Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Professor John Bonnell on the sanctity of grading

I am pleased to post this guest commentary by Professor John Bonnell on the grading issue.

“One of the more significant hypocrisies in academe is this notion of the sanctity of grades.  In the humanities, to be sure, subjectivity reigns supreme—and that is exactly how it must be.  Any idea of introducing and enforcing standards of judgment, unanimity of value, and reliably measured “outcomes” is fanciful in the extreme.  Perhaps this can be accomplished in the teaching of mathematics and the natural sciences.  (I doubt it, of course.)  Perhaps a “C” in a Gary, Indiana high school means the same thing as a “C” in an Ivy League college.  More likely, that is a pious wish leading to equally sanctimonious lies. 

About thirty-five years ago, I and three dozen of my colleagues engaged in “grading” the same “student” essay.  These English teachers produced a nice bell curve, with results ranging from A to F, with a preponderance of C’s.  The rationales, the “standards,” the arguments were all over the range of possibility.  My department discreetly shelved this embarrassing experiment, never to try it again.  And since the “student” whose work was being graded remained anonymous, all the numerous other factors besides grammar, spelling, coherence, unity, and rhetorical emphases—factors such as gender, looks, race, age, ethnicity, et cetera, et cetera—did not enter into the grading “outcome.”  Yet, these factors always introduce, or threaten to introduce, strains and biases into the psyches of even the most objective professionals.  And this is exactly what one must expect from highly variegated human beings whose only certifiably common denominators are their titles and the letters scripted after their names.  If anything, there is significant danger that a professor who finds a student attractive, or even has a romantic relationship with him, will be inclined to be more harsh in her assessments, her grades, to prove to herself that her objectivity remains intact.  Sort of like the coach who is more demanding of her daughter playing on the team than she is of other athletes, lest anyone accuse her of bias, of favoritism.  This, of course, is “unfair”—an unfairness only exceeded by barring the daughter from the team.

I have never assumed that the grades I have assigned are comparable to any other teacher’s.  They are an act of communication between me and any given student, an act of communication that has varying degrees of impact and appreciation.  That others in academe or industry believe, or pretend to believe, that a grade assigned by me has implications they can base their own presumptions upon is a fiction that most of us prefer to live by.  And the fiction is harmless enough, except when, as in the present issue of romantic alliances, it is used to infantilize adults in a milieu where it should be most unwelcome.”


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October 6, 2007 - Posted by | ethics, grading, higher education, John Bonnell, sexual politics

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