California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: May 30, 1999
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Material on Grading
This is a first draft of an article in preparation, drawn from several past papers by Curran and Takata, and the current research efforts of Curran, Takata, and Robert M. Christie.
One of the major issues of legitimacy for those who come through the open door admissions policy of public higher education is how the system will guide and support them as they attempt to make up for the exclusion of the past, for excluded they have been, all those who did not have either extraordinary abilities, and/or financial support, and/or community and family support to undertake the critical thought that characterizes higher education at its best.
Affirmative action made the first clumsy moves in providing some areas of support where candidates to whom the gates of academe were now open, finally found professional educational paths along which they could move. But as William Julius Wilson so rightly decries the total lack of help that trickled down to the "truly disadvantaged," the trickle down disappeared long before it reached the "average" student who needed to rely upon the dream our state universities had once provided. (Frederick Jackson Turner, 19th Century on the growth and potential to the United States of the University of Wisconsin.)
This article addresses the responsibilities the state institution of higher learning has to see that all those who pass through the portals of learning will be given fair opportunity to move through and past the barriers of "exclusive" learning. That means that we need to explore different methodologies, different structures, different approaches to learning that must include the teaching of how we learn, so that those who seek to make up for learning gaps that were none of their fault, can best understand how to do so and take individual responsibility for doing so, so that they are not dependent upon the good will of others to empower them. De constructive principles and critical theory have given us theoretical approaches that have enabled many of us to discover, together with those who need them, these new and different approaches. This article is founded upon a Habermasian approach to the problem: how to provide an understanding of the discipline of critical thought, a database to which that disciplined thought can be applied, how to motivate students (many of whom lack one or more of the necessary support factors) to overcome those barriers and take part in serious social discourse, in good faith. The focus in this article is upon grading practices in such an endeavor.
Academic institutions of the past gave rise to the normal grading curve when they clearly addressed a population that was exclusive and elite. Not all of those who could afford the luxury of the liberal arts performed with equal zeal. There was the 'Gentleman's C," and there were the future scholastics, with the highest grades reserved for those with the greatest potential, preparation, and commitment. Those with tremendous potential were afforded better preparation and scholarship support. (Reference here to Harold Bloom [Yale}'s reference to his study at Yale as "elite" in the Marxist sense - in The Western Canon. And the future path the student took had more to do with the connections of family and friends than it did with grade point average. (Reference here to Christopher Jencks' work.)
With respect to grading this means that in the relatively elite institutions of higher education only those with money, talent, and persistence were admitted. You didn't need a college degree for a clerk's job in those days. Other factors, such as impact of the grades on future choices, were not nearly as direct and crucial as they are in today's "administered" society. (Craig Calloun, Critical Social Theory, 1995.) As we moved increasingly toward the "supervisory" pattern of corporate America (David M. Gordon, Fat and Mean, 1996) grades were transformed into "certification," and acquired a far different meaning in the "administered" society than they had ever had before. This is one simple theoretical explanation for the rise in cheating on college campuses. When grades are removed from the domain of measure of readiness to move on to disciplined theoretical endeavors, to simple tickets to job acquisition and promotion, the entire nature of the process changes. Of course, there was always "cheating" and "competition." But the intensity, the spread, the deep destructiveness of "grading" comes only with the direct establishment of rewards that have immediate and direct bearing in the real world.
Is that what we want or what we can afford in the liberal arts education of the general population? Many of us fear a path that so sets each student against the other, and so misunderstands the underlying statistical assumptions of grades. Our classes do not constitute random samples from the standard population. No one is quite sure today what they do constitute, for our students come for many reasons. But the underlying assumption that we are dealing with a "normal distribution" is untenable.
Most professional educators have recognized for ages that when there are students who do not learn that the most probable reason for their not learning is our inability to teach in terms that they can understand and to motivate them to do so. To simply accuse them today of not being serious students who want to learn, and to argue that we could easily teach such ideal students is to blame the victim. For years we have known that when the student fails it is the teacher's failure. Throughout the work described herein, the authors have ascribed to the theory that students, as full and honorable citizens of the educational community, deserve to have their validity claims heard in good faith, and that we have a responsibility, having heard those claims, to seek to understand them and build the structures that our special knowledge can provide to teach the work in ways they can learn and be proud, as are we, of their achievements.
The student-faculty community of learners just described is not amenable to descriptions of learning in terms of a "normal distribution." Every failure requires more careful scrutiny on the part of the community until the barriers to learning are overcome. When they are overcome, the student must have access to the "certification" marks that will indicate that he/she has achieved that level of disciplined understanding.
The following pieces of this draft are taken from actual existing memos written by Curran, by sections of Dear Habermas, the Journal of Postmodern Thought which has grown from our classes, and the actual writings of students who have worked with us. Time does not permit these pieces to be drawn together as a whole, but they are offered in a sequence and with notes that should clarify their role in this endeavor to bring grading into a kinder, gentler, more caring learning environment.
The primary elements of focus: As citizens of the academic community, especially in these turbulent times when so much is changing so quickly, must be included in the discourse of choosing canons and setting rules that affect their lives far more than those issues ever affected our lives in such direct ways. Students must be heard in good faith. That is, we must consider the case they present, even when they do not have the language of art that might clarify their case for us in terms of our discipline. The good faith responsibility required of teachers is to cease with the arrogance of privileging our subjectivity and honestly seek to understand the student's perspective. After all, the institution goals are to meet student and community needs. In the attempt to create discourse we shall stumble and fall. No one has ever been there before. This is the single greatest social issue of our times, probably of all times. Good faith on the part of the institution means granting the freedom of tenure to faculty who attempt discourse, for so long as those attempts are documented and established in good faith. Good faith on the part of faculty towards students means that we refrain from "labelling," from crying out "You can't, you aren't good enough," in defense of our own frustration and not knowing how to bridge the gaps and create the structures that are needed. Faculty need to accept and understand, and be secure in the knowledge that they need not blame their failure on the students. "Learning is messy." (Yvone Lenard) Not all experiments succeed, especially not all experiments in trying to find alternative structures to enable individual growth. Good faith on the part of the institution is to allow the dignity to fail at an endeavor without the desperation of needing to blame someone else, especially the student, for that failure. Institutions of higher education have fallen into the habit of privileging their subjectivity in the sense that they have a product, a series of courses, which is "certified" as it were, to produce the equivalent of "knowledge" at the B.A. level. There is no general agreement of what that knowledge needs to be in order to be warranted as what it purports to be. And once internal committees have stamped it as approved, the institution rarely considers student failure, student confusion, or student endeavor to be heard in good faith, as having any bearing on it warranty to educate. The whole issue of the technology initiative in the California State University system more or less speaks to the fact that even faculty may not be heard in good faith on many of the issues that reach the warrantability of what is being called higher education. CSUDH recently passes a student initiative which gives the primary right to determine the allocation of the largest available percentage of technology funds to students. Not to students and faculty. But, to students.
The whole issue of legitimacy in the institution of higher education is crucial. In the matter of grades there has been little willingness on the part of faculty to grant much in the way of inclusion to students. Perhaps we need to recognize the importance of issues of legitimacy in this sense before there is a student initiative in which students and administrators take over the issue of grades with no more input of faculty than is now being asked in technology.
References will be provided as the article is expanded. But the primary focus should be clear enough to enable the reader to interpret some of the materials that have contributed to this article.
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