Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chicago Charlie on Grading, Grade Inflation, Love, and the Grade Bump.

Well, it is 2:15 am on Thursday night (technically, I suppose, Friday morning), and I have just finished the last of a long semester’s grading. It was quite a slog. I teach the humanities course required for all incoming freshman at Moneybags University, so I get a couple interested in my subject, but for the most part, it is nursing students and accounting students and business and econ and anything but actual literature or humanities. And it is these silly little essay questions, and I am thinking, “Hmmm… does that answer about the general will in Rousseau merit a 7.5/10 or an 8…” And what is the metric by which a qualitative thought gets transformed into a quantitative measure anyway? After a few years, it still seems more than a bit incongruous to me. But that is all just by way of introduction here.

Confession time. I try to grade fairly, I really really really do, but I see a student’s name at the top of the exam and, even as I’m grading as objectively as I can, there is a part of me too that is thinking “Come on, come on, you can do it…” and I am secretly happy when they get the answer right and I can give them full credit. Conversely, I am secretly unhappy when a student I dislike gets an answer correct because I was secretly hoping that they would give me an excuse to hit them with the grade I hope they get.

I must say though, that usually the students who are smart and attentive do well and the students who are stupid and distracted don’t, regardless of their personality. But, as happens every semester, I can’t help but think of grade inflation. I know it gets a bad rap, and I know that it’s usually attributed to the snowflakes demanding their $50K worth of letter grade… which usually means an A. I’m at one of those schools where an A is actually a B, a B is a C and a C is a D. You get an F if you cheat (too often) or are too stupid to fill out add/drop paperwork and if you get a D, well, you are just fucking dumb as barbwire. Really fucking stupid barbwire.

Anyway, I’ll be the first to tell you that my grades are pretty massively inflated. I ran the numbers, I give about 40% A/A-, 30% B range, 20% C, 10% F pretty consistently across classes and across years. But I don’t do it because I give a shit about little Sally Snowflake complaining to the dean or smacking me with a bad rating on that voldemortian site we must not name or having her parents helichopper in or anything like that.

Really, I do it for one reason only, and it is a reason which will, no doubt, open me up to a world of hell from RYS readers.

It is this: I am a damn fucking softy.

I am ice cream melting in Chicago summer soft. I am two-ply toilet paper soft. The little fuckers give me high holy hell all semester long about how their assignment is late because their second cousin’s grandmother’s sister’s niece’s piano-teacher’s ex-husband’s former mistress’s surrogate mother’s cleaning lady’s pen pal stubbed a toe. And the oh so lonely office hours and all the other shit we complain about. But dammit, when it comes to giving a low grade, I just can’t do it. I feel badly. I remember getting bad grades and how sad it made me (and I got a whole hell of a lot of bad grades as an undergrad… long story short… a potent mix of cannabis, delivery Thai food and a young French-Canadian named Heloise…).

And I remember, too, how an unexpected good grade could really make my day, my summer even. I just feel so much better about life giving a high grade than a low one. I hate giving low ones. I hate thinking of their sad little faces. I like thinking about their happy little faces. And at the end of it all, I really just kind of think they all deserve As. And here’s the thing about giving good grades: it costs me nothing. The difference to me between giving a student a B+ and an A- is absolutely nothing. I couldn’t care less and, much like one of my many undergraduate benders, I will find myself in some far off place with absolutely no memory of the last sixteen weeks nor the faces of any of the people I interacted with. I remember and think fondly of them now, but in a week or two, I wouldn’t recognize their face much less remember their name if they came up and punched me in the face. But to them, that A- means a lot. They will hold on to it; it will sit on that pretty little transcript forever. And when they file out past me that last day of class, I do, I really do, I get a little weepy. I mean, I don’t actually cry, but I wouldn’t be in the business getting the pay I get and taking the shit I take (from students as well as deans, hiring committees, department chairs and everyone else) if I didn’t really love the students.

And after 16 week talking Plato and Augustine and Melville and Emerson, well, I kinda come to love the l’il bastards. I mean, I’m not one of those freakshows who wants to be friends and hang out after class and shit and have them over to my house to drink wine and bake cookies. I like to keep it professional. But I feel a certain type of intellectual intimacy; we reveal a lot about ourselves when we critically analyze the works of others. And that brings us together, and I am sad to see them go. And I love ‘em and I want to give them As. And as much as I get kicked around all semester long, at the end of the day, I get to give them whatever the fuck grade I want (and, honestly, I could give the worst student an A and justify and the best student an F and justify it – not that I ever have or would, but to know that I could is enough). Giving a grade is really the only thing I have complete control over. And I have never once had students protest to the dean that I grade too easy. And I have lost some time regretting giving a student a grade lower than they deserved. It has weighed on me and I have felt guilty and wished I had just given them that extra little bit. But I have never once handed in the grade sheet and thought, “Fuck, I should have given Meathead Mike a lower grade, that bastard.” That’s not how my mind works. The good sticks with me and gets better as memory does its work, and the bad just fades away into the dark realms of oblivion.

Bottom line, the students I hate, I won’t bump down just because they’re douchebags. They get the grade they get. But for students who show up, do the work, try hard, are open-minded and teachable, make progress, don’t goof off, speak when they have something to say and remain silent when they don’t, ask appropriate questions when they don’t understand… I don’t think it’s so wrong to give them the extra bump (let’s call it participation grade). So I end up bumping the good students up a bit and not bumping the bad students down and, lo and behold… grade inflation. And… well… I like to think I am making some happier summers. At least mine anyway.