Though we do it a lot, the practice of assigning grades is fraught for many college instructors. Whether it’s because we dislike its hierarchical underpinnings or the fact that some students seem to be systematically disadvantaged by it, the practice of grading can be pedagogically and ethically complicated. After wrestling for decades with my own misgivings about its meaning and role, I’m newly interested in the complicated role that grading can play in instructors’ deepest sense of ourselves, as teachers, and as ethical and political agents.
It’s widely known that some professors invest heavily in the notion of themselves as “hard graders,” a label associated with seriousness, hard work, and uncompromisingly high standards. They are as proud when students complain about their grades as elitist restauranteurs are delighted with complaints about their tiny portions. And it’s surely no accident that these loud and proud “hard graders” are often crusaders for higher education, eager to protect its supposed traditional dignity and integrity. The “hard grader” rhetoric, then, can function both to establish and support the professor’s self-concept and to promote a meritocratic pedagogy and conservative vision of higher education.
On the other extreme are the professors who are just as proud of being cavalierly dismissive of grades. In fact, you may learn how little they value grading from how very much they talk about it. It’s not that they don’t engage closely with student work, they will be sure to explain, but they have no use for grades and so assign A’s to just about everyone. Here again there are reasonable pedagogical, political and ethical justifications. After all, aren’t grading systems just one more cog in a sexist, racist capitalist heteropatriarchy that reproduces and celebrates inequities and social division? Aren’t grades an expression of ill-gotten and ill-conceived institutional power that oppresses the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the creative? And don’t they ultimately distract students from engaging authentically with the actual course content and so taint learning as it’s meant to be?
Many professors fall somewhere in the middle, ambivalent about the “system,” perhaps, but working with it as we do many other troubling aspects of institutional life. In the scheme of things, after all, grades may well be one of the less offensive practices in higher education. How many professors who highmindedly reject the hierarchy of grades, I wonder, also reject the hierarchy that has them better paid than adjunct instructors by orders of magnitude? At any rate, expressing one’s social activism by rejecting traditional grading is a very particular choice, and not at all the most obviously effective way to rebel against our unabashedly inequitable institutions of higher learning.
Still, I admit that I’m attracted to the prospect of eschewing grades. What could be more appealing than the promise of self-motivated, sufficiently resourced students, eager to learn for learning’s sake, with self-esteem unencumbered by nasty, reductionistic grading schemes? I offer some ungraded (or very low stakes) assignments precisely because they provide a rich opportunity to develop skills and content knowledge without the sometimes absurd pressure that assessment can exert. But given that our overarching system is built on values and practices associated with letter grades and percentages, what is accomplished by giving everyone an A? Given that grades actually do sometimes matter, and everyone knows this, what is a student supposed to glean from an isolated experience in which they’re offered a critique of grading and then awarded an automatic A?
Short of a revolution that topples the more fundamental hierarchies of higher ed, and some of the larger systems it is nested in, I’m a fan neither of HARD GRADING or of A’s-for-all. In fact, I wonder if some of the problems associated with grading aren’t exacerbated by instructors who regard grades as a prize to bestow or withhold. Grading then becomes, not a more or less natural consequence of student performance, but an expression of the instructor’s individual style and power. And even if the instructor deigns to give everyone A’s, there is a capriciousness to this that may well further erode a student’s sense of agency and responsibility. It may make the instructor feel better, but I can’t see that it does much to challenge the overarching myths of individualism and meritocracy that gave birth to grading in the first place.