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Degradation

In 35 years in the academy, I have never heard a colleague say, “I am really looking forward to grading my students’ papers/exams.” Never. Not once. I thus feel confident that almost all academics agree that grading is the worst part of our job.

Part of this is simply the onerous character of the task itself, which seems worse every year. We also worry that grading will reveal that we did a poor job of teaching the course. But the worst thing about grading is that we know that poor grades will cause our students pain—contrary to many students’ opinions, we are not sadists. Moreover, poor grades may provoke an emotionally draining confrontation with the student.

It is easier just to give the students better grades than they deserve. We spare ourselves the drudgery, the anxiety, the guilt, and the confrontation. The students feel good about themselves. We get good evaluations. Everyone is happy.

And yet it is hard to imagine anything worse for our students. Education means leading young people to improve themselves, to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses. This in turn requires us to give students honest grades, not in order to demote them to some netherworld of B’s or even the Tartarus of C’s but to show them that they are not yet who they could be. Teachers who fail to do this deny their students an education by denying them the benefits of ambition and competition. Then faculty members conceal this cheat by stroking students’ egos and assuring them that they are already just fine as they are, without blemish, the crème de la crème.

Sadly this cheat is most prevalent at our most elite colleges. The recent revelation that the grade most given to students at my alma mater, Harvard, is an A is shocking in its audacity even to the most jaded, but it’s no great surprise to those of us who give out grades on a regular basis.

For all of us it is easier just to give the students the grade they want. There is then less need for comments on papers, no need to spend time writing a challenging exam, and more time for our own work. And after all, they will soon pass through our halls, and we will never have to deal with them again. No need to deal with their emotional anguish over a lesser grade, field calls from their parents, deal with the endless appeals to a variety of academic deans, or explain declining enrollments when word gets out that we actually give out B’s and even an occasional C.

A number of years ago, one of my senior colleagues, a world-renowned scholar, was confronted by a student who complained that he had received a C-plus. After much back and forth, my colleague told the student that in this course he was simply a C-plus student. When the student responded indignantly that no one had ever said that to him, my colleague responded, “Consider yourself lucky once in life to have met an honest man.”

We all need to be such honest men and women, but of course the consequences of acting in this way in isolation are disastrous both for the faculty member and for the student. The faculty member very quickly notices a decline in his or her enrollments, lower student evaluations, questions from deans, etc., while the student finds it impossible to explain to potential employers and graduate schools that he had the good fortune to be honestly evaluated by his teachers.

Even Harvard’s Harvey “C+” Mansfield, who for years refused to give in to grade inflation, now gives a grade that tells students where they really stand and an inflated “official” grade so they won’t be penalized for the good fortune of encountering an honest man in the midst of a dishonest professoriate.

While it might appear that we are simply powerless in this case, swept away by the wave of contemporary academic culture, I do not believe that this is the case and have a simple suggestion that I believe can solve the problem. Universities nationwide have to be accredited, and the various accreditation services that oversee the process in principle have the ability to simply disqualify colleges that fail to live up to academic standards. In general, however, they pay little attention to the feedback faculty members give students.

Recently, under pressure from state legislators who want to know that they are getting their money’s worth at state institutions, the accreditation services have begun to insist on assessment measures apart from grades to show that students are actually improved by their education. Most of the measures employed in response to those demands, however, are simply bogus, intended frankly only to cover over our unwillingness to tell students the truth and the students’ willingness to accept such lies because they find them pleasing and valuable to their future careers.

All of this could be remedied if the accreditation services simply required every college and university to cease reporting grades and only report class rank, determined in whatever manner institutions wished to employ. Faculty members thus would no longer be able to pretend that all of the students at their institutions were above average (or, in the case of Harvard, nearly perfect).

Under such circumstances students then would have a reason to care about understanding their weaknesses and improving their skills. And we the faculty members could tell the students the truth about their performance rather than complaining to our colleagues about how poorly our students perform while giving them all exceptional grades.

Of course, this wouldn’t make grading any less onerous, but it at least would give the process meaning and contribute to the students’ well-being.

Michael Allen Gillespie is a professor of political science and of philosophy at Duke University.

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