Thursday, May 14, 2009


Reading books and reflecting on them have been slowed by the onerous professional duty of grading. Aside from the hopeless boredom of poring over examination papers, which are universally written in a style that repels attention, there is also the problem of criteria. Most schoolroom grading is ad hoc. Not only are there no criteria upon which teachers of the same subject have agreed; there is no institutional mechanism or opportunity, and even less will, for reaching an agreement. Unlike the sorting of apples or eggs, schoolroom grading is not a cooperative activity. Teachers sit alone with their examination papers, drumming their fingers in annoyance within the halo of a desk lamp at three in the morning. They are obliged to grade against a historical criterion, but over time they find themselves closing their eyes to errors and blemishes that they would have lowrated earlier in their careers. A student who earns an A from them after they have been teaching for two decades might have earned a C twenty years before.

The thing I hate most, though, is the uses to which my grades are put. Would-be employers demand a college transcript, or students pin a grade-point average to the top of their resumés, and my grade is read in comparison to other grades in other classes—even though, in the absence of agreed-upon criteria, such comparisons are vacuous. Against my will, I am forced to grade a student’s general academic promise. The pressure on professors to inflate grades, accordingly, is enormous. My C could keep a kid from getting into medical school. But isn’t it just possible that someone might have a genius for medicine and yet founder helplessly in literature or philosophy or history? What sense does it make to assume that the best candidates take home A’s in every subject? That is the widespread assumption, however. And should I then award an A to an otherwise intelligent and hardworking student who just doesn’t “get” literature?

Every semester I tell my students that my grading of them should be no different from a doctor’s diagnosis or a lawyer’s advice. It should be confidential. In the absence of public and cooperative standards, it can only be an assessment of our mutual success—mine in teaching them, theirs in learning what I have to teach. Because it is not that, however, they are discouraged from taking intellectual risks, trying their minds against an unfamiliar way of thinking. What is encouraged is sameness—straight A’s, students who confine themselves to the tried-and-true methods for earning A’s. As a consequence, there is no—repeat, no—intellectual distinction to be encountered in schoolrooms. There is only the continual repetition of familiar performances.

Is it any wonder that examination papers are so boring?


Roger Kuin said...

As someone now retired after 40 years of doing precisely this, I am reminded that your comments reflect common experience. A few reminiscences:
*When asked by the naive or intrepid 'How do I get an A?' I used to say, 'I can tell you in some detail how to earn a B+; but an A goes only to work that, in one aspect or another, surprises me.'
*When, near the end of my career, I got tired of chasing plagiarism and fighting grade-inflation, I based all my courses on blogs. Each student had a blog, so did the course director, and twice a term they would be graded on their blogs, which contained their thoughts on the texts read for class. The grades were calculated on a mixture of assiduity, regularity, demonstrated understanding and intelligence. The students enjoyed it, and so did I; plagiarism was eliminated; and while the one thing one had to give up was detailed comments on writing, it had the great virtue of being a window into their real reactions to literature, as opposed to the ritual of the essay.

This said, you are horribly right about grade inflation and the loneliness of the long-sdistance grader. Retirement (with undiminished scholarly work) is a true joy.

litlove said...

I agree wholeheartedly.

R. T. said...

Re: Grading

I could simply write that “I agree” and “I share your pain.” However, let me share something more because you have written so openly about a subject that really bothers me.

When you write about “the onerous professional duty of grading” those “examination papers, which are universally written in a style that repels attention,” I am relieved because I have worried that I have been alone in having that kind of experience and reaction. The dreary “style” of writing that I have been seeing in my classes is what you have correctly diagnosed: it comes from students who are keen to discover and follow only “the tried-and-true methods” for earning adequate (i.e. good) grades, and most students are either unwilling or unable to take “intellectual risks” and attempt “an unfamiliar way of thinking” and writing. And that forces the question: Is that something that we can hope to mitigate within a single semester? I wish the answer were “Yes” but now know that the answer is almost certainly “No.” At most universities, with mine included, beyond the few English courses that students are required to take, students are apparently not encouraged to write with much attention given to style or correctness. So, we will continue to be challenged by reading too many papers that would have earned D’s or F’s a generation or two earlier. In fact, I have to count myself among those teachers who “find themselves closing their eyes to errors and blemishes that they would have lowrated earlier in their careers.” And that brings me to the other point you make about the “professional duty of grading.”

Much has been written lately about the inflation of grades throughout American universities. I am to some extent culpable, I suppose, because my mindset on the issue is much like yours. You (and I) “hate most” the uses to which “grades are put, and you (and I) wonder about ways in which a student’s grade could keep him or her “from getting into medical school,” especially since that student might “founder helplessly in literature” but nevertheless have “a genius for medicine.” Moreover, we are confronted by the problem of comparisons: does an “A” in literature, for example, mean the same thing as “A’s” in upper division biology, chemistry, mathematics, or accounting courses (all of which lend themselves to objective, quantifiable testing methods)? The unanswerable question becomes one of how we as teachers of English courses can ever hope to come up with more objective, quantifiable grading methods. I am reminded at this point of a former colleague who foolishly attempted something like an answer to the foregoing conundrum by overlooking style and rhetoric by focusing only on mechanical factors in her English composition courses; specific points were deducted for specific errors (i.e., a comma splice meant a loss of 10 points, a sentence fragment also meant a loss of 10 points, a misplaced modifier meant a 5 point deduction, a pronoun-antecedent disagreement was another 5 point error, a simple comma misplacement mean a 2 point deduction, etc.), with the net effect that more than a few students received grades that were so far below zero that they could never hope to recover and salvage even a passing grade during the remainder of the semester. (At one time, out of frustration with reading too many inferior papers, I considered using her approach but quickly and fortunately recognized its unpleasant limitations.)

So, with all of that having been said, we are left with the questions: What are the solutions? Are we fated to read dreary essays? Must we continue to allow and participate in the inexorable inflation of grades so that students’ grades in English courses more accurately mirror students’ achievement in other courses? Or are we, because of the evolving nature of the American university system, entrapped in our fate?

C Reed said...

After personally experiencing your grading system, I have nothing more to add than you deserve a standing ovation for it. The way that it was set up allowed us, as students, to express our thoughts in both discussions and papers without fear of receiving a poor mark. In my personal opinion, the removal of that fear of an "under par" grade let us as student genuinely think through our thoughts and learn more than we would have if we were assessed on a normal university system.

While this system allowed many of us to learn more than we have in other courses, there are always the few who ruin it for the whole by taking advantage of your desire for us to do nothing more than learn and use it as an excuse to sit quietly in the back and not learn more than they may have read in the texts. I was talking with a few classmates recently about your class and we all determined that your grading system was amazing, because you take the time to know students names even in a large class of over 100 students. The feel of the classroom never felt as big as it truly was, and also the people who were apathetic about the material were obvious to you and you reward those of us who put the effort forth, regardless of how wrong our ideas, arguments, and thoughts may be.

As for the others who have commented upon their agreements and contradictions with your methods, the difference is the personal nature that you allow your students to interact with you and each other in the classroom without looking down upon them. And as for those who are hopeless in literature, but may be excellent students in other places, you notice the effort of the 4.0 student in them even thought they may not be able to have any of their papers correct, the time, effort, arguments, and thought out discussions is all that you require for a passing mark. If only the rest of the university system could adapt to this, but that's only in a fool's paradise.