Re: grades

Steve Finley (Finley@TTDCE1.COED.TTU.EDU)
Wed, 28 Aug 1996 13:16:54 +0000

>From (the presumably very Irish, and therefore sister in heritage)
Maureen Fitzpatrick:

"When a child reaches where Goofy's hand is pointing, is "Space
Mountain "grading" him? No, it's saying this kid is ready for what
comes next."

Last time I was at Disneyland, my ex-wife (we got divorced just
because of this incident, I swear), mild-mannered in every other way
except for being an insane lunatic rider of rides, talked me (who
talks a big game but hates rides where someone else, essentially, is
driving) into going on Space Mountain. I never saw Goofy, because my
eyes were shut the entire time, which blunted the extreme terror
almost not at all. I made deals with God, told him I'd put my wife
in a home somewhere where she couldn't hurt anybody else, stuff like
that. Nothing worked. But anyway, where there is no vision, there
is no Goofy.

But I would like to make one more point about this relationship of
grading to larger life. Maureen mentioned some specific ways in
which, possibly, the comparison of grading to applying and
interviewing for a job was flawed in some ways (I think that was the
point). I look at it a little differently. I used to give this
(mercifully brief) speech about standards when I taught
technical and business writing, and it went something like this: I
told them about a job I had as a sports information director
at a small (but athletically prominent) Midwestern university. Among
a gazillion other things, the job required me to put together stat
crews who would keep various statistics, do the typed play-by-play,
etc. These stats would have to be finished, checked, balanced in
various ways, and copied within a very short time after the game
(usually between 20 and 50 minutes), because the visiting team had the
bus running and ready to go, newspaper guys needed to call their
stories in, etc.

Now, take just one sheet of several, say, from a basketball game:
the NCAA box score. I think I counted one time that there were about
540 possible things that could go wrong if every space on the sheet were
filled out, but typically there'd be several player lines blank (because not
every single player would play), so let's really cut it down and say
not much went on in the game, only seven or eight players went in for
each team, and so on. Let's say we've got only about 300 potential
mistakes, places where things might not add up, etc. Now, let's take
a guy who's been in college, who thinks 92% is a great average,
because it gives him A's and a 4.0. And he gets these kinds of
grades when he has many days to finish assignments, not minutes.
He graduates summa cum laude. He takes a job like this somewhere,
thinking that about 92% will place him far above everyone around him.
So, on this one stat sheet from one of the 28 to 30 home games for men's
and women's basketball he'll do, in one of 11 sports he's expected to cover,
he gets 92% of it right. Problem is, that leaves 24 mistakes on one sheet.
Twenty-four. On one page. Do that about twice, and you're the
laughingstock of the conference. If you make even one mistake on
every sheet for two or three games, complaints go to the conference

The point is, the standards students have to meet to make passing
grades, especially in that catchall low-B and C range, grossly
mislead them into thinking that this is the kind of thing they can
get away with on the job. Someone who does a fake business letter in
a college class gets a B because of a couple of grammatical errors and a
couple of spelling errors (and complains about the grade), when if she'd
written the same letter to a real person in the post-college world, she'd
have created more of a "D" impression than a "B"--not above average,
but instead suspect, indicating sloppiness and/or a perceived lack of
intelligence. So, to get back to Maureen's point, I'm not sure that
the severity of judgment and extreme differentiation in the hiring
process, e.g., makes the comparison less valid; it may mean instead that
the things we require students to do are so ridiculously low-level that
the students are totally out of their element once they graduate. I saw
senior students coming through my technical writing course who had
somehow managed to get accepted to law school (some of them were
summer students, mere weeks away from competing in that environment)
but who literally couldn't put three sentences together that made any
sense at all and who had no cluehow to write a convincing argument, or
even to distinguish one that was convincing from one that wasn't.

Of course, none of this means that grading is the answer, even way
tougher grading, or that those who advocate getting away from the
current grading system are just touchy-feely mushheads. Eric C., for
instance, makes it very clear that he's NOT talking about expecting
nothing from students, just letting them sit around, invent new ways
to screw up the language, and calling it art. I guess one
fundamental question is, to what degree should the university and its
teachers be responsible for preparing students for post-college life?
Is that an assumed virtue? Do students think differently about it
than employers do, which is different from how faculty do? I suspect
the answer to the last question is "yes," especially in how much the
university is supposed to function as a vocational school. Anyway,
it seems to me that there are larger questions that undergird this
discussion of grading/no grading, perhaps the most important of which
is this question of the purpose of the university, if there is (or
should be) such a thing as a unified purpose or set of aims. (My purpose
here was merely to appear fascist while injecting more confusion into
the discussion and offering absolutely no solution whatsoever. Sorry.)

s finley