This actually isn’t hypothetical, because it happened to a classmate in my college phys-ed class. About a third of our grade was based on overall physical fitness (our ability to run the mile-and-a-half, life weights, and so on), a third based on participation (were you at least trying?) and a third based on classroom work. That second part was also based on physical fitness, to some extent, because you started getting docked whenever you stopped jogging or when you had to call it quits for lack of physical fitness. The classwork was dreadfully easy. Obviously, for someone not in good physical shape, the fitness tests were hard.

My friend-for-a-class Ned was in overall pretty good shape (well, much better shape than me – and I was not a smoker at the time). The thing is that he was a smoker. He could start and stop at will and so for the fitness tests (most specifically the running test which was the hardest) he would actually stop smoking for a few days before the run. So on the jogging test, he kicked my posterior and actually came in 7th (out of 30). He beat me by some margin on every physical test.

When we got our grades, though, I got a B- and he got a C. When he talked to the instructor about this (I was with him to verify that we showed the same effort in class), she said that she docked him because he was a smoker. She’d seen him smoking first thing after class or before class. He smelled of the stuff. In her mind, his smoking was indicative of a lack of commitment to physical health. Ned’s counterpoint was that it was none of her business. He ran the laps, lifted the weights, and did everything he was expected to do. On what basis could she dock him points? She said that his “participation” grade was low because he really wasn’t giving it his all (usually working at the same pace that I did). If it weren’t for the cigarettes, she said, he could have done more. And since smoking was his choice, he lost participation points. And yet I (Will) didn’t, Ned argued, despite showing the exact same effort.

The difference, she argued, was that what was a greater effort for me was less of an effort for him. It’s graded on a curve.

He argued that he was then being punished for being in shape (in terms of effort) more than I was being punished for being out of shape (in terms of fitness challenge performance).

She shrugged it off, saying that physical fitness was about appreciating your body and that there was no sign that somebody didn’t appreciate their body like smoking, and so ultimately he deserved a worse grade than he got. Did he want that? The conversation ended there.

So, the question is, should phys-ed be able to punish someone for being a smoker if it doesn’t show up in their ability to practice and perform? Even though I later became a smoker, I can actually somewhat appreciate her perspective on the matter. Smoking, as compared to excess weight (my problem at the time) is a more binary decision. And as difficult as it is to quit smoking, the quit-success is much higher for smoking than dieting is for overweight people.

On the other hand, it seemed pretty apparent to me that this declaration was pretty arbitrary. She was punishing him for a habit that he found disgusting. Nowhere was it written down that smokers are penalized (beyond the physical toll it takes). Presumably, if it had been written down, he would have at least taken more care not to show up smelling like smoke. Maybe he should have done that anyway to be considerate, but being considerate is not a factor in his grade.

Of course, all of this comes back to the difficulty when it comes to grading people in PE. In no other college course is “effort” graded directly, nor should it be. Or maybe it is, since that’s what attendance grades and a lot of homework assignments are. Ultimately, though, most of your grade is supposed to come from the degree to which you demonstrate mastery over the subject matter. That’s hard to do for PE because you can understand the subject matter of running very, very well and yet still not be able to do it. It’s difficult to make up for lack of ability (over the course of a single semester) with determination and discipline. Most classes, determination and discipline are going to be, if not sufficient to overcome all, at least sufficient to overcome some of it.

And, ultimately, being able to run the 1.5-mile over a period of time isn’t really what people go to college for. Even classes like Comparative Folk Dancing offer something in terms of learning how to communicate ideas (regardless of the frivolity of the subject-matter). I suppose the ability to take care of oneself physically does matter to future employers, but that has to be viewed as a lifetime project and not something you’re going to pick up in class. It’s easy to translate term papers into something useful in the business world, but more difficult to translate squats.

All of this is of course contingent on viewing college as vocational training. I suppose if you disagree with that on a fundamental level, you can view phys-ed as a more abstract good. Of course, those that view college as a sort of a self-improvement thing apart from vocational training are also the types who hate jocks for all of the wedgies they got when they were younger.

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11 Responses to HypoThursday: Physical Education

  1. Escapist says:

    Maybe the analogy could be: can a student be graded down for other unhealth stuff (not getting enough sleep, eating unhealthily) if they still do ok in the actual PE activities?

    I’m guessing a lot of people (including those who are athletic now) disliked PE back in the day. A lot of this stuff (pullups etc) actually ends up being fun when doing it for yourself, without the whole “pressured social environment” around it.

  2. Mike Hunt says:

    I think this post got cut off at the end.

    I’m sure if Ned raised a fuss, he could have gotten the grade changed, but with PE generally being 1 credit out of 120, I don’t think it is worth the effort, unless he really needed the 0.006 GPA boost.

    The other way of looking at it is that if it is a physical fitness class, and if smoking is a sign of physical unfitness per se, then it can be argued that the grade should be reduced.

    What she really should have done is reduced your grade to match his.

    And, ultimately, being able to run the 1.5-mile over a period of time isn’t really what people go to college for.

    I’m sure most people would say that for about 75% of their college classes, so it is best to not start pulling at that thread.

  3. trumwill says:

    Fixed. Dude, where were you when someone needed to point out that I forgot to link to the Boston Globe article? Oh yeah, focused on my inability to spell the word “counselor.” You let me down, man.

  4. Mike Hunt says:

    Well I thought it was funny that you misspelled it in two distinct ways.

    Also, at the time, I didn’t think you “forgot” to provide the link. But since you said you did I will take you at your word.

  5. Kirk says:

    Even though I later became a smoker…

    Who in the world starts smoking in college? Was this an attempt to lose weight?

    As for physical fitness, almost one-quarter (23%) of applicants to the military can’t meet the physical testing. I’m wondering if the testing got harder since my day, or maybe everyone was in better shape back in 1985. I can’t remember anyone getting flunked out of boot camp for physical fitness.

  6. Samson says:

    Will, I’m afraid I can’t get as far the issues surrounding being docked for smoking, because I’m stuck at: Why on earth is anyone taking phys-ed in college??? Is there some American/Canadian cultural miscommunication here that I’m not aware of?

  7. trumwill says:

    Samson, I’m guessing it’s not part of the standard curriculum in Canada? I don’t know how universal it is in the US, but I do know that it’s required by the state of Delosa and applies to all state universities.

    In high school you can actually get out of PE by taking one of the alternatives, like band. I am not sure what substitutes might apply in college.

  8. trumwill says:

    Kirk, I started smoking late. The story of how it happened is remarkably lame and one of my biggest regrets in life.

  9. Samson says:

    Samson, I’m guessing it’s not part of the standard curriculum in Canada?

    It is very most certainly *not*! Good Lord… phys ed. is supposed to one of those icky things that gets left behind in high school, like jocks in general. College is supposed to be a time of learning; real college courses have names like Calculus 101 or Intro to the Renaissance. Unreal, unreal.

  10. trumwill says:

    Oh, we have those courses, too. And weight-lifting!

  11. Samson says:

    But how on earth do you get graded? I mean, look, I could actually see an argument that physical health is an important component of overall well-being, and should thus be included in any young person’s curriculum. But there is no way that, for example, getting an ‘A’ in Weightlifting(!) is the same as getting an ‘A’ in Biochemical Research Methods.

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