My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

February 20, 2011 [Academic Work Post 6]: Grade-ations

[Seeing as I’m in the midst of grading four batches of (or, in more real terms, 95) papers this long weekend, I thought it made sense to paste in a (slightly revised) post from my first, much more personal blog. I wrote this nearly four years ago, but still agree with pretty much all of it.]
I'm profoundly ambivalent about grades. I really mean ambivalent; I know most of the time when people use that word they mean negative without saying it, but I really mean that I am of two very distinct, even opposite minds about giving grades (I've been grading papers all day, in case you couldn't tell). On the one hand, I think they have real value—not just in a practical, what else are we gonna do? kind of way, but in a more philosophical way. After all, I believe strongly in MLK's dream of a world where everyone is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or any equivalent), and if we're going to have colleges/jobs/etc. choosing people based on merit rather than on wealth or family or being part of a legacy or whatever, then we absolutely need things like grades in order to assess how people have done. Not the only kind of assessment, but it seems to me an unavoidable and thus valuable kind, if we really want a meritocracy. (Just so we're clear, I'm in no way opposed to affirmative action—we're a long way away from the meritocracy, and I think affirmative action is a very important way to begin to redress those shortcomings. Charlottesville, Virginia's public schools integrated, after closing for over a year to avoid doing so, in 1965, so we're not talking about ancient history here.)

So that's the one hand. On the other hand, if you have grades, they become the students' focus, period, 100% of the time. Doesn't mean that all students act the same way in terms of them—some students are fully willing to acknowledge that they deserve a lower grade, some students always believe they deserve a higher grade, some expect a lower grade and are pleasantly surprised by a higher grade, etc—but it does mean that all students, and I really believe that's all students (including me when I was a student, up through grad school even) look for that grade on the paper pretty quickly, and will respond differently (read the comments differently, feel differently about the class and themselves and me) based on what's there. I'm not enough of an idealist or an old fogey to say that classes are just about learning in some ideal vacuum, but I do believe that my goal for each student in, say, my American Lit survey is that he or she develop his or her individual voice and ideas about American Literature from 1865 to the present, not that he or she get an A. I don't say things like "Grades shouldn't matter" in front of the students, because I believe they'd stop taking me seriously right at that moment, and with good reason; but I do believe that they're not the primary goal. And in that way grades do put the students and the professor at odds, the vast majority of the time, on a pretty fundamental question.

So is there a third hand? Is there a way to become more monovalent (?) about this question? Probably not, but I will say this: I believe that by grading based more on skills and effort and execution than on content—that is, not grading whether a person's idea about Huck Finn is strong enough, in some absolute sense, but grading how the person developed the idea, how he or she brought in evidence, the amount of work and thought evident in his or her paper throughout, the improvements he or she makes in papers from the start of the semester to the end of it, and so on—makes clear to the students that their work in the class can and will affect their performance, that students who struggle at analyzing literature have as much of a chance of doing well as future English professors, if they do the work and learn what they can and bring it to bear on the papers. And in that way, I'm trying to do my part to bring the two hands together.

Of course, then you might say that I'm destroying the meritocracy concept. But I suppose at the end of the day, for me, meritorious doesn't mean smart in some absolute way; it means hard-working and committed and willing to do the work and respond to comments and improve. I'd always rather reward the latter than the former. And if that means that everybody can make the grade, well, that’d bring us one step closer to Bruce’s mantra that, “in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” More tomorrow, a special President’s Day post.
PS. Three (2011) links to start with:
1)      Some great pieces from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on grading:
2)      Interesting recent “Tenured Radical” post on assignments and grading:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?


  1. Just so long as you write lots and lots of feedback. That's all I want. The letter you slap across it in the end really doesn't mean much to me (honestly, why not a Z or Q, or a 398 or a 23.5767676767?). My frustration with a different professor was that he wrote peronal insight all over my paper, corrected for grammar and then wrote 95 at the end, as though I read minds and could discern how or why I recieved the grade.

    Are my thoughts any good? Am I phrasing them well? Will I make a complete ass of myself if I try for a PHD program? Should I have become an accountant? Just tell me what I did right, what I did wrong and what I need to do to improve.

    I can't speak for the undergrads, they have their own motivations but I'm assuming for the grads we're looking for you to answer the questions I asked above. Bad news, as a teacher I know it's really hard to answer those questions and WAY easy to add commas and put some arbitrary number at the end.


  2. Thanks for the feedback, Anne.

    I think this is very much about undergraduate grading, though, because I _love_ writing feedback and comments, and mainly just feel as if when grades are in play, on an undergrad level, the comments are read (if they're read much at all) purely as a justification of a grade, rather than as hopefully helpful feedback and conversation. So for me, in undergrad grading, comments vs. grades would play into the two hands I'm talking about here for sure.


  3. This post made me laugh. My students are OBSESSED with grades to the point where I have had to turn off my cell phone for 3 days!! I give them very specific directions and yet they still call me constantly as if I have no life other than work. And the worst part, they hound me after I give them an assignment because they will go and complete it right away and expect me to grade it right away before the due date and they want tons and tons of comments, so that they can try to fix it before the actual due date, not realizing that I have another class with 25 students who I still have to grade. Ahhh, the life. But, what can you do besides laugh and be glad that you're on the other side of the spectrum now.

    Monica J.

  4. Hi Monica,

    Holy moly. I've had individual students who take it to that level--a student at BU hounded for the entire subsequent semester--but never whole classes like that. Wow.

    Keep the faith,