To the Editor:
Your cover piece, “The Problem with Grades” (The Chronicle, August 2), is revelatory of an utterly irresponsible theme, supported by selective arguments and evidence. The article focuses on Professor Susan D. Blum and a few other unrepresentative anti-grading principals.
Grades, Professor Blum and others conclude, with insufficient examination, are a barrier between students and learning. Her panacea? Either let students grade themselves or eliminate grades.
Professor Blum asks students, “”What grade would you give yourself?”, and, according to her student interlocutor, “in most cases she gives the students the grade they suggest.” Dr. Blum adds, “If I could make only one change to conventional schooling, it would be to stop giving grades.”
Her position is understandable if a professor sees students as his or her “friends.” After all, one does not want to risk mutually supportive relations with a comrade by criticizing him or her. However, since a professor’s charge is to teach and evaluate students for growth and success respectively, “friendship” should not define their relationship.
I have met professors who ask students what grades they feel they deserve and give them those grades. Introspective, guilt-prone students then receive lower grades than they deserve, while students who implausibly fancy themselves as the rebirth of Jane Austen or Voltaire get A’s. Put simply, it is ridiculously invalid to grade that way.
All of this is borne from fear of students who control much of promotion and tenure now in the academy. Don’t like grades? Okay, we’ll eliminate them, but you may still evaluate us because those evaluations are eminently valid.
All of the criticisms of grades stem from a desire to protect students from competitive realities that define society. Blum says that having students depend on professors’ “assessments of their work” creates fear of failure and their creativity is undermined. Those points could be asserted regarding any person in the working world, or, actually, life itself, who is not an independent contractor, and even they must consider others’ opinions.
The article, almost as an afterthought, obliquely addresses “credentialing,” the critical component of grading and evaluating students for graduate school, employment, award recognition, etc. Clarissa Sorenson-Unruh, one of the “ungrading” supporters, herself notices that without evaluations, students may have some problems transferring schools. She uses a convoluted system that in the end rewards students who have an inflated view of themselves. No remedy is even suggested. Of course not. That’s one of the many reasons professors must grade.
Yes, some professors and other teachers, in the words of the sage Cyndi Lauper, “just want to have fun” and not get into the sometimes unpleasant task of evaluating their students. That task, however, is critical for institutions of higher learning in order to have whatever validity is remaining after the ravages of fearful grade inflation invalidate faculty accreditation.
Richard E. Vatz