What grades mean (or don't mean) to the Happy Academic

‘Tis the season around here– no, not Chrismahanukwanzakah, silly; it’s grading season! It is the end of the semester here and the end of quarters and semesters at colleges and universities across America, and once again, all academic types, students and teachers alike, are worried about grades. This grade talk is all the rage right now on some of my favorite blogs– namely, Clancy “CultureCat” Ratliff and KairosNews– and a lot of other blogs I come across: Metafilter, and Jerz’s Literacy Blog, to name two. Why? Well, because of the obvious seasonal issues, attention is being directed to this column, “Grading System gets an F” by Ailee Slater, published in the student newspaper at the University of Oregon. Ms. Slater, who is a Sophomore studying English, is not happy with the system. As she writes in her opening paragraphs:

Finals week has (finally) come, which can only mean one thing: Let the bitching about schoolwork commence. Not that you haven’t been doing that all term.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that the University system makes absolutely no sense. Students pay teachers to educate us, yet they are then allowed to tell us how much we’re learning. The whole situation seems akin to a boss paying her employee to clean toilets and the employee turning around and telling the employer how much she is or isn’t happy with the cleaning job. If I’m paying someone to do my housekeeping, I’ll be the one to tell the receiver of my hard-earned money exactly how well they did. Shouldn’t it be the same with education?

We are currently paying a large amount of money to attend this University and receive an education. If I have paid to be taught something, shouldn’t there be a repercussion for the teacher rather than, or at least as well as, the student when knowledge has not been taught?

As Denis Jerz and others have pointed out, the whole toilet cleaner=teacher analogy is more than a tad problematic, but I don’t want to beat up on Ms. Slater too much. For one thing, she’s already getting a lot of criticism, and a lot of it (as Clancy points out) is unfair, inappropriate, and flat-out sexist.

For another thing, I believe Ms. Slater is expressing a fairly common student critique of grades, particularly “bad” grades. “These darn students are just consumers,” faculty-types (happy or not) say all the time. Maybe. But while the “students as consumers” position has perhaps gotten worse in recent years, it isn’t exactly new. Indeed, before I was a Happy Academic, I was a Happy College Student, and when I was in Ms. Slater’s shoes nearly 20 years ago now, I think I and many of my colleagues more or less felt the same way.

In the end of her essay, Ms. Slater suggests that we simply “do away” with grades. I wouldn’t oppose that necessarily, because grading is by far the most unpleasant part of my happy academic job. And indeed, there are some schools that have done away with grades and instead have installed systems where faculty write letters, where students take classes pass/fail, and so forth. Such systems might sound interesting, but somehow I suspect “no grading” systems ultimately break down under their own bureaucratic weight, and/or they ultimately end up closely resembling more traditional grading systems.

In any event, I think Ms. Slater and her consumer student clan are going down the wrong path for several different reasons. First, since Ms. Slater is attending a state school that is subsidized by tax dollars in some fashion, she isn’t really “paying” entirely for her education. It varies from state to state (and I am aware that the state of Oregon doesn’t fund higher education at levels that are equal to many other states), but the fact of the matter is anyone attending a public school is receiving at least some “public assistance” for their education.

Second, students aren’t purchasing “grades” or even “classes” with their tuition dollars. Rather, they are purchasing the “opportunity” to earn a credential that is granted by an institution in the form of a degree of some sort: a BA, a BS, a MA, whatever. Each class and grade along the way represents a sort of mini “seal of approval,” all of which comes together in the completed transcript and the completed degree.

Furthermore, the value of this credential in the marketplace is generally tied to that institution’s reputation, constructed at least in part by how it evaluates and grades its students. Reputable schools (like the U of Oregon, like EMU) don’t allow students to merely pay for grades or degrees. Now, for the consumer student who doesn’t like the fact that their money doesn’t automatically buy them a passing grade, that their professors require them to do things like attend class, write essays, and take exams, they have plenty of “diploma mill” alternatives. The only problem is that the credentials that these schools sell aren’t considered to be “real,” which means they would probably represent an incredibly bad investment.

(And just to be clear about this: you notice I am using the word “credential” and not “education,” simply because they are not necessarily the same thing. Plenty of people in the past and present have been “educated” without attending or completing college, and plenty of people have managed to graduate from college without being educated. But the whole tie between educating and credentialling is perhaps the subject of a different post).

Third, and I try to explain this every semester with various results, students do not “get” (or “receive”) grades; rather, they “earn” grades. Grades are not gifts that are handed out randomly by a teacher; grades are earned (or not) based on what students do (or not). Simple as that.

As a Happy Academic, I of course want all of my students to succeed in whatever ways are appropriate for them. I want them to all be like the children of Lake Woebegon and to be above average. In that sense, I “care” about my students. But truth be told, I don’t really care that much about the grades they earn. I don’t automatically “like” students who earn “A”s, I don’t automatically “dislike” students who earn “D”s, and I’ve come to realize that students earn (or don’t earn) the grade they ultimately receive for too many reasons for me to contemplate.

So, one of the ways I stay a Happy Academic during this time of the year is to remind my students and myself what grades mean. Which is to say not much.

Okay, now to the grading…

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