Bah! Humbug!

By Matt McKinnon

ImageIt’s that time of the year again: the hectic, hair-pulling, hand-wrenching, fast-paced, rat-race that ensues around the time the Thanksgiving turkey is finally dispensed with and any leftover family begrudgingly go home.  But I’m not talking about the sales frenzy of Black Friday—the pepper-spraying, Best Buy-occupying, pushing and shoving crowds excitedly clawing and scratching for that thousand-inch television or the latest tickle-me-furry thing.  No, I write of something far darker, far more sinister, far more imposing than sale-grabbers run amuck.

It’s time for end-of-term grading.

Let me reiterate: Bah! Humbug!

I often remark (usually while engaged in grading or putting it off) that it is the worst part of my job.  While I love to teach, lecture, discuss, research, and yes read the many assignments my students turn in, the part I have come to like the least—oh, let’s be honest: the part I hate—is grading.

“Who am I,” I quarry with feigned humility and attempted justification, “to arbitrarily assign a grade—a degree, an amount, a (dare I say it?) value to someone’s written (or spoken) word, dripping with the blood, sweat, and tears of countless hours of preparation and study?”

“What manner of mortal am I,” waxing almost poetic, “to take on the god-like visage of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and attempt to quantify the unquantifiable?”

“It’s your job.”  Is usually the response of my wife, herself an educator (a real one with actual degrees and certifications in education).  “What else is your PhD good for?”

Deep in my heart I know she’s right: it’s ultimately what I am paid to do.  After all, most of my knowledge is contained in inanimate things like books and libraries, data bases, and the internet, and perhaps a paid actor could replace my antics in the classroom or online discussions.  But education, at least as we currently practice it, is more than the communication of knowledge: it is also a goal-oriented pursuit: a destination, a degree, a ticket to the middle-class workforce, and to make all of this possible—it is a grade.

I used to claim that we in the academy were the only ones who cared about grades.  After all, we are the ones for whom high school seniors show off their grades, and we are the ones who require the same of college seniors—if they want to go to graduate school.  And while this is true, The National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests that more companies than ever are screening applicants according to GPA, which is not surprising given the trend of the past decade to put more emphasis on quantifiable assessment in education, especially where public dollars are concerned.

But there is another group seemingly if not surprisingly wedded to the grading system: students.

One might think students would be solidly against grades, as they are the bane of many a young scholar’s existence.   But in my experience at least, students are heavily vested in grades, both as a metric of their performance as well as a quantifiable prize or award, the equivalent of a blue ribbon for “best in show.”

In addition to my BLS courses this semester (where students are more “seasoned”), I have been teaching first-semester freshmen, whose major gripe about professors (other than being too hard) is that they don’t post enough grades.  Never mind the idea that papers are “works in progress” that won’t receive a traditional mark until the final product is submitted, presumably after editing and re-editing.  No, these folks want more grades more often.  It’s almost like they don’t know how they are doing unless they have a quantifiable value attached to their performance.

I had a professor in my last year of college who made it a practice in his seminar classes to offer students the chance to opt-out of the grading process, either by taking a “Pass” or submitting to one grade for the entire class.  (He never gave us grades on papers, just comments.)  I had him for three courses, and none of us ever took him up on the offer.  After all, I was trying to get into graduate school—and needed grades, not an underwhelming “Pass” on my transcript.

In the rare instances when I have made the same offer to students, it has been summarily turned down, often without real consideration. And while I sympathize with my professor’s point, and even join him in his distaste for the commodification of education that grades have arguably contributed to, I can understand my students and their desire, their need for a grade to help them know their worth—even if I don’t like it.

Luckily, however, I teach mostly in the BLS program, where there seems to be more of an awareness by students that education is the journey, not the destination.  I have even had a few lament that many of their grades were too easily got and many more who readily acknowledge the self-assessed value of what they have learned as opposed to the grades they received.

And that makes the challenging process of assigning calculated values to their intellectual development bearable.

But I’ve procrastinated long enough; there are papers to grade.

Bah! Humbug!

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