Everybody Has Won, And All Must Have Prizes

I hate grading. I’ve said that here before, but I really mean it (that’s one reason I’m blogging instead of mopping up the last papers I need to mark before the weekend). In previous posts (to which I’ll link when I have a few minutes) I’ve tried to present a good, noble rationale for not wanting to grade: it’s antithetical to discipleship, to the intrinsic value of learning, to the transparent relationship of mentor to student, and so on.

Permit me to throw this big, resin-laden, dry branch onto the fire, though. Another element to my distaste for grading comes from the divergent perspectives that I and some of my students bring to that exercise in systematically distorted communication. I want my grades to say, “This is truly excellent work,” or “This shows very good work, with definable room for improvement,” or whatever — and some of my students want their grades to say, “This work is as good as the work that got you an A in caucus-race classes you’ve taken before, under other circumstances.” Some of my students have been trained to expect that adequate work will receive an A.

The other day I was talking to a student friend about opera, pros and cons, and I admitted a distaste for Grand Opera, but a deep fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan (which helped constitute me as the postmodern Victorian — or Edwardian — that I am). The whole phenomenon reminds me of the dénouement of The Gondoliers: the twin Kings of Barataria create peerages and offices for all their citizens, only to discover that “When everyone is somebodee, then no one’s anybody!”

If we care about excellence — most people (certainly including Christians who care about St. Paul and Jesus and the saints and people like that) have reason so to do — we have to come to terms with difference in capacity and accomplishment. I want desperately that our engagement with those kinds of difference be not abusive or odious or burdensome, but we can’t afford to muffle the difference between excellence and adequacy without buying into a fatal anodyne mediocracy, in academy or church or culture or state.

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. We’re rife with grade-inflation at my institution, and with over-rewarding the merely adequate. It’s awfully hard to combat, not least because of my own tendencies to be a big softie. In order to force myself to make the kinds of distinctions you’re suggesting here, though, this year I revised my grading policies so that they read (in much more extended fashion) as follows:

    The grade of B+ is yours to lose. Here are ways that you can lose it…

    The grades of A- and A much be earned. Here are ways that you can earn them…

    The upshot of this policy is that showing up regularly, doing all the work adequately and in a timely fashion, completing the terms of each assignment, not making any serious errors, etc., constitutes B+ work. A and A- work requires something more, some spark of excellence that exceeds the expected. My hope is that communicating this policy clearly to my students will remind them that, in fact, a B+ is a Very Good Grade.

    I’m not sure whether it’s worked or not yet. But I do know that I had no grade complaints last semester, for the first time in Ever.

  2. I fully agree about the useless grading system. A single letter simply cannot ever communicate the professor’s actual evaluation of the work. It seems to me that the “relationship of mentor to student” would be much better served by a system that allowed for mentor/profs to actually write what they want to say about the paper. “This shows very good work, with definable room for improvement” is a more helpful statement than “B” anyway.

  3. I’ve gradually — and it took way too long to figure this out — begun including in the syllabus a description of specific characteristics of excellent, very good, adequate, and inadequate papers. It helps me immensely to be able to refer to those characteristics when I assess papers.

    That’s not to say that I count myself an accomplished grader. I’d much rather sit down with someone and work through the strengths and weaknesses of a paper (as we do in the Writing Group here at school), so that we can reach a shared understanding of just what problems I see, and how one might remedy them. That, of course, doesn’t lend itself to quantification and summary expression on a transcript.

    I also feel queasily aware that my students read what I write here, and I wish I could just magically reassure everyone that “I’m not talking about you.” they’ve been, you’ve been hearing me say this sort of thing in theological terms all through NT II, though. I need to be able to say, “This looks like a hand, this like a nose, this like a knee,” and so on. If the whole stack of papers were eyes, where would the sense of smell be?

    To the extent that my describing this situation injures anybody, I apologize; and I would very much like to re-emphasize my offer to work with anyone in the class to edit, refine, enhance their papers. The work someone puts into learning to write more clearly, more effectively, redounds to their benefit a thousand times over.

  4. Hm, maybe I could just start putting today’s lectionary reading at the top of each of my syllabi:

    “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”

    IS JOKE! Mostly. Actually, I’m still working through my thoughts on this post. I do try to make my assignments, even papers, as “quantitative” as possible, perhaps at the cost of a little over-directive-ness.

  5. In addition to the “this is what an ‘A’ means, this is what a ‘B’ means…” section of the syllabus, I give students examples from real, live papers (all from long-gone students, of course).

    Not that it necessarily helps, alas.

  6. I agree with your point that the social contracting ground for grades has shifted. However, I think the question for teachers is not, “how do we revise this deficient grading system?” The reality of grade inflation will not change with our lamenting the loss of standards. Teachers must seek for other ways to motivate students toward excellence. The operative term is “motivate.” Our goal is to encourage excellence and to provide an atmosphere in which people can be their best. If grades are not an adequate means of feedback in this process, then we have to figure out another way to give feedback.

    One could argue that grades were never an adequate measure of excellence, nor were they ever a useful feedback mechanism. So what have we really lost?

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