Over the break, while sitting in the airport in Las Vegas, I took a few minutes to read Gary Landerman’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of A’s.”
Landerman correctly notes that many of our students experience enormous amounts of stress in college. Grades, he correctly argues, wield enormous influence in determining the sorts of opportunities a graduate will enjoy. Part of Landerman’s plan, then, “is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do. Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives, as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses” in other fields.
Landerman seems to teach a significant number of general education courses on a variety of topics in his field of Religious Studies. Some of these courses are quite large, enrolling more than two hundred students. Landerman wants the content in these courses “to go down easily and smoothly, to be both entertaining and effortless—a nice break from their other courses, which are sober, regimented, and demanding.”
There are some obvious counter-arguments. Not all required courses for majors are “crazy-making,” “sober,” and “demanding.” A professor can maintain high standards in courses covering difficult subject matter in a manner that is not contemptuous and derisive. I have many colleagues who show a great deal of empathy and love to their students while forcing them to work their way through challenging assignments. If you have taught for as long as I have, you will learn that it is not uncommon for students to love professors who made them work their asses off. And Landerman, it seems to me, seems to underestimate just how “stimulating” and “entertaining” the demanding courses that majors take can be.
There was a time when concerns such as these would have led me to dismiss Landerman’s essay entirely, to be so annoyed by his claim that he can get away with what he does because he is tenured that I would completely tune him out. The students he sees seem more fragile, less able to handle hardship and adversity than those I have known, and far less willing to tackle difficult work.
Landerman teaches large classes, he tells us. In a class with two hundred students, it is obviously impossible to engage every student in discussions. It is difficult to develop assessments for classes that large that measure the students’ grasp of abstract concepts. Landerman, indeed, tells us that his exams are easy, and multiple choice. He does not have to spend a lot of time grading, and jokes that only idiots struggle to receive an A or a B in his classes.
Still, Landerman raises an issue about which I do not hear enough discussion. “Why,” Landerman asks, “should I assign a grade to an effort at human growth?” Setting aside the obvious answer that in efforts at human growth, some students work harder and are more successful improving themselves than others, maybe it would be better to ask different questions: what do I want students to get out of my classes, and what is the relationship between the grades I give and actual learning?
I have a colleague, for example, who assigns her students a handful of short papers, ten or so, over the course of the semester. This she does in lieu of exams. The paper assignments require students to confront weighty topics. It is demanding work. And students must complete all the papers. So, let’s say, a student completes nine of the ten essays, and earns an “A” on each paper. Some situation, however, whether a family emergency, an illness, a breakup, or a simple mistake in keeping track of assignments and due dates, keeps the student from turning in the tenth paper. That student would fail my colleague’s course.
Where is the justice in that? The policy strikes me as punitive and pedantic. There is no relationship between that student’s failing grade and what she learned over the course of the semester.
I understand that some professors believe students should be “responsible.” Good training for the real world, they say. They want to teach students that deadlines matter. Most of their students, I believe, understand that perfectly well from high school, and if you know a historian who has never missed a deadline, I hope you will introduce me to that sparkly unicorn. We may not be the people best suited to provide lessons on the subject, “Deadlines Matter.”
This is an extreme example, but there have been many occasions where I have wondered about the relationship between an assignment, the grade, and student learning. I know that I have made mistakes, and that I have given assignments that did not necessarily measure well the student’s learning. I still feel like there is a lot I can learn. As a result, I have become more flexible, and that flexibility has led me to be more lenient in my grading. I still require a lot of work but, like Professor Landerman, I have become a generous grader.
Like him, I want my students to think about complex issues. I want them to engage with important and challenging ideas. Students in my classes have written essays of such grace, beauty, and intelligence that they have moved me to tears. Other students write with not nearly that much ease. They struggle to express themselves. They come into my class less well-prepared, or with fewer academic or educational resources than their “Straight A” classmates, but they may have travelled father to get there. They may have learned more. They may have been more affected by what they read or, I hope, by what we talked about in class, than students who perform better in terms of standard measures of student learning and achievement. Like Professor Landerman, I want to help in a small way to expand these kids’ horizons. I feel fortunate that I can remember how easy it is to be turned on by something I learned in class, that I remember how an idea can change your life.
Just this morning, at the opening convocation at Loyola Marymount University, I listened to the faculty member chosen to address the students and their parents say that at LMU, “Faculty don’t give students’ grades; at LMU, students earn their grades.” The line received a good deal of applause, but it struck me as completely inane. This speaker had given a talk that, it seemed to me, revealed a contemptuous attitude toward her students. You need an alarm clock to succeed, she said, because you do not want to oversleep. Do your homework. Read the syllabus. Give me a break. I hate statements like these that so underestimate students. As for the grading part of her speech, she seemed to remove her own biases and beliefs and values from the equation. The students do the work. I decide what they have earned. But of course she is giving grades, and if she is not careful and conscious and thoughtful, she may enter scores and marks that reflect more what she expected from the students than what they actually learned. As the parent of a freshman sitting in that audience, I found that a chilling and depressing thought.