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.