Grade Inflation, and the Referee as Coach

In an education world dealing with the impending burst of the tuition bubble, the New York Times decides to cover grade inflation:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

No offense to the reporter, but I have read this article in the newspaper every year for fifteen years.  It’s not a story, even if an academic wraps a report around their gripe. It’s more like a yearly event, like Groundhog Day. Without, of course, the suspense.

First things first. If I was a professor confronted by a student on a grade, I’d be tempted to tell them the truth:  no one cares about your GPA. I mean, grad school cares, I suppose. But I’ve worked top jobs in my field and not been asked for my GPA once. In fact, as an employer, if you see a GPA listed on a resume, no matter how high it is, you usually put that resume in the discard pile. If a person is quoting their GPA at you, it’s a good sign they haven’t accomplished anything of value.

So this whole “I’m going to teach students how the ‘real world’ works by grading them harshly” thing has the battery wired backwards. It’s the professor in many of these cases who has lost sight of how the real world works. What you put on your resume is what you’ve done — not what you scored.

But I wanted to drill down on the most annoying part of this article, because it deals with what formed my Joycean epiphanaic moment in 1994, when I was teaching English Composition 101 to college students.

I taught the rhetorical triangle. I drilled into the students — know your audience, speak to your audience, talk to them from thier assumptions, not yours. We did the essay on flag burning, we did the essay on free speech. It was 1994, it was a university chosen textbook — I’m sure you know the drill.

When we got to assigning the essay on gun control, one of my students came up to me and said, hey, Mr. Caulfield — so what do *you* think about gun control?

Silly student, I thought. Always trying to weasel a bit of information out of me to game the system.

“No, no.” I said, “You have to write for your audience, not me.”

“But I’m writing this for the grade.” said the student, “so aren’t you my audience?”

That was my first semester of teaching, and it was the first time I realized the system is designed to perpetuate a bit of a fraud on students. I was the referee and the coach at the same time. And so all the time I was coaching, students were looking for clues — how was I going to ref this? As they should. They aren’t coming to NIU because they traveled miles and paid thousands of dollars for the pleasure of my thoughts. They came to get the piece of paper that will change the course of their life.

How frustrating is it to students that we stand up there and pretend — “Oh hey, no, I’m teacher-guy now — I don’t know this evaluator-guy you speak of.”

Hey, guess what — they’re just not that into us. The reason they are putting themselves into debt for ten years *is* to get the piece of paper. Treating the teacher like the referee they are (and pressing the ref for a better grade) is sane and exemplary behaviour for a student who can expect to spend well over $100,000 on four years of education.

Do I think the game students are playing is not in their ultimate self-interest? Yeah, probably. Grades and tests are ultimately an easier thing to master than the challenges they will hit outside the academy.

But I’m not going to blame students for trying to play the game we built better.You want different behavior? Change the game.

And please, oh please, admit that you’re the referee. We can see the same person teaches the class as grades the papers — those Clark Kent glasses aren’t fooling anyone.


One Comment on “Grade Inflation, and the Referee as Coach”

  1. Larry says:

    I’ve heard Bob Marley (of the Wailers) and B.F. Skinner (of Harvard) say the same thing: “Give the People What they Want.” Students need to figure out what the prof. wants, just as they need to figure out what an employer wants. Hopefully, the prof. will also be open to a different or creative product as well (but sometimes not).


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