Re: grades

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 21:47:42 -0400

On Sat, 31 Aug 1996, Jeffrey R Galin wrote:

> 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 think you're describing the difference between radical pedagogy and
radical practice. This is especially true for teachers in college who
have the relative of a secure job (assuming tenure), but in so doing
make their livelihood contingent on a conservative institution. I
mean if they really wanted to be radical, they'd quit and take action
instead of thinking about justifications for actions that seem to be
lost causes. I know that's not an entirely fair observation, nor is
it particularly kind.

Still, one of the problems with radical rhetoric and theory
is that often it is more cerebeal than doable. Two things, well maybe
more, but I can only think of two, tend to happen. One, is radical
ideas, which evolve from often complex trains of thought before they
reach a claim, often get taken out of context and spewed like a
bumpersticker in an argument. This makes what was arrived at logically
sound like it came out of no where. One of the best ways to attack
anything like this, whether it's radical from the left or the right, isto
divorce the idea from its origins and contexts so that one can spin it.

Grades are one arena where this happens. We know hyperbolic claims sound
good, they're zippy, but really oversimplify the conditions they
describe. Another arena is the whole language vs. phonics debates. One
of the problems is of course that damn binary thing (but maybe it's a
condition of being featherless bipeds?). Grades vs. no grades makes it
sound like either you must choose. That's the second thing wrong.
Radical positions don't allow much room for digression because any move
away is perceived as compromise, or complicity.

But we are already complicit just based on where our pay checks come
from. We can imagine and call for an ideal world, but since there are
competing ideologies at play, and decisions are not made by fiat, we'll
never reach any ideal world. If we do, it'll be someone else's hell and
they'll resist it, like students who resist not being graded.

Marcy wrote:
> > 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.

One of the illusions about the efficacy of grades is that they are succint
summaries of evaluations. A grade is premised in most minds as
representing an evaluation, an evaluation that is based on judging. In
fact, the AFT calls for making grades 'meaningful' are premised on this.
Indeed, the Bell Curve was premised on the idea that grades are arbitrary
and unfair to students. Max Meyer, who developed the curve for use in
writing, was less concerned about ranking students and more concerned
about being fair to them (accoding to page 148 of Rose Marie Kinder's
dissertation, _Grading Students' Writing in College English: A History).

So Jeff's earlier concern about the results of good intentins is well
taken. (For another example, consider that the five paragraph essay was
never meant to be an end in itself, but was suggested as tool for showing
one way to present an argument; it was meant as something to practice
with and buildon, not as rule for how to write.)

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344