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Rebecca Schuman

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Grading Time: I Give Up, You're All Exceptional

Posted: 05/07/2012 4:35 pm

It's that magical time in collegiate life when the sum total of a student's achievement is quantified in a series of letters. And these days, those letters are usually A's.

Is this because students are brighter, more inquisitive, and in all ways more exceptional than their peers even one generation ago? Or is it simply because they (and, in disturbingly increasing numbers, their parents) have worn us down -- with help from our own beloved institutions, who implore us to grade "fairly" but then place substantial weight on the "customer experiences" of our students, thus implicitly pressuring us to inflate grades?

Here is but a small sampling of actual emails I have received from otherwise-kind students in the past years: "Is there anything in particular I should be doing for the final? I would really like to end this course with an A." I didn't realize! In that case, I'd say you should probably study for it. "I'm only two points away from an A, can't you just give it to me? I was there every day!" Well, since you deigned to show up and only resented it a little... "I need an A in this class." Oh, you need it? Why didn't you just tell me that on the first day? I would have just given it to you then and saved us both a lot of trouble.

Just the other day I had a student in my office regaling me with a tale of horror: she got a B once! Maybe I lacked the corresponding horror because my own undergraduate transcript was just over half B's and B pluses -- of which I was at times quite proud, having earned them in challenging courses in which it was clear that while I was bright, I was not in the top third or fourth of the class. And this fact didn't actually bother me, because not everyone can be the best at everything. Even now, I'm not the best at explaining why today's inflated college grades have risen to a particular level of ludicrousness -- that honor goes to Alicia Shepherd's 2005 article "A's for Everyone!" which I implore you all to read instead of this.

So here is the way things are supposed to go (and, lest I myself be graded down for redundancy, this is not the way they actually play out): a student who has met the minimum requirements for a course but nothing else (the vast majority!) earns a "C." Any student who has done a good job with those requirements earns a "B." And the few students who show truly exceptional promise, effort and work quality earn the coveted "A." If a course is adequately challenging -- and, lest I be even more redundant, most courses today are not -- no more than one-third of any given class should receive A's. This is because to be exceptional means that one's excellence is the exception to the norm.

Do you want to know what the current spread of my mid-level German literature course is? In a class of 21, after the midterm, eighteen of them are currently in the "A" range, and I bet the three in the "B" range are currently really pissed at me. I love my students, and each one surely is exceptional in his or her own way -- but are 18 of them exceptional at the reading and analysis of German prose texts? I hate to break it to any who are reading this, but: no. What they are is part of a culture of universal exceptionalism, where each of them has not only been told that s/he is a special snowflake who's going to be President, but also has been told that anything less than "the best" is a failure.

To remedy the current state, we would need a full scorched-earth approach, with an entirely new scale of assessment, preferably with a forced curve. That will never, ever happen. What can happen, however, is a slight but important shift in attitude. That is, students can and should stop the grade-grubbing. This isn't just because it is annoying (again, we operate on the assumption that everybody in our class "needs"-- sorry, wants, an A). It is because this is bad practice for life. Do you know what would happen if you waltzed into your boss's office after 12 weeks of mediocre job performance and asked for -- nay, demanded -- a raise? At best you'd get branded as a diva troublemaker, and if that boss had any sense you'd be fired for being an entitled twerp. So, on behalf of not just the professoriate but people with "real jobs" too -- stop it. Just -- oh, wait, my phone is ringing. Sorry, that was your mother calling, and I've just realized you're exceptional. Never mind.


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