It's May again. The flowers are growing, the birds are singing, and I’m getting ready to comment on my last stack of student papers of the term. When I finish, I’ll assign my students their grades. I’d love to be able to skip that last task and wish them all good luck, so it was with great interest that I read about Professor Cathy Davidson’s bold experiment with having her students grade one another. Let me say first that I'm all for the experimentation and the creative study of learning that Davidson is doing at Duke University, and I’ve long been interested in innovative teaching by Davidson’s former colleague Jane Tompkins (who also tried student self-grading) and research by educators like Alfie Kohn, who argues that competition interferes with the learning process. I admire Davidson’s scholarship, and I’ll look forward to her findings.
But Davidson, Kohn, and others can’t increase the number of spots available at medical schools, and they can’t allot a company more job openings than its revenue allows. Those entities depend on professors for our judgment of students, and until we can come up with a different way to apportion limited resources, we have to work within the system we have.
Grading certainly has its problems, and I’ve never met a teacher who enjoyed it. But just as Winston Churchill described democracy as "the worst form of government" except for all the others, so too with grading.
Let me put it more directly. I think avoiding grading (or some comparable form of rigorous evaluation by the instructor) shirks necessary responsibility, avoids necessary comparison, and puts the humanities at even greater risk of bring branded "soft" than they already face.
It doesn’t surprise me that 15 of Davidson’s 16 students signed off on others' work, eventually entitling them to As. Such an outcome brings to mind Garrison Keillor’s description of Lake Wobegon as a community where "all the children are above average."
The bottom line question is this: if everyone gets As, does that mean that Yale Law School will simply accept them all?
If an average class grade is an A, then graduate and professional schools will have to look elsewhere to find out how applicants differ. If I were an admissions officer, the first place I’d look would be to other courses with wider grade distributions, where the instructors rank and compare. Those other courses would weigh more heavily, and the professors who teach them would gain disproportionate influence in the decision process. Put simply, Professor Davidson’s colleagues who grade their students would be helping them more than she would.
Perhaps Davidson plans to make distinctions in the recommendations that she’ll write for the students when they apply for professional schools and jobs. But isn't that the grading that she was supposed to be avoiding in the first place, now done in secret? Davidson’s practice also fuels grade inflation, which disproportionately harms a college’s best students by devaluing their high marks. We need to be wary of such trends, and many colleges already are. Harvard recently moved to limit the percentage of its students who graduate with honors, which had swollen to a watery seventy-plus percent. Columbia University includes on a student’s transcript the percentage of students who got As in each class that the student took. Dartmouth and McGill are two universities that also contextualize their students’ grades. These elite institutions want to create a basis for discernment.
That discernment is personal, and it starts in each classroom. We need to be able to say to students in effect, "You did good work, but not the best in the class." It’s a way to be fair to the students and allow them to gain from their achievements.
The goal is not, of course, to make the classroom red in tooth and claw. I work harder at creating learning communities for my undergraduate and graduate students than at anything else I do, and it’s been well worth my effort over the years. I know that I have to keep seeking new ways to do this, because I agree with Davidson, Kohn, and others that students learn better when they can share the enterprise with each other.
There’s plenty of value to Davidson’s collaborative experiment, then — but grading is still part of her job, and mine, and all professors’. If we stop doing it, colleges and universities will eventually lose the esteem of the society that funds us. The humanities, already at risk, will be the chin that absorbs the direct hit.
Parents know that our children respect us when we save our highest praise for the achievements that merit it. I’m a big fan of Cathy Davidson’s work, and I’ve taught it to my own students. But abstaining from giving grades to students isn’t one of her better ideas. I say this with all due respect — and discernment. And that’s the same respect and discernment that we owe to the work of our students.
Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University, where he was named Graduate Teacher of the Year in 2009.