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Author Topic: Grading in Humanities Grad-Level Coursework: Does anyone get less than an A?  (Read 17123 times)
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« on: April 19, 2012, 12:46:13 am »

I am starting an English PhD program this fall, and I want to know if there is anything counterintuitive about grading in Phd courses as opposed to undergraduate courses (I am just graduating with my BA now). 

During a visit, one current student made a crytic comment about grading, but I'm not sure if this person was implying that grading is very easy or very hard.  My impression was that the professor's comments are unbelievably harsh on student writing, but that most students get an A or an A-.  Is this wrong?

I am coming from a lesser-ranked public university to an Ivy League school for the PhD, so I feel as if I'm not sure what to expect out of the difference in academic culture combined with the transition from undergraduate to graduate-level work and I worry I will end up committing some embarrassing intellectual faux pas when I arrive.  Any advice, or am I just being paranoid?

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No T, no shade. Usually.

« Reply #1 on: April 19, 2012, 1:12:27 am »

This does vary by department and by institution, but in general, an A minus at the grad level is a clue that you're in the bottom half of students in that particular class, and a B is a stern warning to shape up or think about leaving the program.

However, in the humanities, coursework is brief, and grad programs are long.  (Yes, that's a jokey reference to a Latin epigram, but it is still true.) So the point is to learn to need less external validation as you move forward through the program.

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« Reply #2 on: April 19, 2012, 1:23:07 am »

However, in the humanities, coursework is brief, and grad programs are long.

God, I wish this had been true for me.  I could have finished the PhD so much more quickly if it weren't for excessive coursework requirements.

In my rather limited experience, everyone gets an A all the time in humanities grad school.  This means nothing.  No one will ever ask your GPA or care how you did in classes, since everyone getting an A is assumed.

Do note that while you are in humanities grad school it is very easy to feel like you are doing everything right, right up until you go on the job market, apply to all the jobs, and get zero interest.  Try to remember that there's a very sudden drop from the affirmation of being in grad school to reality afterward.  Know, too, that you also have way more time while in grad school than people act like you do.  Use that time to publish like crazy.  Think of those articles as canned food you're hoarding for the coming job market apocalypse.

The youngest
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« Reply #3 on: April 19, 2012, 1:47:07 am »

I wish the A was the more common grade in my STEM grad program.  The combination of not listing courses that should be prerequisites combined with my coming in from a different field sometimes makes me feel like I'll never get more than a couple of A's in grad school.

"Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into [argument], except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough." -Benjamin Franklin
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« Reply #4 on: April 19, 2012, 1:49:16 am »

I was DGS for a humanities grad program, and one of the things I did as a routine part of my job was track grading practices across our grad seminars (something like 22 seminars a year, MAs and PhDs combined). It was certainly not true that everyone got an A. It was indeed unusual to see grades dip below B+. A- grades were not uncommon. The "standard" grade hovered somewhere around 86. A competitive average would be somewhere from 88 upwards. A+ grades (90 and above) were rare, though not as rare as the B level grade.

We require only one year of PhD coursework, but our students all have MAs already when they come to us, so that does make a difference in terms of what we expect.
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« Reply #5 on: April 19, 2012, 2:54:29 am »

When I taught in the US I was surprised when a grad student first asserted to me that you can't give B's in grad school as grades. I certainly got some as a grad student in the US. Well at least B+ and I did well (social science). I don't think I ever gave out any Cs though to grad students. Here in Australia people do fail grad level courses...
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« Reply #6 on: April 19, 2012, 3:01:45 am »

My friends in the humanities essentially all claim to get all As, all the time. An A- (never mind a B+) is a sign that you are not performing adequately. Anything below that means you are essentially dead in the water.

In my social science department, both A and A- are standard, unproblematic grades, while B+ or B is the "we are watching you, shape up" grade.

I got one C at the Master's level. I believe that I should have been granted an incomplete due to a documented major illness that semester, but I was told "turn in the missed work late and get a C or Fail and be dismissed from the program". I did the work late rather than try to fight the situation and got the C. It didn't stop me from getting into a top PhD program, though.

On the whole, this is going to vary from department to department, though. Ask the more senior grad students for their perspective when you get there.
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« Reply #7 on: April 19, 2012, 8:12:02 am »

I guess grade inflation has  hit grad school too! When I was in grad school (end of 80s-early 90s) everyone did not get an A. This was in the humanities. It was general consensus if you got lower than a B, that it was a problem. This was different from undergrad because then you surely did get a , C, D or an F if you deserved it as an undergrad. And C was what you got for doing ALL the work but just adequately as an undergrad, and not necessarily a bad grade.

Also, we had 4 years of required coursework for the doctorate. 2 years (4 courses per semester) for the masters. 
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« Reply #8 on: April 19, 2012, 10:24:14 am »

Many profs in my department would give "A/A-" on a paper.

Kind of reminds me of this grading scale on a McSweeney's syllabus:

A-plus = 10090
A = 8980
A-minus = 7970
A-minus-minus = 6960
A-minus-minus-minus = 5950
A-minus-minus-minus-minus = 490
is not worthy of a moniker resurrection.
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« Reply #9 on: April 19, 2012, 10:51:56 am »

N=2, but my grad school experience has been that an A- is indeed an a slap on the wrist and a B is something to be concerned about. That said, I willingly took a B for a class that had an obscenely time-intensive, observation-based project that was worth 10% of the grade. That B didn't hurt me.

"Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist." -George Carlin
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« Reply #10 on: April 19, 2012, 10:56:09 am »

English department person here; our incoming graduate students are generally straight out of undergrad and get the MA "in progress" on the way to the PhD (or when they decide to leave with a MA and look for a CC teaching position or go back to their former high-school job with higher salary). Grading range runs from B- to A but more than two or three marks below  B+ are pretty much an encouragement to take the MA and run. On the other hand, I once asked the  only one of my doctoral students whose dissertation was published by a university press with very little revision why he had asked me to be his supervisor (he was in a closely allied subfield, but not the one in which I specialize). He answered "Because you're the only professor who gave me anything less than an A on a seminar paper."

And yes, I did turn back the first chapter of his dissertation with the comment "I refuse to read any sentences with more than fifty words in them" and yes, his writing improved a whole lot after that.
Potnia theron and
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« Reply #11 on: April 19, 2012, 11:33:42 am »

My Ph.D. program switched to Pass/Fail grades specifically because of this problem.  MA candidates got letter grades, as they were a bit more diverse in ability and they needed transcripts if they decided to apply elsewhere for the Ph.D, but Ph.D. students got a series of P grades.

Unless, of course, we took courses in another department upon occasion, as I did; I had my advisor add a short note to her letter for me explaining that our department didn't use the same letter grades as the others, just in case it looked strange to scs.

"dr. mended_drum don't give a sh!t; she will chew me up like a cobra."
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Posts: 402

« Reply #12 on: April 19, 2012, 12:50:59 pm »

I can't speak to English or other departments, but I can tell you that students in my (humanities) program do sometimes get grades in the B-range. Nobody thinks of those as particularly good grades: they're a shot across the bow, and the students who get them do know that they need to put in more work.

On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that each incoming class here consists of four of the best candidates out of about 300 applicants. It's not surprising that the majority of grades would be in the A-range: these are, after all, extremely strong students. I would expect more variation in grades from larger programs.
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Posts: 526

« Reply #13 on: April 19, 2012, 1:03:25 pm »

Speaking of counter-intuition, the best advice I received prior to beginning my doctoral work was to set as the primary goal the completion of a quality dissertation which would be the best recommendation of someone on the job market.    All activities in the course work should contribute to the dissertation.  Motivation to achieve a certain grade should be completely ignored and should be a byproduct of your quality and sustained effort in completing the dissertation.

Generally, I've found that faculty tend to understand and encourage doctoral students to find ways to connect the course work with their dissertation -- this can be an arena of negotiations with the course professor: "Since I am envisioning area X as a focus for my dissertation, would it be possible to choose activity Y in this class . .. "

formerly Lukeurig
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recalcitrant and trollish loser

« Reply #14 on: April 19, 2012, 1:42:16 pm »

All students are above average, at least in the U.S. of A.

Even last century in my two grad programs there were only three possible grades: A, B, or Incomplete until you got an A or B.

Screw you... You're not a troll. You're just posting pathetic jerkish, troll-wannabe, crap.  (mystictechgal, Member-Moderator)
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