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"Please, Professor," Give Me a B

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This article originally appeared at the Good Men Project

A professor’s funny song from the 1970s anticipates the problem of young men not doing their best in college.

For close to 20 years, a main concern of mine has been the fact that boys and young men have not been doing as well in school as girls and young women. When I started teaching psychology back in 1970, this did not seem to be the case, at least not in any obvious way. I had standout female students, but I had excellent male students as well. I would not have said I noticed any strong difference.

By the early 1990s, however, I was becoming distressed by the fact that young men were falling behind at school – both in numbers and performance (not just at my college, but throughout the country), though it seemed like almost no one had noticed. Actually, the data indicated that this trend had begun at least 10 years earlier, when female enrollment at colleges first exceeded that of males. Today, women represent 57% of total college enrollment and tend to be better students.

A good deal of my life is devoted to publicizing the problem of boys and young men lagging behind, and trying to find ways to improve things. My work in this area includes editing a blog for the Washington, DC-based Boys Initiative. This is a serious issue for me, and one that should be for the country.

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But humor has always been a very important part of my life, and as a college teacher, my main humorous creations were funny songs. Some of these dealt with issues that, in reality, distressed me, and one of those was grading. I never liked the process, and especially hated having little choice but to give a low grade.

Though in the early through mid-1970s, when I wrote most of my songs, men were still in the majority on college campuses, there were signs that they were not going to be the students that women were. One sign was the way a lot of students – and most of them were male, in my recollection – began not to do the work necessary for good grades, but rather to slack off. Sometimes, these students would come to me when they knew their grade was not going to be good, and ask me to change it. Well, perhaps beg was the better word. Or cajole. Or attempt to manipulate.

Whatever it was, I hated it, and, not knowing this was just one aspect of a trend that would lead to a generation of young men not reaching their potential as compared to their sisters, I wrote a funny song about it. This was back in 1973, and the song was “Please, Professor.” It became something of a local hit, often played on my college’s radio station, and at one point on the major rock station in the Hudson Valley of New York, where I lived and taught. Recently, I unearthed an old cassette tape on which I’d recorded the song with a couple of fellow musicians (back in 1977) and used it for a music video for YouTube. The director, a woman not quite 24, and the lead actor (who lip synchs the song, which I am singing), who is even younger, had no trouble relating to the lyrics, which start off with “Please, professor, give me a B/I really understood your course and I don’t want a D.” Colleagues who have watched the video say that this beseeching for higher grades keeps happening.

I don’t know of any research studies that have shown this behavior is more commonly exhibited by male students than by females, but it was certainly that way in my experience. And I still remember walking behind a couple of young guys on campus as one of them said to the other, “Now I’m going to tell my sob story to my professor.” It was everything I could do not to follow the student, and say I had to talk to his prof for a moment – and then close the door and tell him what to expect. I didn’t do this, but I was very tempted.

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The problem of men in college being sharply outnumbered by women, and, while there, not doing their best work, is a very serious one. But believing that if you can’t laugh at something that isn’t directly hurtful to other people, you may be just too serious, I offer my little video as a reminder that we do have to start paying some attention to how our young men are doing. At least the “hero” of the video isn’t a total slacker; he is in college, though it wouldn’t appear that he’s headed onward and upward.

Or maybe he is. It turns out that one possible reason women still earn less than men in the workplace is because men are simply more likely to ask for a raise. According to economist Linda Babcock, coauthor of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, “men are four times more likely than women to ask for a salary raise, and…this has a snowball effect. Even a small pay boost will mean bigger annual raises and possibly bigger bonuses and it will carry over to a new employer, who is almost certain to ask: What was your last salary?”

It’s much harder to find any data on who is more likely to beg for a higher grade, after really not doing the work all semester long, but, as I mentioned earlier, in my experience it was more often males. Unfortunately, the teacher who gives in – and I never did – is rewarding just the kind of behavior that shouldn’t be rewarded. In fact, it could be dangerous. As physics professor Kurt Wiesenfeld has written, “Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work.”

The majority of science and engineering majors are men, so in this case, we are surely facing a gender-loaded issue.

So while getting more money is an objective win, getting higher grades than you deserve is not, and could someday come back to bite you and/or society.

But let’s take a 4-minute break from this seriousness, and laugh at the phenomenon with my song from decades ago presented in a modern YouTube format. Enjoy!