When it comes time for students to complain about their grades, "I worked so hard" normally heads the list of self-justifications. In moments of great weariness (or irritation), the instructor might point out that she too has "worked so hard" that semester: does that mean she has the right to expect plaudits on her teaching evaluations? In moments of even greater snarkiness, the instructor might ask the student to define the quantity and quality of "worked so hard." A weekend? A week? One draft? Two, perhaps? Normally, however, the instructor merely grits her teeth.
It's often possible to dispose of this complaint by pointing out that the instructor cannot possibly grade the student on an invisible activity. All I can grade, after all, is the paper in front of me. But "I worked so hard" also suggests that the student has confused competency with effort and effort with ambition. If the student has not mastered English grammar, does not know how to construct an argumentative essay and cannot read literature without assistance, then her "effort" will not yield a competent paper. Now, that's too bad, and one might then wonder why, exactly, a junior cannot yet complete a simple sentence. Nevertheless, English majors cannot regard basic competency in their own language as an optional luxury. Luckily, it's easy enough to remedy the situation: one can, well, work hard by obtaining a grammar handbook or style manual, working with a tutor, discussing rough drafts with an instructor, and the like.
The distinction between effort and ambition is slightly more complex. It's easy to explain what constitutes a succesful paper, but not what constitutes a paradoxically successful failure. Robert Browning says it brilliantly:
Well, I can fancy how he did it all,
Pouring his soul, with kings and popes to see,
Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
Above and through his art--for it gives way;
That arm is wrongly put--and there again--
A fault to pardon in the drawing's lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right--that, a child may understand.
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch--
Out of me, out of me!
("Andrea del Sarto")
While the journey from Renaissance art to undergraduate essays may be a fall from the sublime to the ridiculous, the point remains. We've all seen (and possibly we've also written ourselves) ambitious undergraduate essays in which the student hits on a genuinely brilliant, insightful idea, then does her best to realize it on the page. Yet she lacks the technical vocabulary, or the literary-historical background, or simply the intellectual maturity to articulate her argument successfully. Perhaps the paper meanders, or the ideas overflow into jumbled paragraphs, or the quotations aren't really as appropriate as they could be. But nevertheless the original brilliance still shines through the technical failure. Now, unlike the effort of "I worked so hard," ambition such as this does manifest itself on the page and can be rewarded, even though the final paper may be less perfect (in terms of organization, say) than a much less ambitious production from another student.