Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Material Conditions of Grade Inflation

One of my colleagues, Jeff Gross (Asst Professor of American Literature and Culture), posted a really excellent essay entitled "Rethinking Grades" earlier today, which I want to recommend that everyone (especially educators in Tennessee) read post haste.  There, he raises a number of questions about how we think about the phenomenon, widespread in higher education today, even at its most "elite" levels, of "grade inflation."  (See here for lots of data and colorful charts about that.)  Gross argues that grade inflation is not, as is widely held, simply a consequence of faculty surrendering en masse to students' highly-cultivated attitudes of academic entitlement (though that may, Gross concedes, be part of it).  Rather, there are a host of complex academic, institutional, sociopolitical and economic forces which have colluded to produce this through-the-looking-glass condition in which we find ourselves, where (as Gross puts it) "satisfactory often means not good enough."

Not good enough for what?  For many students, "satisfactory" grades-- by which I mean a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 grading scale (a "C" average)--  are definitely not good enough to get into grad school, probably not good enough to get a "good" job and, worst of all, very likely not good enough to keep their scholarships, which in real terms means not good enough to finish college. So, as Gross notes, it could be the case that grade-grubbing students are just indulging an unjustifiable sense of "entitlement," but there are many good reasons not to assume that very reductive story.

[An aside: I am always surprised by how many fellow professors I hear insist that they are not "easy graders," that they do not inflate grades, that most of their students make C's. Given the statistical data available on grade inflation, which clearly indicates that students' grade averages have been steadily creeping up for the last 20 years, I do not believe my colleagues' exceptionalist protests for one second. Because so many of them say this.  And because math.]

Back to Gross, though, whose essay I really appreciated.  I wanted take a minute while it was still fresh on my mind today to add just two brief supplements.  Much as he argued is true for students, it's also important to note that there are a number of material (i.e., institutional, sociopolitical, professional and economic) pressures on faculty to "inflate" grades. Or rather, there are considerable pressures on some faculty to do so.  Gross nods in the general direction of this point at the end of his essay where he reminds us that "the time and demands of grading and student evaluations on graduate students and contingent faculty" ought not be ignored when trying to account for grade inflation.  I'd extend that to include other sub-groups of the Academy's precariat, in particular, female faculty and faculty of color, an extension with which I know Gross would agree.  And so I'd add the following:

1. For contingent or precariously-employed faculty, "satisfactory" performance in the classroom is most certainly not good enough. "Performance in the classroom" is measured in large part by student evaluations.  To the extent these faculty may worry that their efforts to "correct for" grade inflation will cause students to evaluate them more harshly, they have legitimate professional/economic reasons to not do so.  The sorts of exceptionalist protests I noted in my "aside" above are the privilege of only a very few. Not everyone has the luxury of not caring about student evaluations. In fact, some people's jobs depend on their evaluations being better-than-satisfactory, and more often than not those very same people belong to demographic groups for whom the sorts of structural prejudices that students tend to uncritically repeat in evaluations are not kind.

2. Also, for contingent or precariously-employed faculty, the real labor of grading-- in terms of actual time and energy investment-- is considerably more demanding, either because they teach more courses (more students = more grading) or because their time/energy is frequently siphoned-off by many other kinds of largely unrecognized and unrewarded labor-intensive forms of "work." I'm thinking here, in particular, of the great deal of pressure on female faculty to serve the in loco parentis role for students.  Or the extra committee work and extra "extracurricular" work expected from faculty of color.  Or the countless iterations of grunt-work, "volunteer" work and work-nobody-else-can-be-bothered-with-right-now that adjuncts and graduate students everywhere take on in an effort to make themselves indispensable.

Gross is dead right in his coda, I think:  The very real material conditions of precariously-situated faculty also accounts for grade inflation.  Demanding that those faculty just "grade differently" or "grade better" is no more realistic a solution to the problem than demanding of students that they just get over themselves. For both students and precariously-situated faculty, we need to seriously recalibrate our expectations and realize that, in a lot of instances and for a variety of reasons, sometimes "satisfactory" IS good enough.  Sometimes, the best really is the enemy of the good.

Excellence requires a whole host of favorable conditions in order to manifest itself as such.  We can't expect excellence without doing the hard work of cultivating conditions in which it is not only abstractly valued, but concretely made achievable. That goes for students as much as faculty, of course, but let's not forget the faculty, more than 50% of whom are working to encourage and enable excellence in their students every day under conditions that neither encourage nor enable the same for them.

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