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What if Everyone Got an A?

April 12, 2007, 10:44 pm

A friend of mine tells a story about someone who had been teaching at a Major Ivy and was, shall we say, permanently released from his responsibilities. As most of the people who teach at Major Ivies are eventually. Said faculty member packed up and left town, booking passage on the QEII as a farewell gift to himself. It was discovered some days later that Professor X had failed to turn in grades for the class. A wire was sent to the ocean liner in mid-Atlantic that graduation was imminent and grades imperative. (Theatrical pause.) A wire returned to Major Ivy: “Had such a lovely time at Ivy U. Give everyone an A.”

This is a good story for many occasions, but an even better story when the grading season is upon us. Since mid-February, I have not had a desk without a pile of student work on it at: my hope is to clear one set of papers before the next arrives and makes the situation hopeless. Now I have five senior honors theses sitting on my desk, having just cleared a set of seminar papers; a set of papers from my lecture class is, as we say, incoming. And soon the academic blogosphere will begin to ring with grading woes, as all of us grind our way toward the finish, paper by paper.

Everyone hates grading, and we hate it for different reasons. There’s the “I am putting more effort into marking this paper than the student put into writing it” reason. There’s the routine quality of it — one paper after another that is more or less the same, because the class is responding to an assignment *you* gave, Meat Head. There’s the overidentification with students who haven’t done well, and feeling terrible about giving a poor grade. There’s the worry that if you do give a poor grade, the student will be in your office trying to negotiate a higher one. There’s the nagging feeling in the background that if you don’t like grading them, and they don’t like writing them, why are we doing this at all?

Oh yeah, because everyone has to get a grade. But what if everyone got an A?

Or rather, what if we taught pass-fail? (Note: I have begun a long-term experiment of teaching all my lecture courses with a pass-fail option. I’ll let you know what it looks like, but so far, I would say the results are promising.)

Or what if we gave three grades, 1, 2, and 3? And stopped fooling around with all the fine points that cause students to wonder what the actual difference between a B- critical essay and a B critical essay is?

And I guess my real question here is, I wonder why we who are college professors are so invested in a grading system that doesn’t benefit us; that stresses our students out; that none of us really agree on (my A is different from Professor B’s A, which is different from Professor C’s A); in which you can’t give lower than a B without the student dropping the course; and that causes students to compete for the grade rather than enjoy the work they are doing?

Part of why I started thinking in this way is that I just read a set of papers I really enjoyed, and for which the grades were quite high. And it reminded me of the Hobson’s choice that the grading system often gives us, one that has resulted in the current incoherent discussion at many selective colleges and universities about whether grade inflation is a problem or not, and for whom. At the level of the individual professor, grading is always a lose-lose situation in the context of grade inflation debates, resulting in mental agony over papers and exams that might include:

Scenario 1: Everyone in the class is getting such great grades, my colleagues will think I am not being tough enough. And yet, it is possible that they are getting great grades because I am teaching well and they are learning well. So why shouldn’t everyone get an A? Because everyone will think I am not tough enough. Ok, got to find some reason to lower some grades…..

Scenario 2: I’ve only given one A and I am halfway through the papers — oh G-d, maybe I’m really not teaching well. There’s something wrong with me! So instead of facing it that for some reason I am not succeeding in getting through to them, I will represent myself publicly as a person with “high standards,” and give as many bad grades as I think I can get away with.

Now you might notice that in both these scenarios, the professor’s public image is central to the grading dilemma, not the student’s learning experience. A close second are the gatekeeping functions of college — who goes on to Phi Beta Kappa, who gets the prizes, who goes to the best law schools, grad programs, blah, blah. And this, of course, is exactly what makes students nuts and corrupts their learning experience: that it is not their work, but the grades we give them on their work, that determines their future.

Then of course, we grump that our students are grade-grubbing when they don’t get the grades they want.

So here’s my proposal: let’s get rid of grades. Plenty of schools do perfectly well without them; at least one major at my university has never given grades, and their students seem very smart and hard-working to me. What if, every time you assigned a paper, instead of grading it and writing graffiti all over it, you read it and the student came in and talked to you about it for ten minutes? This would also cut way back on plagiarism, because a student can’t discuss a paper s/he didn’t write. And then maybe it would be possible to appreciate students for who they are and what they bring to the table, and then maybe they would use the time they spend stressing and worrying to read and write about what interests them instead of what they think *might* interest us.

And then they would be happier, and we would be happier, and we would spend our days talking about books and ideas and not grades, grades, grades.

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Footnote: I am leaving the comments on, but any comments about Lacrosse, Duke University, Michael Nifong, the Heroic Three, and “the 88″ will be deleted by the management, and we will also delete anything that we think is in bad taste, including all racial and ethnic slurs. The pro-lacrosse faction had many comments on the last two posts to express themselves, and I am leaving them up as a gesture toward freedom of speech, but we do not agree with you, we are not concerned that you do not agree with us, and we are no longer, and never were, interested in lacrosse players at Tenured Radical.

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