E. in San Jose, CA, asks: In response to "Somehow, some way, Donald Trump made it through his presidency while facing relatively few crises" I ask: Is it possible that the group of people most likely to cause trouble were not upset enough to do so because their guy was in the White House? This would be a terrible reason to vote for conservative politicians and not one I am willing to accept. But specifically I wonder whether there is merit to the argument itself that people cause violent unrest in response to so-called liberal change they do not like, so if god forbid we try to offer nonwhites housing or healthcare or child tax credits that we must accept school shootings as a tradeoff.

V & Z answer: There were plenty of violent incidents while Donald Trump was president, including the most deadly mass shooting in American history (the Las Vegas shooting), not to mention the Walmart shooting in El Paso, the shooting at the congressional softball game, etc. The people who do these things largely see themselves outside of the political system, and even outside of society, and their timeline is not especially dictated by who happens to be in the White House.

The apparent greater frequency of Biden "crises" surely has several explanations. Some of it is bad luck. We also think there's something to the notion that people do not demand action from an administration that does not seem up to the job. However, most of the biggest crises of Biden's administration (COVID, economic instability, Afghanistan, Ukraine) are partly or substantially due to Donald Trump's leadership. And if Trump had been reelected, it is all-but-certain that these things would be on his plate instead of Biden's.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: I heard on one of the podcasts I follow (I think On The Media, but it could have been Le Show) an allegation that many registered Democrats chose Republican ballots (or re-registered Republican) in order to ensure that Josh Shapiro would face Doug Mastriano instead of Lou Barletta for governor in November. (They may have even been encouraged to do so.) I don't recall seeing this possibility mentioned in your coverage of the contest. Is it likely that this is what gave Mastriano his plurality win in the primary?

V & Z answer: Did it happen? Surely it must have, with at least a few voters. Did it give Mastriano the win? No chance. In the last 4 years, the number of Republicans in Pennsylvania has increased from 3,227,611 to 3,446,463. That's a total of 218,852 new Republican voters. Mastriano won by 317,819 votes. Even if you assume that every new Republican voter in the last four years was a ratf**king Democrat (many of whom would have laid the groundwork years in advance), and that ratf**king Democrats also replaced all the Republicans who died or left the state or switched to the Democratic Party, it's just not enough to explain Mastriano's margin. He was elected on the strength of actual Republican votes.

G.S. in Basingstoke, UK, asks: This question seemed so obvious after this gentleman's primary loss I thought someone else would ask: As we're going to be deprived of Rep. Madison Cawthorn's (R-NC) presence in Congress soon, who will be (or who are the contenders for) your new "favorite nutter?"

V & Z answer: The nuttiest member going forward, in terms of saying and doing stupid, performative things is undoubtedly Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). The one who is scariest, because he clearly believes the things he says, is Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).

K.L. in Jersey City, NJ, asks: In regard to Marjorie Taylor Greene, you wrote: "She took 69.5% of the vote. That strikes us as a total that will not inspire her to tone it down." This does inspire my curiosity as to: (1) what the voters in her district are expecting her to do for them, and (2) a list of items she has delivered for them in her current term that have inspired their primary vote? Perhaps a reader or two in her district can enlighten us?

V & Z answer: We doubt we have too many readers in GA-14. But if someone cares to send in thoughts, we would run them.

Our answer to your question has two parts. First, you should understand that people tend not to associate "what Congress does" with "what my representative does." That is why Congress has an approval rating in the low teens and yet members are reelected at a 90% clip. So, while Greene has sponsored zero bills that became law and has cosponsored only three bills that became law (a very poor number, since most bills have dozens of cosponsors), her voters largely don't blame her for getting nothing done, they blame Congress.

Further, do not underestimate the extent to which modern far-right-wing politics are built around throwing a wrench into the system and/or "owning the libs." Greene does plenty of both of those things, and clearly those are the things that many of her constituents want done.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: On what basis does a center-right party presume to call itself "Liberal"?

V & Z answer: In European countries, or countries that still have a heavy European influence, "liberal" is used in the classical sense. The term, and the philosophy, first emerged as a counter to absolutist monarchs, and so referred to people who believed in limited government, laissez-faire economics, civil liberties, etc. In the United States, the basic equivalent term is "libertarian." Meanwhile, in European and European-influenced countries, the main left-wing parties generally use the words "labor/labour" and/or "socialist/communist" and/or "left/leftist" and/or "people/citizens." So, if you ever read about a party called the People's Socialist Labor Party of the Left, you know where they stand.


L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: I thought I'd submit a question not related to elections, abortion, or school shootings.

Both men and women may enlist and serve in our current volunteer military, but only men are required to register with the Selective Service system. If someone filed a lawsuit alleging that this was discriminatory, do you think the current Supreme Court would rule that the Selective Service system should be abolished, or would they rule that women must also register for the draft? Or is that something outside of their purview?

V & Z answer: Someone did file a lawsuit; National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System (2019). The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas agreed that the law establishing the Selective Service system is indeed discriminatory and unconstitutional. Then, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is doing its best to return the U.S. to the 1920s, overturned the decision, and the Roberts Court declined to hear an appeal. It is true that the Roberts Court of 2019 and the current version are not exactly the same, but do you think that things would turn out differently now that Amy Coney Barrett is in Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat?

M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: With all the election news about all these primaries and possible runoff elections, my question is whether you guys have an opinion or preference about elections that are won with a simple plurality as opposed to ones that require a 50% threshold or else go to a runoff? Is one logically better than the other?

V & Z answer: There is a reason that it's mostly Southern states that require a runoff in the event no candidate reaches 50%, and that is because such a system perpetuates one-party rule. The dominant party can "fight" over their candidate in the primary without worrying about accidentally handing the election to the other side. Then once the primary is over, the dominant party's voters can rally around that party's candidate in the general.

So, for that reason, from the two options you gave, we prefer systems where a plurality is enough to win. That said, ranked-choice voting is even better since it allows you to express your true preference without wasting your vote.

A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: Do U.S. citizens that have been declared insane clinically and/or legally have the right to vote?

V & Z answer: Most states have some sort of limit on voting rights for those who are mentally incapacitated. However, while there is a very clear standard in about half the states (usually, a court has to have deemed the person incompetent), the other half tend to have vague, often century-old statutes that make use of imprecise terms like "idiot," "insane persons," and "unstable persons." Without a clear explanation of what those terms mean, it's hard to determine exactly who is and is not disqualified.


H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: How were the authors of the new guest columns chosen?

V & Z answer: In three cases (the column on the Philippines' election, the submission from M.E. in Roanoke and the report from the Pennsylvania polling place), we specifically asked for the submissions. In the other two cases (Biblical interpretation and abortion, and education funding), we just used messages that were submitted for the Sunday mailbag. Those two authors didn't know they were going to be featured in that way until they saw that day's posting (or until they saw the e-mail we sent them that said "Surprise!").

If we stick with that going forward—and we probably will, in some form, as the feedback was overwhelmingly positive—we'll have a much clearer and more equitable process by which people can submit proposals for columns.

B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: You've been threatening changes to the web site lately and I can't really tell what you're up to, so I guess I need some clarification. I'm referring to the piece, "A**hole Watch 2022: Tucker Carlson." It's hard for the ordinary reader, such as myself, to know what this signifies.

Is "A**hole Watch" a new feature, parallel to the weekly Schadenfreude award? Is any a**hole eligible, or is there a specific group of recurring a**holes we're watching?

Has Tucker Carlson been promoted to his own special level? I recall The Washington Post, busily tracking Trump's lies, created a new category for the lies he continued to tell over and over and over after they had been refuted numerous times by numerous fact-checkers.

Or were you merely announcing, in your own subtle way, that Carlson, as of Monday morning, the first day of the website week, was already taking the lead for Friday's Schadenfreude Award, but it's still too soon to announce?

Inquiring minds want to know.

V & Z answer: We had some things that we thought needed to be discussed, and that we think are relevant to current politics (and the differences between the cultures of the two parties), but that are tough to present in anything approaching a neutral fashion. We would actually argue that those pieces, of which there is still one coming, are non-partisan because the criticism is of behavior rather than policy/politics, but we felt the framing was necessary in order to communicate that we knew full well we were pushing our luck.

This will not be a regular feature. First, it's too easy for such a thing to turn into a screed. Second, it's inherently loaded with negativity, which we try to keep in control as much as is possible. It's true that the schadenfreude pieces are also negative, but they have significant elements of snark/satire, so we think the impact is to lift people's spirits, not drag them down. We could be wrong about that, but it's what we think. Note also that the schadenfreude bit was suggested by a reader, whereas we did not get any e-mail asking us for an "a**hole of the week."

D.R. in Berkeley, CA, asks: I found it hilarious how quickly a student is trying to get their grade improved! Is there any data or experience that explains why this happens? My observation that requesting small changes (+/-) is not going to have a material impact, and requesting large changes is just not going to be allowed.

But more importantly, small differences in GPA just doesn't matter in the outside world. Employers don't consider tenths of a GPA in hiring, graduate schools only look at GPA as a small part of the overall admissions process. So, why do you think this happens? Ego? Parental pressure?

V & Z answer: When universities first began to emerge in the late middle ages, there were no grades. Students who performed poorly were physically punished, usually by being beaten with a paddle. However, given that the students were all men, and were all adults or near-adults, a paddling didn't really hurt that much. And a couple of minutes' pain was worth it to avoid hours or days of boring studying. So, the faculties needed something better than the paddles. And they came up with grade as, in effect, a form of mental torture that played on human beings' inherent tendency to be competitive and their desire to be accepted/validated.

Obviously, the plan worked out very, very well. And the same basic dynamics are in play with students today; they want to out-compete their fellow students and/or they want to be validated. Further, many of them have plans to go to graduate or professional school. At UCLA, for example, 90% of students, at the time of their enrollment, are planning to attend either law or medical school. Many of them don't, ultimately, but many of them do. And graduate and professional schools are very, very competitive these days. The difference between 3.79 and 3.80 might actually matter. And even if it doesn't matter, well, it's an objective measure that is under the student's control. By contrast, there is no objective way to make their letters of recommendation or their personal statements 2% better.

Oh, and parental pressure is sometimes part of it, though that is much more common in some cultures than in others. Although this has never happened to (Z), he has had colleagues where parents showed up at office hours to argue about their child's grade. That is, of course, wildly inappropriate. Further, the professor can't discuss the grades anyhow, since by university policy, only the student themselves is entitled to the information.

One more thing: If a professor wants to get hit with a grade-change request, then the all-but-guaranteed way to do so is to give a student an 89.6%/B+. There is no "close but no cigar" that upsets students more than being on the cusp of an A-level grade, but not quite getting there. For that reason, (Z) basically never allows a student's grade to end up in that range. If that's where it's headed, he will review the entire body of work, including the final, and decide if it's a B+ body of work or an A- body of work. Then he will score the final in a way that places the student barely into the A- range, or squarely in the B+ range (e.g., 88.2%).

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: In light of your student asking for a grade change, I'm curious: How many times has a student tried to use the 'sick/dying grandparent' excuse to avoid a major assignment or improve a grade? Relatedly, what's the weirdest excuse a student has ever tried in one of your classes?

V & Z answer: (Z) teaches large survey courses, and so has had literally tens of thousands of students over the years. That's particularly true at UCLA, where the enrollments sometimes number 300-400 (or more). And the joke among faulty is that anyone who teaches a class like that and has a midterm is a real bastard, because anytime you do so in a class of 300+, you kill 10 grandmas.

Anyhow, there is a distinct difference between the "I couldn't do this work" arguments/excuses and the "I think I should get a higher grade" arguments/excuses. When it comes to the former, (Z) does not allow students to skip assignments, but he does tend to be pretty liberal about extensions if the student asks for one. Some professors insist on proof, but that's a lot of overhead for limited benefit, since a legitimately dishonest student can usually come up with fake proof. He is required to accommodate some things (religious holidays, pregnancy, disability) by law, and he's granted extensions for hundreds of additional reasons—illness, dead relatives, childcare issues, car problems, work responsibilities, Internet outages, misunderstood deadlines, and a long list of others.

"I think I should get a high grade" arguments need to be compelling, by contrast, since it's entirely a judgment call, and since the student is ultimately requesting special dispensation. The best arguments boil down to: "You laid out [X] goals for the class, and I think I fulfilled them, based on reason [X], [Y], and [Z]." The worst arguments are: (1) "But I need to get into law/medical school, and an A- will stop that from happening," (2) "My friends' essays were the same as mine, and they got higher grades," and (3) "If you had explained the material/guidelines better, I would have done better work."

The wildest excuses are generally truthful. (Z) has had students who had issues because they were hit by a car, while on foot, on the way to class, and who have been held up in a robbery on the way to class, and who had their laptop stolen the night before class, and a bunch of other misfortunes like that. Such stories are almost certainly true; the students who are faking it choose bland excuses that don't send up red flags and that are hard to disprove, like "I have chronic medical issues that flared up and made it not possible for me to drive."

This is not "weird," per se, but when (Z) was a teaching assistant, he once had a student tell him that the professor had excused the student from attending discussion section. Since discussion was 25% of the grade, this created an interesting problem. And when (Z) asked the professor how he wanted that problem handled, the professor said that he had not excused the student from discussion section.

If you want something from when (Z) was serving as professor, this isn't "weird," but it does stick out in the memory. (Z) was teaching a 350-person course that met on Fridays from 2-5. And one student blew off the class, did almost none of the work, and then showed up in finals week to argue about their very poor grade. (Z) observed: "You never came to class, which means you missed the quizzes, and also that you didn't understand how to do the written assignments. What were you expecting?" And the student replied that they had been in class two times (out of 10), but that the other meetings were not possible because the student needed to be home in time for the Jewish sabbath. (Z) pointed out that there were at least two dozen observant Jews in the class, a fact he knew because he had to accomodate a religious holiday in Week 2, and that they all were able to make the remaining meetings, so he could not understand why this student was an exception. He also asked the student why, if they really had this constraint (say, they had to travel farther than the other students), they signed up for a Friday afternoon class they knew was untenable. The student could not answer those questions.

H.M. in San Dimas, CA, asks: Read with interest the fact a student emailed almost immediately to ask you to bump the A- up to an A. Have you ever received an email that successfully convinced you to change a grade?

V & Z answer: Hundreds of times. Professors are not perfect, and the work in a history course or a comm course (the two things Z teaches) is almost entirely subjective. Sometimes, mistakes are made. Other times, looking at an assignment or a body of work through a slightly different lens, or with the benefit of additional information, changes the conclusions.

(V) uses a different approach to cranky students. He offers to regrade the entire exam carefully from beginning to end, with the very real possibility that the new grade will be lower than the old one if he decides that some answer he originally marked as correct really is a bit shaky. Students generally decline the offer.

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