Friday, December 31, 2010

By Your Command

I always do what my readers want.  Steve Greene wanted me to blog about grade inflation, as reported in the NYT, so here I am. Grades are going up.  This is neither bad nor good.  Done.

So, Steve G., what kind of grade would give you me for that?  What?!  I deserve more.  I worked really hard at that blog entry.  I did all of the reading and everything.

Actually, I may not be the best person to talk about such stuff.  At a school where grade DEflation is the rule and in a department where some of my colleagues will allot 3 and only 3 A's to a class of 300, I tend to be the pushover.  My Intro class averaged a borderline B+.  Of course, this might be due to a bunch of folks fleeing somewhere along the way, so perhaps it would have been a B.  Still, that is high by historical standards for an Intro course.  The average for my upper division class was a more solid B+ this time around.

What are my standards for an A?  That student did the work, understood the stuff, and demonstrated an ability to think about the stuff in discussions and in written work.  The problem I have at McGill is that the undergrads really do the work, really think about it, and can articulate their views very well.  Not only that, but they demand to be challenged.  My first teaching evals told me that my course was too easy, that the exams did not challenge them and that they knew more than I thought.  Well, I had based my courses on my prior experience where the students did not have as strong backgrounds, did not see higher education as much more than a certification for the future job, and were pretty happy with a B.  So, I had to change things up when I came here.

The article suggests that profs grade easier to get better evaluations, but I am not so sure.  First, tough profs who do a good job get fine evals.  Second, profs care less about their evals and more about their time.  So, the real grade inflator would be profs choosing the easy way out to avoid whiny students complaining about grades.  Again, I am lucky in that McGill students seem to be less whiny than those elsewhere.  There are still grade complaints, and they can add up if the class has 600 students.  But I don't give relatively high grades to avoid whiny students, at least not consciously.  I give grades to students based on what I think they deserve.  I don't think I should give students lesser grades if they do all that I expect.  And I don't think it is right to give Cs to students who do all the work, try really hard and just don't get it as well as the others.  I reserve C's and lower grades for students who do not do the work.

The funny thing is that I have never received instructions or expectations from on high about what averages I should target.  Of course, it I were to receive something like that, I am not sure how well it would work.  I just finished the first few episodes of season three of The Wire, where senior police officers encourage those lower in the chain to fudge the statistics by charging people for misdemeanors rather than felonies to keep the serious crime rate down.

The other challenge is that this really is a many player prisoner's dilemma or collective action problem: if my school is tough and everyone else is easy, then our students will be at a competitive disadvantage for admission to grad school.  Perhaps this is doing them a favor since grad school may not be the right choice these days.  Still, it may be unfair.  So, in my letters of recommendation, I do note that McGill does have a grade deflation.  Whether that matters or not, I do not know.

Ok, Steve G., what is my grade for this post?  B?  B+?  Whiiiiiiinnnnnnne!


Steve Greene said...

Solid B+. Loved the humor. Liked the nice, long, self-reflective take (a hallmark of your blog). To get an A, though, you would have had to engage more fully with the broader issues discussed in the article :-).

Steve Saideman said...

Thanks for the insta-grade.

Of course, if you had given me a longer page limit, I could have done what you asked for : ) The dodge of all good paper whiners.

And, of course, you can one-up in your blog.