Monday, December 13, 2010

Making the Grade

By guest contributor Kate Fridkis

Cross-posted on Un-schooled.

As a child and a teenager, I wasn’t graded. I could tell when I wasn’t doing something particularly well. That meant I had to work on it more. It felt a lot better being good at things, so I tried to do that as often as possible.

When I went to college, I got graded on everything I produced (except for the truly lovely sketches of mermaids, brick walls, and hanging lamps that soon embellished every notebook I used). I found out exactly where I ranked, compared with everyone else in every class I was taking. And then I knew exactly what I was capable and incapable of. Well, not exactly. I knew that every number I was given mattered. I learned very quickly to tie my identity and self-worth into those numbers. Even as I learned just how arbitrary the grading system really was.

Nobody could agree on what exactly the numbers and letters were supposed to signify. My expository writing instructor, an impossibly beautiful graduate student from Russia, failed everyone in the class on our first paper. I ran to the chair of the writing department, thrust three printed examples of my writing into her hands, and insisted that there had been a terrible mistake. She smiled at me patiently. “You’ll do fine. She’s just making a point. Wait it out.”

You had to work all night on seven short essays to get an A from my Gender and Spirituality teacher. In Abnormal Psych the grade rested on your ability to memorize the professor’s individual quirks and favorite catchphrases, which appeared all over his sprawling multiple choice exams. He rarely referenced the material he’d assigned.

(if he liked miniature schnauzers, you had to make sure you knew all about it. source)

In Intro to Music Education, the instructor disliked me. She wouldn’t call on me when I raised my hand, and she took random points off my exam answers. Once, I held my test up alongside my friend’s, and confirmed my suspicions: we had answered one question in almost exactly the same way, and she had written a minus 2 next to mine, and left his clean.

I got an F when I missed an exam for Yom Kippur and forgot to make it up the next week. “I am a lay cantor,” I was explaining to the professor, standing at his desk, in front of the rest of the students. “I perform Yom Kippur services, like, with the rabbi. I mean, I’m leading the services. It’s a lot of work. It’s really stressful.”

“I don’t want to hear about that,” he said. “You didn’t make up the test. You’re irresponsible.”

When I made friends with a professor, I always got A’s from him/her. Especially if I went to office hours a lot. (Except for in Conservation, which I couldn’t get the hang of, despite long conversations with the professor, and which had those expressionless, inhuman scantrons.) In fact, I ultimately got an A from the professor who gave me the aforementioned F on the missed exam. I went to his office and got to know him. And then I asked him to mentor my independent study research.

In graduate school, the terrifyingly brilliant professor of Theory and Method, who dressed entirely in black and carried a pocket watch, gave everyone A’s, after idly tormenting us for three hours every week. I gasped when I saw the grade.

New professors were almost always the worst. They graded harshly to prove that they were tough, and, I always felt, to continue the cycle of abuse. Their dissertation panel had been merciless. It was time for someone else to suffer.

In some classes, you had to be talkative to do well. I raised my hand a lot, which, until I was in seminars and higher level courses, made all of the other students hate me. Social life or GPA? Your choice!

In some classes, the teacher thought you were sucking up if you raised your hand a lot.

Certain grades depended on working with a group. You had to design, complete, and present projects together, and the professor always said, “Remember: if one of you fails, you all fail.” It was supposed to be a less traditionally structured, more inclusive, more feminist way to run a classroom. It almost always meant dragging along the students who couldn’t keep up or weren’t even slightly interested, or feeling hopelessly left out when everyone else took the project in a direction you didn’t understand or actively disliked.

Some professors said at the beginning of the course, “I have only given three A’s in my entire teaching career. Those A’s were awarded to three geniuses who went on to win the Nobel Prize in each of their disciplines and several other disciplines as well. You are not geniuses. I can tell by looking at you. When you do reasonably well, you will receive a C. C signifies satisfactory performance. If you are exceptional, you will receive a B.”

When my friends started TA-ing classes at various universities across the country, they called me to read the worst of their students’ submissions. “Kant seemed to be suggesting that all people love each other and do unto their neighbors as their neighbors should do unto them.” And then they told me that they’d been strictly instructed to give no more than four C’s per round of testing. They had to encourage the students with high grades. It made them feel better and prevented them from dropping out and discontinuing their payments.

(actually, he looks pretty loving. source)

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said. “You’re giving the kid who said Kant was Jesus a B plus?!”

“Yeah, isn’t that insane?”

“Do you really have to?”

“Yeah. The professor yelled at me last time, when I failed the kid. It’s an intro class. We have to be nice.”

Grading is useful. It organizes huge groups of students into conveniently measurable categories. A, B, C, D…They line up so neatly. But what do they really mean? And what are they really doing to students? Read Alfie Kohn's answer to that last question here.

My GPA was high. In fact, I spent my four years of college working towards the goal of graduating summa cum laude. And I accomplished that goal. But when I look back at my transcript (because I do that all the time…OK, if I looked back at my transcript), I see a collection of random situations that I dealt with in dramatically different ways, some more effectively than others (some in between bouts of miserable crying in my room).

There is no mastery of subjects, or even a state approaching mastery of a single subject. It’s just a jumbled set of interactions with teachers and other students and a desperate will to somehow stay ahead, even though it was never completely clear why staying ahead was so important.


  1. Yeah this was my experience of much of university too. In fact, the same is true in many high schools as well.

    I wasn't pretty enough or athletic enough, so of course I got a B in Physics 11 because that makes sense. I DID the work, I studied for that course, and I'm physics savvy. I just wasn't able to "make the grade."

  2. Kate, I just love this post because as a traditional kid that was graded all I can think of is all the grades teachers gave me that I thought were wrong! I remember an ad poster I worked hard at and I loved so much in middle school. I think I got a B-. What? I felt my teacher had no idea what she was talking about. My poster was amazing and I wanted to tell her why and what I was thinking and what things meant and why my audience would love it. I didn’t have the chance. That wasn’t part of the assignment. She gave me the grade and it was over. I never did know why I didn’t get a better grade and there was no value in debating the beauty of my poster and/or discussing how I could make it better. School was supposed to provide a convenient label for a one-sided snapshot in time.

    By the time I reached high school I realized I’d take school into my own hands and demand teachers provided evidence of why the learning was important. That made most teachers hate me and others fear me. Ultimately I graduated high school in the top 10% with few teachers knowing me.

    While in high school I wondered why I was doing this and what it was all about, but I did it and college too. I figured the idea was to make it through and get good grades so I did and finished at 19 with good grades but no idea what I had done or why.

    Thank you for sharing this post and challenging the idea that grades are important. They are not.

    Now it’s time to focus on what is.