How welcome of a reception can one expect to asking a professor a question such as “so you think it’s justified to take points of my proof for this?”?

EDIT: A clearer version of my question and what I look for in a comment is in Academia.StackExchange. If you’re not up for the wall of text this is the way.

TLDR: Professor apparently only takes at most one look at a student’s answer to determine correctness, doesn’t award full marks kind of unfairly (clarifications below), is offended by hearing the question in the title, and grade reviews end up taking up to 5 hours due to complications I try to make clear here:

Some background: I’m doing a summer course on general topology and a couple of weeks ago we had our first exam (out of two – the last one is next week). Although I’m a second year undergraduate student at a really good university (so I’ve picked up some things along the way so far), I’ve never actually taken real analysis or any other heavy proof-based course (I even remember telling a colleague I was going to take general topology without even knowing beforehand what an open set was), so I knew from the get-go that it would be an uphill battle to do well on the course. Regardless of that, I told myself the very first day that I would study as hard as I possibly could (I spend 15 hours a day on my university and all of that – minus a couple of eating breaks and the like – is studying) to get an honest A and learn as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

Alright. So the date to the first exam taking up to 40% of the final grade looms in and I’m not all that confident that I’ll do as well as I want to, but there I go, take a 3 and a half hour long exam and walk out pretty confident that I’ve completely aced it. Less than a week later grades are out and it appears I’ve gotten an 8.2. Not as good as I hoped but still more or less acceptable, I thought…

Then, last Thursday (so one day before the day before yesterday), our professor lets us know he’ll be in his office doing grade reviews for everyone so that we have a fair grade, see if everyone agrees with his correction and all that stuff: I’m the first one in and I start reviewing my answers to the first and easiest items on the exam… and I find that the professor could have been a little fairer.

Out of 10 points, I had already lost:

  • 0.2 because I didn’t complete a proof that the closure of (0, 1) in the standard topology is [0,1] and another 0.2 because I didn’t justify that the real line minus a point is open because it’s the union of open sets, I thought it was obvious enough

And so I show this to the professor and after he reads his correction again, I ask:

– Then you think it’s justifiable to take points out of the exam because of things as small as this?

Now, I know that this is a delicate question and I can’t express here just how much I intended my tone to be as friendly as possible (but unfortunately I think I failed :/). Nevertheless, his answer was the exact opposite of what I expected (I’m trying to be as accurate as I can here but I don’t remember everything verbatim):

– Watch your tone! If you want a 10 right now, just walk out of my office right now, don’t speak to me again and I’ll give it to you!

And then, before I even had a chance to say anything at all, he crossed out my 8.2 and wrote a gigantic 10 where the 8.2 was before. When I had a chance to say my piece, all I did was apologize and try to emphasize as much I possibly could that I meant no disrespect at all, I was just trying to gauge how rigorous of a standard I should expect so that any mistake I made in the past wouldn’t be repeated.

Now, I’m under no illusion I should expect anything less than the answer I got: even if my intended tone was a respectful one, if that was his answer then I clearly failed. I knew right then and there that I had made a huge mistake and was fully on the wrong side of things. So I kept apologizing and trying to convince him that I genuinely meant no disrespect and after a while of me doing that, he said something along the lines of

“Alright, forget about it, let’s just start over and pretend it never happened”

Right then I was still pretty anxious, so I tried to review my answers and his corrections on the exam again but I think I was so visibly shaken up after having made such a big mistake (not just from knowing that, even though it wasn’t my intention, I was completely out of line, but because I was very afraid this could be the beginning of a pretty bad reputation among other fellow professors when he shared what happened with others) that he said

“Okay, calm down, I can see you’re nervous but you can take your time. I’ll leave, grab a cup of coffee, then come back and we’ll see what your thoughts are”

and left the office for some 5 minutes. I managed to gather my thoughts and after he came back, I kept apologizing again, he said I shouldn’t stress over it anymore, and after I brought up a few more points about his correction to some of my other answers, my grade went from 8.2 to 9.6 (he couldn’t follow my reasoning in a proof that the only convergent sequences in the co-countable topology are the eventually constant ones, he also had simply forgotten to read/correct my proof that RR is not metrizable and he didn’t agree with an argument of mine in a question that asked me to prove that a certain metric induced the discrete topology – turns out he had simply not read it with enough attention, after I explained everything to him he agreed with me and gave me the points for those items-). We talked about something else related to the class, he crossed out both the 10 and the 8.2 and corrected my grade, I reasoned one more final apology before I left his office was in order and after that I left.

As I’ve said before, I recognize it was wrong of me to ask such a question and completely regret it, so I’m not posting this just to argue in my defense and read replies massaging any ego of mine. It’s the opposite, I want to know whether it’s true that in general people should never ask questions like this (no matter the tone, because the same thing that happened to me will happen to them) and it would be great to read opinions of fellow students and even other professors on what I could’ve done better. Some things I think ought to mention as well are:

A colleague of mine had an initial grade of 9.3, after the review, it was 9.9. The reason was that in his answer to a problem asking for a proof of a certain statement, he actually stated and proved a much more general result and said the initial statement was just a particular consequence of that result – the professor didn’t like that and thought a 10 was undeserved. Another colleague mentioned a story of grades going up so far as 9.5 after the review (with an initial grade of 1.5) in another exam of some other course he gave on the past. Yet another colleague shared that his initial grade was 3.8, but he managed to convince the professor that a lot of his other arguments were right too – his grade would then go up to something between 5.5 (the bare minimum for a C is 5) and 7, and in order to avoid that the professor took points of another unrelated answer which had initially been awarded a full mark, said “alright, you got a 5, it’s good enough” and left it at that (my colleague was the first one after me in the office and heard what had happened before because the door to his office was open, so that’s why I think he didn’t argue anymore). Finally, I and another colleague whose grade went from 8.3 to 9.3 agreed that a general impression of his correction was that he just read your proof once and if he didn’t agree that was it (where it also happened to him that he proved more general results than asked and the professor didn’t like it or hadn’t read the arguments carefully). All in all, the review started at 2 pm and ended some 4-5 hours later and a lot of people got their grades up.

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Nevin Manimala

Nevin Manimala is interested in blogging and finding new blogs

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