Pick Your Poison: Grade Inflation or Administrative Bloat

I typically avoid current controversies. I ran across the phrase “Silence like an interruption” in a Cynthia Ozick book and I’ve adopted it as protection against cultural stupidity. But an article posted by Libby Nelson on VOX today irritated me enough to break Ozick’s rule.

The article, “What Wellesley learned when it stopped giving out so many A’s,” details the findings of a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The authors of the study suggest that the problem of grade inflation (which is certainly an issue worth considering) can be objectively solved by administrative fiat and uses Wellesley as a case study. Appalled that in 2000, the average grade was an A-, Wellesley apparently dictated that all 100-200 level classes have an average grade of no higher than a B+.

I’m sure that this made someone feel very effective and powerful in their pursuit of institutional excellence.

The entire study fills me with personal and professional angst, but let me just touch on a couple of points.

First, the experiment seems to be based solely upon the fact that in 1960 the average grade in college was a C and now it is an A or a B. This reeks of an Andy Rooney “Back In My Day” argument and no apparent attempt has been made to look into WHY this might be the case. The administrative strategy suggests that because this happened, students are being coddled. Left unasked is the question of how much pedagogical practices might have contributed to this shift. Let me be clear: grade inflation is certainly a problem worthy of our attention, but I think it is such a problem that it requires our FULL attention. Let’s not be lazy with our inquiry here.

Second, one of the findings VOX highlights is that professors who follow orders and actually give lower grades get lower “ratings” from students. This makes so much sense that it seems obvious, but how much subsequent pressure is now on said professors to improve their teaching, which will then lead to the higher grades that got them in trouble in the first place? This seems to me like an academic version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

“Dr. Yossarian, we value teaching at this institution, and that means helping students succeed. We expect you to help your students succeed, and if they do, we will assume that you are a poor teacher.”

Finally, the authors of the original study (Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan, and Akila Weerapana) show how black students bear the institutional brunt of this initiative. According to Nelson:

“The researchers put the best possible interpretation on this, suggesting that a more even grading policy among different departments at the college will do a better job of demonstrating which students need help. But grading is an imperfect, subjective science, and the burden appears to have fallen more on black students than on others.”

In other words, the researchers report: “gosh, that’s weird.”

The lack of clarity about this disturbing aspect of the policy opens the door to yet another administrative policy down the road. Oh boy. All in the name of returning to the glory days of 1960, where, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

 

 

 

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Dead Hungarians

Staring at the monument raised the hair on our arms.

A bleached statue of a Hungarian soldier, stoic and bundled for his long European winter, stood atop a list of those claimed by the Great War. Our American fingers first pointed at, then reached out to feel the ridges of the name Scheibelhoffer, inscribed in the stone.

We’d come to Hungary with my wife’s family in hopes of reestablishing a connection with the past. Kim’s great-grandfather, Joseph Scheibelhoffer, had left his home in the early 1900’s and the only trace of this rejected life was a photograph of his large family. The photo, creased and sepia toned, rescued a single moment from time, capturing the family as they stood in front of their home, shoulder to Hungarian shoulder. The image was an heirloom, a single thread tying ahistorical Americans to the fabric of their history. Scrawled on the bottom of the picture was the town’s name, Szerecseny.

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a geopolitical scale, Hungary’s borders have been notoriously mobile. And although towns like Szerecseny may have paid taxes and tribute to various capitals, their soldiers fighting for various armies, the land and the homes built upon them remain, their roots deeply planted.

Our monument stood just across the small, barely paved road from the Scheibelhoffer home depicted in our photo. The progress and destruction of the last century had seemingly ignored Szerecseny, which looked exactly as it did in the fading picture of its past. Time had replaced the tiny village, its silence, and its humble, stucco homes with an exact replica of itself. I felt that our disintegrating brown photo would vanish before the place it was desperately trying to save from time’s cruelty. But this is an intolerably American form of fancy.

As we snapped our own pictures, of the family name memorialized by Szerecseny’s only piece of monumental art, we decided to seek out the town cemetery. The names of the dead suggested their bodies lay near.

A comical series of tourists’ loops finally brought us to the graveyard. A dirt road leading from this town to some distant other was where Szerecseny’s dead slept.

On the way to the graves of Scheibelhoffers past, a very tall, thin man stood at the road. Silent as the town, he simply stood there as if to usher us forward into the past. He wore black slacks and no shirt, only a tight black leather vest. He had a type of cowboy hat on, also black, and stood proudly, his thumbs in his belt loops, head cocked back. He looked like a large crow and he nodded at us as we drove past.

The cemetery was circled by a large, black, wrought-iron fence, like a thousand little crow-men keeping watch over it. We walked through the corner gate and felt the silence giving rest to the dead as we read their names. All this as excitement and somberness wrestled within us.

Tony, Kim’s father and the American heir to the Scheibelhoffer name, reverted to his suburban instinct for pulling weeds, for which we scolded him. How could one distinguish the weeds and flowers here? And can the weeds be removed from a place like this without setting in motion the decay of progress? An image of the town finally decaying into the wilting sepia of its photo after our visit haunts me.

As we ambled through this silent, restful place, the care lavished upon each plot was overwhelming. Unlike American graves, where a single field grows over and through all the plots, overwhelming them with cruel patience and time and, except perhaps on Memorial Day, erasing the absent person, here, each bed rested under its own garden, beautiful and simple, like the town itself. Covering the dead were stone boxes, carved with ornate designs, that held fresh flower arrangements.

It was the freshness of the flowers that took me. These were not plastic flowers, fading and cracking under the sun year after year between visits from distant, busy relatives. These were flowers that radiated beauty, aged, dropped petals, and withered. These were flowers which required human care.

This was common to nearly every grave in the cemetery; graves of the recently deceased as well as those of people who died in 1960, 1950, 1920… All were memories cherished by the town, and the natural devotion to this place united the living and the dead. The slowness of time in this small Hungarian village extended to, or perhaps from, its cemetery.

Professor Anderson’s Goals

Copied from my Introduction to Literature syllabus.
Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to make you miserable.

I’m sort of exaggerating about that, but not really. If the humanities, particularly literature, are to claim any purpose in college, part of that purpose must be to unsettle you, and this requires a bit of misery. Fortunately then, we have Kafka to start us off this semester.

Anyone attending college today has probably been victimized by a happy lie. The lie suggests that you students are powerful beings who only need the magical institutional credential of the college diploma to take the world by storm. In this environment, the courses you take are procedural rungs on the triumphant ladder of progress and achievement. You believe you can fly and we can provide the jetpack. Just Do It, and we’ll give you a fancy piece of paper that proves you did (frame not included).

Even in this course. The objectives outlined above are very good. They give us specific skills to focus on and those skills will unquestionably help you in your economic, post-college lives. And they will help me to assign a grade to your efforts. This, along with some elaborate fonts, boosts the credibility of the wall decoration you get for your four years of effort.

The problem is that none of this really has much to do with education.

Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you.

On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.

Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.

This course on twentieth-century and contemporary literature is an opportunity then. Think of it as a speed bump in the soul-killing progressive-triumphalist superhighway (you may not be able to exit – we’ll read Sartre at the end of the semester – but you might be able to slow down sometimes). Here is a too-rare chance for us (and I purposefully include myself here) to unsettle things that are settled and stale. This literature will not be easy to face because it very often undermines our heroic views of ourselves and our society. This brutality is exactly its value.

I do not wish to change your mind or your worldview. And I certainly don’t want to empower you. I hope to challenge you to confront your mind and your worldview in an effort to perfect them.

This is a burden I look forward to helping you with, but, like all real education, it is ultimately yours alone.

My office hours are listed above.