On that one grade inflation article that’s going around

You know, this one. I’ve never faced nearly the level of complaining that some do, perhaps because I’m an old softy and also perhaps because I’m a white dude with a beard. Maybe a combination of the two — one year I should shave and see if it makes a difference.

My general guideline is that the average for a given class should be in the B-range. I’ve had classes that are more at the B+ level and a couple that were closer to B-, but generally it seems about right. The problem I see conceptually, though, is that I don’t have “room” to make the kinds of distinctions I’d like to make. If B is average, then A is “solidly competent” — it’d be nice to have room for “mediocre” (C), “competent” (B), and “exemplary” (A). I wind up skewing it so that “competent” is in the B+/A- range, but obviously students don’t feel like those are similar grades at all. Another problem is that it doesn’t seem like there’s any actual role for a D. The distinctions are harder to make the worse the papers get, so it doesn’t make sense to have a wider range of distinctions on the low end of the scale.

As the article points out, though, however satisfying it would be to recalibrate back to a grading system that actually reflects our sense of the quality of the work, it’s not realistic as long as the stakes are so high. Does a student really “deserve” to lose a scholarship, for example, because one professor is randomly being a hard-ass and grading “correctly”? Do they deserve to have their career prospects permanently blighted?

I don’t think they do, but I can only treat the symptoms by grading according to generally accepted grade inflation practices — the only real solution to grade inflation is to decouple college from debt and brutal meritocratic competition. Then people could study what they want to if they show an aptitude for it, and we could afford to do that because we’re the richest society ever in human history and maybe we can get by with fewer baristas so that people can enrich their lives, get in touch with their cultural heritage, and learn useful skills. It would cost money, but there are huge piles of money in corporate coffers and rich people’s bank accounts that are doing nothing but either sitting there or else promoting asset-price bubbles — so we could just take all that money away from them and do something that contributes to something with a recognizably human meaning and purpose. And then our grades would not be inflated and everyone would be happy.

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6 Responses to “On that one grade inflation article that’s going around”

  1. seanchristophercapener Says:

    I know you pretty much said it, but I miss the full catchphrase.

  2. gerrycanavan Says:

    I’m sure there’s some dark side beyond the administration’s openly gleeful “and now we can finally get faculty!” but UNC’s new grading system seems like the rare technocratic fix that actually materially improves the situation:

    http://wunc.org/post/unc-s-new-grading-system-could-show-what-really-worth

  3. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    I’ve known professors who assigned two grades on assignments: the real grade and the one that was recorded.

  4. thanos Says:

    so it doesn’t make sense to have a wider range of distinctions on the low end of the scale.

    Maybe you could give A-pluses for really exceptional work. That sounds facetious and of course they’d just get recorded as As, but I bet some students would appreciate the recognition. Of course, they could also think it’s insulting. But students who are putting in that extra work are probably just doing it “for the love of the game” in the first place.

  5. Alex Wyman Says:

    For what it’s worth, Adam’s institution treats A+’s as slightly better than A’s, as far as GPA’s go.

    Not that I know as much from firsthand experience and am using this as a forum to brag about the fact, or anything.

  6. Charles R Says:

    What if grade inflation is a result of the growing climate within philosophy towards “reading more charitably?” Whereas a less charitable reading is going to find mistakes and inconsistencies in the word choices by making broad assumptions about what’s possibly being said, a more charitable reading in addition to restricting assumptions about what’s possibly being said in order to more likely find consistencies and strong positions is also going to see the larger cultural and economic spheres in which and through which students write these papers. The more charitable reading is not just a reading about the content of what’s being said, but bringing externalities, so to speak, into the reading; or, I guess is a better way of saying it, charity in evaluating philosophical production is thinking economically and not virtuously. Letting people talk is letting people build intellectual capital, and in this day and age of intersectional oppression, everyone needs a help, even the privileged. So, just as one strong reason for grade inflation is cited as the debt economy in which we are all made to participate, another motivation is a growing pervasiveness towards charity. As charity becomes obligatory in order for more and more people to survive (as in the institutionalization of charity in welfare, giving alms, ‘help a brother out’), even how people are taught becomes institutionalized under an economic paradigm of quantified charity.

    Just consider. If a teaching philosopher practices an ethics of charitably reading, how do we expect them to read students’ papers? To read them exactly as the syntax conventionally semantically entails, or with readings that seek out consistency, correctness, prudence as seen from an imagined perspective adopting the student’s genealogy in becoming the teaching philosopher’s student—after all, isn’t it true how one’s history shapes and changes one’s language use? What should we expect to happen to the grading habits of more charitable teachers?

    In other words, even if we remove monetary economics from the way pedagogy occurs, and grade as a reflection of our judgment and sense of our students’ work, we still talk about reading towards consistency as ‘charity’, where better reading is reading more charitably. If the philosophical good is consistency, then granting to our students a more consistent sense than they the students intended, then a division between what a student intends and what the teacher imposed forms, and the grades will no longer reflect the performance, with the teachers saying there’s more good but the students composing as normally as we all did.


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