Re: grades

Jeffrey R Galin (
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 17:11:02 -0400

Marcy and Nick,

I wrote a dense response to Nick without sending it to the list
because when it came down to the issues, I found myelf agreeing with
nearly all that Nick had to say. I found his last point particularly
interesting because I wondered if in fact we all knew that the rhetoric
was hyperbolic then what real effects would it have on this particular

In part, Marcy answered my questions. We find new ways of
accerting our positions. I just wonder if this meant that we will always
be trapped by these binaries. If so, isn't it likely that none of our
expectations will ever be fulfilled? Isn't it likely that the ways we
pose the problems determine teh possible solutions we can imagine, and the
solutions never achieve what the radical rhetoric hoped to achieve? Isn't
it also true that whether we are trapped linguistically or ideologically
into our positions, we still ACT on a daily basis based on sets of
institutional constraints that don't really match our politics? And,
since we all know that the educational system is less than perfect and
that it needs major reconceptualization, none of us are willing to allow
the status quo to go unchallenged.

> I agree with Nick that grades do a poor job of providing
> evaluation. But I think the question even is more complex from the
> learner's point of view: I wonder whether evaluation can go on _at all_
> in a meaningful way when grades are present. Grades and evaluation
> serve two completely different functions, IMO. The point of grades is
> to rank, to give an indication about how someone does in relation to
> others or in relation to some fixed standard. (Let's leave aside for a
> moment the whole can of worms packed in the phrase "fixed standard.")

The fact is Marcy, that we live in a highly competitive capitalistic
society that is driven by an epistemology of ranking, of naming, of
quantifying. To argue that grdes and evalution are incompatible and
therefore mutually exculusive is to argue that teaching and learning in
our current instututions are impossible. We all know this is not the
case. We also know that much more effective teaching and learning could
be going on. Within our society, there is next to no evaluation wihtout
grading. Why pretend that the academic institution is so rarified that it
can move above the epistemology within which it is grounded?

> The point of evaluation, though, is to describe and facilitate
> learning. When I evaluate, I'm not evaluating the _product_ so much as
> looking at the product as a snapshot of a learner at a particular moment
> in time. My evaluations (most of which aren't shared with students, by
> the way) are my own ruminations, which tell me what a person knows and
> what she is _trying to learn_. That's the key for me; if I can "read" an
> effort or situation or text and determine what someone understands (or
> misunderstands) about a concept, what she might try to do next and how I
> might help that effort, or what further misunderstandings might follow
> from the first, then I think I've done a good job of evaluation (although
> I won't know that for sure unless my next actions/interactions with the
> student result in that student's increased competence.)

But Marcy, how does a teacher get to this place where she can make such
judgements? Whether you want to believe it or not, you are constatnly
ranking students in your classes, even comparing them in your own mind as
you grade their papers. Evaluation may not necessarily jibe with
institutional ranking processes, but evaluation is always a form of
judgment. And competence is always a form of comparative assessment.


> Grades, on the other hand, are endpoints. They tell people how
> they've done, not how they're doing. The problem with mixing grades and
> evaluation is that people tend to hear evaluative comments as grades,
> to a greater or lesser degree. I believe this happens no matter what the
> teacher intends, and no matter how an individual classroom is structured;
> it's simply unavoidable.

No doubt.

That's why I hate grades so much; they make my
> job a lot harder and they take what I mean by "learning to write" and
> turn it into something I think is a pale, inaccurate shadow of the real
> deal.

Unfortunately Marcy, learning to write with grades IS the real deal. This
was my point earlier in mentioning Howard Beale's lament about the forces
that control the schools.

I don't think learning to write can happen without evaluation --
> both self-evaluation and evaluation by trusted others -- and yet the
> backflips we have to turn to arrange for _any_ evaluation in our classes
> that isn't grade-poisoned astonish and weary me.

Me too.

> And yet, universities are in the business of credentialing.
> There's no denying that. I think we need to find more imaginative ways
> to credential, so that credentialing doesn't get in the way of learning.
> I think that's been said by others on this list, but I think it bears
> saying again. So when Jeff says:
> > > institution. That seems to me to be a more productive battle. Why not
> > > develop methods of teaching that demphasize grades, that reward personal
> > > success, and that call attention to the diffeence between grades and
> > > evaluation?
> -- I want to say that it's not methods of teaching that emphasize
> or de-emphasize grades, it's institutional contexts which do that; and
> that "rewarding personal success" is just another term for grading, not
> evaluation; and that calling attention to the difference between the
> two hardly matters if the _real_ value is placed on grades, and our
> students certainly know that even if we don't.

You are right to say that methods of teaching are only part of the issue
here. Of course grades exist behind the methods. But, you just
described the frustration you have of succeeding at the former in the
shadow of the latter as a teacher. It is hard, but can be done. Perhaps
for some rewards only come in the form of grades. We are certainly
conditioned that way. But when student must depend on commentary of their
peers and teachers to feel competent (ie successful) rather than reciving
a definitive grade on any given paper, grades are deemphasized to a
degree. There are teaching styles that can reduce the tension between
grades and evaluation.

> > > Why try to take on the whole system at once from the vangage
> > > point of the underside of the iceberg?
> Because doing anything less isn't doing enough. I'm not trying
> to be hyperbolic or reactionary, but unless we can figure out a way to
> change the whole system of credentialing, we'll be stuck cobbling
> together compromises that never really get at what seem to me to be the
> central issues involved with grading and learning.

Unfortunately, cobbling together compromises is what defines institutional
reform. It makes little sense to pretend otherwise. If we at least
acknowledge that there is no possibility of ever naming the "real" problem
and finding the real "solution," we won't delude ourselves into making
claims for reform that can never be fulfilled.I've been studying 60 years
of educational reform for the past 5 years of my academic life. I've
found that the same patterns of debates reappear over and over. And, for
the most part, the results are the same. Institutions assimilate
learners; there is no credentially institution that can claim to do the
"real deal"; and, as Nick said, the dreamers are a necessary part of the
process of reform.

I know I sound fatalistic here. I am nothing if not a realist.
To this end, I tend to look for ways to change things which are doable in
a lifetime. Taking on the institution from a position of blind faith,
good will, enthusaism, and next to no authority just doesn't bode well for
a career in academia. I enjoy teaching too much to become a career
administrator. That is a battle I leave for others.

\ Jeffrey R. Galin
_/ Department of English
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