Grading Francisco

Forcing himself to assign a letter to a student makes Terry Caesar think about all the implications of grading.
August 29, 2006

"Francisco" is not his real name. This student's situation was all too real at the end of this past semester, though, when I had to give him a grade. He was getting a C on his papers. He had been absent the maximum number of times, but no more, and he had managed to make all the deadlines for preliminary drafts of the big research paper, which counted for 40 percent of the semester grade. Now, one last deadline to go. But Francisco suddenly vanished during the last week. No final draft.

I never heard from him again. Some students might have resorted to e-mail. (Once a student e-mailed me his final paper, complete with excuse; I had to print it out, only to have him complain at the quality of the print-out when I returned it to him.) Not Francisco. I
never learned much about him, except that he was poor; I had to sign a sheet each week attesting to his presence in class, so that he could continue to receive money from some state agency. How could he just vanish so near the completion of the course?

I liked Francisco. I felt sympathetic to him not only because he was poor but because he was Hispanic. (Of course the majority of students are where I teach.) Once I chanced to ask him if he could write better in Spanish than English. "About the same," he shrugged. I liked the man's candor, soft as well as direct. Another reason I liked Francisco was because he is an adult man, and therefore polite in the ways that adults students (in my experience) usually are. Many of them even extend their hands to you at semester's end!

How much of these admittedly personal feelings should go into the decision about what grade to give Francisco? It will be the essence of my argument that no policy -- on behalf of ourselves, the course, a department, or the institution -- will answer this question. We die alone. We grade alone. Nothing we do as professors is as utterly solitary as the act giving -- it seems pompous to say, "awarding" -- grades. Furthermore, some students make any rationale for the act appear arbitrary; they effectively insist that we grade their lives, not their performances in one class. With some students, any grade becomes difficult for an individual teacher to defend -- or even, at times, entirely rationalize.

The rest of my argument will be that these students define the conditions of grading. Not the majority, whose quiz, test, or paper grades can be trusted to yield up a clear, reasonable final result, which just about anybody would determine in the same way. (Even this happy circumstance passes over the vicissitudes of hundreds more minor
preliminary grading decisions throughout the semester.) To rationalize grades on the basis of the presumably stable, problem-free majority is too easy, because the rationale begs to be completely representable in the public realm.

This is false. In fact, the rationale arises from amid the shifting sands of the private realm -- where, for example, a word or a phrase may determine the difference between one number and another, and each of us has to decide very quickly and privately whether or not we choose to grant this difference or ignore it. These sorts of inevitable decisions necessarily shrink from public representation. Indeed, especially if we've been grading long enough, many of the micro-decisions during the nano-seconds of grading just one test or paper elude even the representations about what we are doing that we construct for ourselves. Students such as Francisco are so maddening because they leave us with no illusions. We have to face the fact that we're being "subjective" no matter what we do.

Students like to assert that grading is "subjective." I hate this term. But it's hard to get around it. Of course it's wrong because "subjectivity" scants the effort that all teachers make to be responsible, equitable, and fair in their grading. What is grading if not our recognition of how precious few are the categories given by the system, into which, each semester, we must try to fit an ever-widening number of individual factors as well as the usual competencies tested?

Students have never been faced with this recognition. They haven't earned, no, suffered, the right to say that grading is "subjective." Nonetheless, it is (leaving aside perhaps large lecture courses computer-graded on the basis of multiple choice examinations). No
manner of testing will produce at semester's end an automatic grade free from the pressure (not to say at times the need) of  human intervention. Take foreign language classes. I've known colleagues teaching French or Spanish who accumulate a mortifying (to me)  number of grading occasions during the course of each semester, most of them
as "objective" -- vocabulary tests or oral exercises in verb declension -- as anyone would like. One would think that a determination of the final grade would be easy. But it's not. And, in a very decisive sense, even when it seems to be, it's not.

The best student I ever had was not very good in French. At the end of the semester she had to take it, her quizzes and tests grades totaled 69.5. This merited a D. She asked her professor if he could possibly take into account her class participation. He refused. She pleaded: "Don't you remember? I was just about the only one who ever said anything." He still refused. By arguing for the presence of "subjective" dimension of grading, I mean to refer both to the man's refusal (many other teachers would not have refused) and to his
conception of the class as not taking into account for evaluative purposes (as many teachers surely would) student responses to stray questions throughout the semester.

Oh for a course in which every conceivable factor bearing in any way on grades is anticipated! This is surely the dream behind the swollen syllabi distributed in every college classroom for every course at the beginning of every semester throughout the land; they aim to encompass the circumstances of life itself, not one mere course. If only from the very first day we could head off the students who will so maddeningly press into our offices or our in-boxes with their excuses and their vexations. Dead grandmother?
Present the death certificate.. Missed the midterm? No make ups, period.

It's all on the syllabus, including the fact that the instructor is not obligated to personally hand you a copy. Lately I learned of a teacher who tests on the syllabus during the second class meeting. But what does this policy say about a student who couldn't find the room on this day? What about a student who registers late?

Fret about it as we might, grading is a contingent activity -- and students are in place to remind us, lest we forget about contingency. (Why else have their grades become so notoriously inflated?) We must be forgiven -- by ourselves, if not them -- for trying to make grading an activity purged of accident and chance. Just as crucially, we must be forgiven for failing.

What I believe most of us do as a matter of practice is to establish supplements to our grading policies, as either stated on our syllabi or to the dean, if -- horrors! -- a student makes an official complaint about his or her grade. These supplements might feel ad hoc. I believe they seldom are. If we've been teaching long enough we probably realize the sorts of things that elicit our sympathies, such as the "case" of a student who seems haplessly sincere about a deceased relative or whose reason for missing an exam is unusually compelling. Sometimes it's possible to work these exceptions into the syllabus; I got by for years through emphasizing that the only acceptable reasons for absences would be those told to me beforehand -- then I'd believe them, whereas I would disbelieve any reasons after the fact (so therefore don't bother me).

But eventually I was bothered. We will all be. Certain students will appear who will beg to extend our sympathies in ways we could never have anticipated, or never wanted to contemplate. How to grade them? I distrust teachers who insist that their own policies preclude such students. It's as if they have never had a Francisco. How can you teach
-- just about any semester -- and not have a Francisco?

"Just give him a C," my wife said. "He had half the work for the research paper done. You can't flunk him."

I nodded. Yet what about the students, especially the other average ones, who had completed all the work? Wouldn't their effort pale before an exception? Maybe, the more I thought about it, I should just flunk Francisco. Annoying as it probably would have been to have him contact me, I had to admit that I'd have liked some explanation, some emotional
hook on which to hang the sympathies I wanted to extend. Instead, nothing. The man just
vanished, leaving me alone with a grading decision I wished would go away too.

I'm not sure what I had decided to do when I discovered that another student was almost in the same situation. He too had vanished -- the week before Francisco. He too had no research paper -- and had only met one of the preliminary deadlines. Like Francisco, there was no record of his withdrawal on the class list. (College policies oblige student
as well as instructor to sign a drop slip.) So this student -- who didn't seem poor, isn't Hispanic, and is no more than 19 or 20 years old -- clarified the matter for me. I decided to give him an F -- and to give Francisco a D.

Subjective? You bet. Although I can give a reasoned account for my decision (the failed student hadn't met enough deadlines),  the most powerful factor I felt was represented by that sheet I had to sign for Francisco each week. The nature of the program was never clear to me, but I wanted him to be able to continue in it; failing the course might
jeopardize this. The only trouble is, this reason, which now becomes public by virtue of its publication, suddenly seems like a misrepresentation. I appear expansive and public-spirited, whereas in fact at the time I felt cramped and private. What distinction is there in grading? To me, none. Not only is it the most solitary thing we do. It's the most undistinguished. Grading Francisco, other grades than mine could have been given.

I'm not happy with mine, although I can live with it (and must trust that Francisco can, too). Far happier are most of the rest of the grades I gave this past semester, which I can construct to make much more sense in all the best publicly accountable ways. Behind each one of these grades, though, stand two very personal emotions, neither representable in the grade itself. One is my detestation of grading -- its drudgery, its finality, its privacy -- in just about all its occasions. The other is simply my abiding relief that any particular student I have to grade is not Francisco.


Terry Caesar's last column was about student evaluations of faculty members.


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