Sunday, April 15, 2007

Grades and the Dispossessed

Tenured Radical's recent post on "What if Everyone Got an A?" reminded me of a passage I enjoy from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Dispossessed.

In a section describing the disorientation of Shevek, a visiting professor from the anarchist moon Anarres who finds himself teaching physics to elite students on the capitalist world of Urras, Le Guin writes:

They were superbly trained these students. Their minds were fine, keen, ready. When they weren't working, they rested. They were not blunted and distracted by a dozen other obligations. They never fell asleep in class because they were tired from having worked on rotational duty the day before. Their society maintained them in complete freedom from want, distractions, and cares.

What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.

He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

"Well, of course," Shevek said, troubled. "If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it." (127-128)
In the past, I've used this passage in class to engage students about the purpose of grades and grading. Sometimes I ask the students who the grades for? My favorite answer is the one that asserts that grades are for the professors – as if I'm saving them up to make a quilt or something. Students are usually fairly clear that the grades aren't simply for them – a courtesy we offer at the end of every semester like an after dinner mint. They aren't allowed to decline their grades. The suspicion that grades and degrees aren't really for the benefit of either the faculty or the students, but are more likely for the benefit of future employers who will be the end consumers of their college transcripts, is an uncomfortable one for most students and for many faculty too. I've certainly come to resent spending my weekends grading papers just to make hiring decisions easier for some distant personnel department. I'm not opposed to writing, assignments, feedback, or even competition in the service of learning and education. I just think it's unlikely that grades serve any of those functions very well.

Ok, now I have to go grade more papers...

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the longer I do this the more I resent grading. I am perfectly happy to comment on student writing, to "evaluate" it with terms like "good" and "excellent," to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of a given paper...but writing that letter/number at the bottom of the assignment, well, I'm finding it harder and harder to do. In my current stack of papers, there are 8 (of 40) that do not come close to addressing the assignment, which we spent significant class time talking about. Do I fail them? Give them D's? Tell them to rewrite? I'm thinking of having them come in to tell me why they didn't do the assignment and proceeding from there.