After the final class of the semester, an adjunct professor of creative writing at a Midwestern liberal-arts college turned in her grade sheet to the chairman of the English department. This was her first semester at the school, and at a slave wage of $1,200 for teaching the course she wasn't in it for dollars.
The chairman ran an eye down the listing of grades. Mixing puzzlement with irritation, he said to the teacher: You didn't flunk anyone. Why not?
Maybe everyone learned something, came the answer.
I'm a friend of this teacher, and I know why no F's were turned in. Since the first minute of class, the kids had been exposed to an inspired lover of language, a teacher who would hand back papers with comments and evaluations in the margins that often were longer than what students wrote themselves. Of course no one flunked. They had been set on fire with a passion for writing by a teacher who herself blazed with gifts for opening minds to creativity.
Grading degrades. Serious students, starting with those who have a rough idea of the library hours, are forced to think about the spring in their legs that will let them jump through any academic hoops teachers may put in the way. The intellectual pleasures of acquiring knowledge -- from a natural interest in the subject to a possible career choice in the field -- are assaulted. Relaxed learning is replaced by tension learning. The young are pressured into believing that A's on the re'sume' mean more than ideas in the mind.
At the Mather House dormitory at Harvard, a few of the serious students rebelled by organizing the Society of Nerds and Geeks. It's for people who, first, like to study and, second, want to gather socially to talk about the fruits of their studying.
The "Nerd and Geek Manifesto" states: "We are often asked why we start our battle at a prestigious academic institution like Harvard where, it is claimed, we are preaching to the converted. We wish it were so! Sadly, we have to acknowledge that at Harvard anti-intellectualism is rampant. Many students are ashamed to admit even to their friends how much they study. At Harvard, nerds are ostracized, while jocks are idolized."
While Nerd and Geek chapters are spreading to other campuses, unofficial Goon and Goof societies proliferate. These are the non-serious students who adapt to a teacher's grading policy with ingenious getting-by strategies. The severest mental challenge of the semester is figuring how to beat the prof's system. Colleges ought to offer degrees in systems analysis for this crowd.
Many professors, including my Midwestern friend, are pressured into becoming credit-sellers, not the knowledge-sharers they want to be. Students are customers: Some have the bob to buy the three credits, some don't. Teachers who hand in grade sheets with too many A's and not enough F's can be seen as cheapening the product. The department chairman is the board chairman. Make credits worth something to the majority by denying it to a minority.
Learning is like athletics. A runner doing a five-minute mile goes twice as fast as the person going around the track at a 10-minute pace. One gets an A, the other F. But five minutes could be a lazy pace -- a true failure -- for the faster runner while 10 minutes for the other -- an ex-smoker -- is a personal best.
A study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reports that 43 percent of 5,000 professors said yes to the question: "Are today's undergraduates more willing to cheat in order to get good grades?"
Of course they are. Academic fraud among students is an acquired, not an instinctive, skill. Grading creates the false impression that a competent authority -- the teacher -- is offering wisdom to incompetent subjects, without much regard for what's being taught, or how or why. But this is processing, not educating: Students might as well be slabs of Velveeta.
My solution to grading is to cooperate with it as little as possible. In the past seven years of college teaching, I have handed back gradeless papers that are heavy with my evaluations. I de-emphasize final exams. I ask each student for a written answer to one question: What grade do you think you deserve, and remember the question is what you deserve, not what grade will please the home front or impress the corporate and grad school interviewers or enhance the GPA.
A student replied last semester: "I really hate to answer questions like this. If I answer A, I feel elitist. If I answer B, I feel like I'm cutting myself short. If I answer C, I'm upset at myself for not trying harder, and I never answer D or F, which may tell you about myself. I loved the course, and got a lot out of it, so I don't really care about the grade I get."
I didn't much care either. I've forgotten the grade I put in for him, and assuredly he has too. What I will remember is a young fellow who rose above the academic nonsense and became a lover of learning. If it's not a privilege to be among kids like that, what is?