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.”