Making the Grade

"What the ... A third essay question--on Erasmus and Renaissance portraiture! Save us! Save us!" (Photo by Patrick Denker via Flickr/CC)

On the last day of class, before finals began, a student asked me if it was possible to rewrite one of the essays for a course that had included three essays, a midterm, a final examination, and seminar discussions. “I need an ‘A’ for my scholarship,” the student announced. Although my brain quickly ticked off the ways I loathe this sort of appeal, I smiled, answered no, and suggested the student study hard for the final exam.

After submitting my final grades for the semester (I experienced a flicker of hesitation before I entered the above student’s final grade, which was not a grade of “A”), I began thinking about the underlying injustice–and justice–of determining the final grade in a humanities course.

Although some professors abuse the privilege of grading, the system of grades per se remains the best way to assess the quality of student performance. Students complain about grades, but they at least understand them. Grades form an integral part of the unwritten contract between students and professors whereby professors agree to teach–and evaluate or judge students–and students agree to follow the professor through a course of study. In humanities courses, letter grades (as opposed to numerical grades) offer a form of shorthand communication for the many words that would be necessary for professors to explain to students how good their work is. In other words, letter grades offer students an assessment that goes beyond quantification of student performance and instead assesses the  quality of their work.

During the semester, letter grades function simultaneously as sticks and carrots—sticks for the fearful, uninteresting grade-grubbers, carrots for the interesting, intellectually lively sorts for whom doing well in the subject, and being recognized for this, drives them to work harder. Problems of subjectivity, grade inflation, student expectations about grades, fearful adjuncts giving out grades that are too high, and overall sloppy instructor grading notwithstanding, letter grades remain the best tool we humanities professors have.

The final course grade falls into a category of its own. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of the moment when a judge in a court, at sentencing, brings down the gavel. The final grade also exposes the level of integrity of the professor who gives it. Coming up with the final grade requires professors either tell the truth as they see it, or fudge, fuss, and finesse their way to giving out an unfairly earned grade that causes neither the professor nor the student any trouble.

Those who call for better measuring standards and more transparency for grades in humanities courses, or those who clamor for college exit exams, have a point. What are the standards, exactly? How do we know what students are learning if judgments are based on quality and not quantity? How do we know how to compare one professor’s assessment with another’s, or to compare one school’s grades with those in another school? What about instructor prejudice? These are difficult questions.

Yet the problem of the built-in subjective component in grading humanities endeavors is part of the larger problem of the precariousness of knowledge—even, in fact, that knowledge which seems most grounded. David Hume’s skepticism toward knowledge is applicable here. For Hume, very few endeavors (certainly not philosophy) can lay claim to being founded on objective truth. At the same time, Hume was no relativist. In “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), a profoundly subtle, questioning, and unsettling essay written near the end of his life, Hume argues that it’s wrong to consider matters regarding taste as belonging entirely to the subjective realm.

While I leave to philosophers the business of quarreling over the merits of Hume’s essay, the essay helps us see why it’s wrong to see grades as so inherently flawed by subjectivity that they’re unreliable. Admittedly, grades are only so good as the graders. Like excellent judgments having to do with taste that are made by excellent judges, grades given in the humanities, given by excellent and responsible professors, contain elements of subjectivity, but are anchored very near the truth about the quality of a student’s work.

It would be better for students if they understood the simultaneous roughness and accuracy of grades. It would certainly be better if they approached their final course grades not as moments to complain about the inherent unfairness of grades, or of a given teacher, but rather as occasions when they should be asking, “Where am I now? Where am I heading? Where do I want to end up?” The final grade is already history. The questions, on the other hand, are ongoing.


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