IT WASN'T a campus demonstration about arms control or apartheid. It was one-third of the 1,700 students at Harvard Law School angrily protesting the faculty's decision to take some account of class participation in handing out grades. The faculty responded by deciding to suspend the policy change and reconsider it next year. What?
Grading in large classes at Harvard Law has traditionally been based only on a final examination identified by an anonymous number. Allowing professors the option of fattening the grade a little bit for selected instances of superior class performance, independent of the exam, would be a partial break with the principle of anonymity. For the protesters, that was the problem.
There's already an inescapable element of professorial subjectivity, of course, in grading essay exams. But many students, not trusting the faculty, feared that the new provision would simply afford the professors an added opportunity for abuse. A few Neanderthal professors might withhold bonuses from minorities or women, or from students with unorthodox views. More plausibly, favoritism might be expressed toward sycophants or to aggressive attention-grabbers. You will not be surprised to learn that the self-styled "left" at the law school perceived the underlying issues to be hierarchy and the distribution of power.
A sizable minority of the faculty, by the way, shares some or all of these fears, even the harsh suspicion that the grading of class performance might be subconsciously linked to race or gender.
To us the conflict seems much ado about very little. It is remarkable how exercised the protesters are about their comfort level in the classrooms of that privileged sanctum. Considering their typical destinations--powerful places and astounding salaries-- it's difficult to empathize. Lawyers in and out of court are often judged by their oral performances, as are the merits of their cases. Trainees can and should get used to it, even if they suspect arbitrariness. Rigorous schooling is more important than splitting hairs about truth in grading.