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Making the Grades

by on May 04, 2016 6:00 AM

An e-pile of papers before me, I ponder one of the great questions of academic life: Does this story deserve an 86 or an 87?

Ridiculous, right?

Speak not to me of rubrics, I pray. Yes, I could assign X points for “content” and deduct Y points per spelling, grammar or punctuation error. But that would not extricate me from the murky realm of qualitative, subjective judgments.

Is it interesting? Did it tell me something worth knowing? In the parlance of the newsroom, did it sing?

86 or 87?

Grading an essay or a poem or, in my case, a feature story, is not like grading a multiple-choice exam, which these days we can farm out to computers. Am I right, dear colleagues in the humanities?

If I were king of the forest I would streamline Penn State’s grading system thus: Good, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory. That’s it. Three grades. I’d certainly scrap those hairsplitting pluses and minuses.

Perhaps you’re thinking, why not dispense with alphabetic or numeric grades altogether and go with written evaluations? Sounds good to me, though I recall seeing a study of that practice at, where else, a small liberal arts school, that caught the instructors cutting corners.

Instead of composing a bespoke assessment for each student, some profs were copying and pasting the same assessments, with minor edits, on all work that was more or less of the same quality. If you wind up, in effect, with a standard “A” evaluation, a standard “B” evaluation and so on, you may as well just assign As and Bs. So back to letter grades they went.

I dream of the planet Zortron, where young people enroll in colleges and come to class and work to the best of their abilities because they have a deep and abiding interest in learning. Zortronian students want to know why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.

On Earth, where many students attend college because they have a deep and abiding interest in obtaining bachelor’s degrees with the least possible effort, they only want to know about boiling oceans and winged porkers if they’ll be on the test. Any work that will not be graded, or that will figure minimally in the final grade, probably will not get done, or will get done in a cursory manner.

Zortronian instructors need only offer suggestions for improvement. We, their Earthling counterparts, incentivize work by awarding grades, just as, on the other side of College Avenue, employers incentivize work by paying cash.

I don’t blame students for thinking of grades as money. They’re members of this culture, not its architects. Indeed, grades have the same distorting effect on student labor as the counting of conference presentations, publications and grants has on faculty labor.

A “paradox of neoliberalism,” writes George Monbiot in the Guardian, “is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers.”

Early in my teaching career, before students could monitor their performance online, I had a colleague who posted a chart on his office door that showed his students exactly how many points they had accumulated from one week to the next.

My first thought was: Maybe I should be doing that.

My second thought was: Do I want to ratify my students’ obsession with grades? I didn’t.

In fact, I began letting my journalism students in on a little secret: Editors don’t care a feather or a fig about your grade-point average. They are neither bothered by that C you got in bio during freshman year, nor impressed by that brilliant paper you wrote for an English class about the novels of Virginia Woolf. Give them an accurate, readable story about a school board meeting – by deadline – and they’ll give you a byline.

Though I never spreadsheeted my office door, there’s no getting around itemizing points or percentages per assignment on my course syllabi at the beginning of the semester -- or agonizing about grades at the end.

I used to fret that my grades would vary depending on whether I was tired or rested, grumpy or cheery, hungry or sated, reading the 20th assignment in the pile or the first. So from time to time I checked myself, re-reading in the morning an assignment I had graded the night before without peeking at my night-before grade.

I learned that I was a model of consistency: The grades I awarded on second thought were almost always the same as the grades I awarded on first thought.

So that’s a comfort. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the pile with me.

That story I started with? Not an 86. An 87. Definitely.



Russell Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. A collection of his columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," will be published this fall by the Penn State Press. Before launching his academic career at Penn State in 1998, Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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May 03, 2016 5:32 PM
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