Friday, October 14, 2005

How Grades are Inflated

One of the myths of higher education is that we don't have the grade inflation that has all but gutted high school education. With universities, it is believed that we subscribe to the classical educational model. And most of us do. But, the problem is that the system often puts people in a position where standing up for those ideals can mean losing a job, or more often, never actually getting a job. Sad to say, it is increasingly becoming a profession in which the honest go unemployed.

How does this work? Well, first it has to be understood that TAs often become the hatchet-men in the classroom. In some cases, we grade the papers, we grade the essays and we give the "class participation" grade. With the class I teach, the professor gives the lectures and designs the exams, but I do all of the grading for my students. Which means, essentially, that if you failed that class it was because I failed you.

In my case, I have a just and decent professor that I work for. And most people do. But, can you see where the system makes us vulnerable? We are the most easily fired or reprimanded. The professor has tenure, and so he can't really be reprimanded for giving someone an F that they deserved. But, we can because we have no job security whatsoever.

Add to that the fact that students have been encouraged to see education as a consumer product, and you can begin to see the problem. Wouldn't you be bitter if you paid $1400 for an F? Most of these kids came out of High Schools that inflated their grades, so naturally some of them expect to get fairly good grades for little to no work. It's been the norm. Thankfully, stundents are generally much more honest people than adults are, so if you explain grade inflation and why you don't do it, most can appreciate that.

But, the problem is that, as a TA, your future hiring is often based, in part, on your "evaluations", which the kids fill out at the end of the semester. So, if you're Mr. Hardass, you can expect to get some poor evaluations. In other words, if you are a challenging and demanding teacher (which is what most people claim the schools need) you will carry around a black mark for years ("25% positive evaluations") that will prevent you from being employed as a teacher.

And it gets worse. For the "gen-ed" classes, we answer to our professor and the "Gen-Ed" office, which essentially exists to justify its existence. Generally, they send us emails constantly telling us how to make the classes more fun, make sure the kids are enjoying themselves, you know, everything but teach.

See, we have two offices over us- the department that we work for and Gen-Ed, and the two have very different views of education. The department is quite traditional, and the Gen-Ed office sees it as a product that certain students reject. Their emphasis is often on "retention"- how to keep the slackers in for four years. No tuition left behind. Also, of course, they are terrified of lawsuits. The Gen-Ed office is notorious for telling TAs that kids shouldn't be getting Fs, because failing grades are terrible for their self-esteem.

So, what do you do as a TA when you have a professor telling you to grade honestly, and a Gen-Ed office telling you to grade honestly, but don't fail anyone, and you have a student who got a 35% on her exam? Or what if, and I've seen this happen, but luckily never to me, the professor feels that too many kids are getting Cs instead of Bs, or Fs instead of Ds? And the exams haven't changed, but they want you to "look them over again"?

So, the people who do grade are put in a position where everything works against giving honest grades. Of course, most of us do grade honestly. But, there are people who have said to me, "Well, they may get a free ride now, but the real world is going to teach them a lesson!" This seems to me like being bitter at the kids for a situation that they didn't create and that you yourself are more responsible for. In other words, it's bullshit.

Ultimately, TAs and non-tenured teachers need to be a resistance movement to this increased attempt to turn University into Summer Camp. We need to speak up against this sort of bullshit and take the professional lumps. Because the consumer mentality is opposed to education.


Pantiespantiespanties said...

I hate this whole "student as customer" mentality that seems to have taken over higher education. I've got mixed feelings about student evals; mostly negative feelings, though. I've looked at professor ratings before, and one professor actually got high marks for being "hot" (he was, though).

Rufus said...

I guess I should note- I think the evaluations are very helpful for us to read and improve our teaching, but that they absolutely shouldn't be a factor in hiring.