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Grading: to Each According to His or Her Needs?
This past year I have been part of a nine-member staff teaching a one year (three quarter) sequence in social science at the University of Chicago. About two hundred students registered for the course. They were divided up into sections of 25 each. The sections met for discussion three hours per week and all 200 attended a one hour lecture weekly. The overwhelming majority of the students were college freshmen. They were required to register for one of three year-long sequences in the social sciences. Our’s covered psychology, sociology, and anthropology. All of the readings were primary source material.
Since individual instructors had complete autonomy within their sections, I announced at the beginning of the course that no work would be required in my section. I gave no examinations, but strongly encouraged students to write papers (on a voluntary basis) whenever they felt some enthusiasm for a topic in the readings. During the first quarter, I received at least one paper from almost all of the students. There were no collective papers, even though I had suggested this to them. The fact that reading work, class attendance, and paper assignments were all voluntary enhanced the quality of discussion, removed some of the distance between teacher and student, and in no discernable way reduced the amount of material learned in comparison with the sections of other instructors.
I spent the next to last class period of the quarter discussing with the students how the quarterly grades should be determined. I told them at the beginning of class that I didn’t like being put in the position of having to evaluate them, but that the institution required me to attach each of them to a letter by the end of the quarter. I said that we should make a collective decision about how to handle this and that I would abide by whatever decision was made.
What followed immediately was a series of more or less standard comments from the students on what was wrong with the grading system. Then a number of alternatives were suggested, all of which were strenuously objected to by at least some of the students, such as grading on the basis of the voluntary papers, participation in class discussion, and so forth. Someone suggested giving all P’s, but that was impossible because the registrar would not accept them for a first year course.
As can be expected, the next suggestion was for all A’s. At this point I intervened and argued that although I would do this if they wished it, I felt it was a cop-out on their part. I said first of all that they were asking for change to be imposed from above and not taking any responsibility for it themselves, and secondly that bringing about change in this fashion would jeopardize my position in the university.
I then suggested to them that in order to figure out how to respond to grades they first should analyze the function of grading in the institution, and that the readings they had done in Marx would be particularly useful in doing this. It didn’t take the students very long to spontaneously (and excitedly) come up with a property model for understanding grading, with me as middle management, themselves as workers laboring in a piecework fashion for a share of limited wealth (in the form of grades) that I was distributing, and the grades themselves as a very real form of wealth that determined their ability to survive now in the institution and later in the society. They decided that the product they were producing was their own socialization and training into social and economic roles that the University of Chicago specializes in, namely, university educators and basic scientists. I think they were right in not emphasizing the use of grades for in-school tracking, since the latter does not play as significant a role in elite universities as it does in the community colleges. In any case, the discussion was quite animated and nearly everyone participated by the time the analysis had been hammered out.
Then, someone suggested that each student determine for himself and herself how much work they had done during the quarter relative to what they were capable of or relative to how much they had wished to do and grade themselves accordingly. This met with some enthusiasm because they felt that in doing so they would be using the institution and its resources rather than allowing the reverse to take place. However, one student wondered if everyone just wouldn’t give themselves A’s. Hts respondent argued that one would have to be of very low “character” to give himself an A knowing that he had no “right” to it. He said that they all had to appreciate that people who put in more effort “deserved” to get a higher grade, and that he would not be happy with anything more than a C because he had not worked very hard.
I asked him why he had used the word, “deserved”. Then the fun really began. His reply was such an orthodox reflection of the work ethic that many students began to object, but in a less than articulate fashion. They certainly sensed something wrong, even though they could not get a cogent critique together. At this point, I intervened again saying that I had a suggestion to offer. I claimed that we could do better than the everyone-grade-themselves solution and at the same time speak to the question about “deserved”. I reviewed what they had read earlier in the quarter from Marx on the difference between a socialist and communist economic structure. I equated the everyone-grade-themselves solution with socialism in which all workers get paid proportional to the amount and quality of work they perform.
I then told them that I was suggesting that we grade on the basis of communist practice, to each according to his or her needs. I claimed that everyone had a right to survive within the institution if they wished it just as everyone had a right to human survival in the larger society, that the institution, like the material abundance in the society, was the product of the working people of the nation and of the world. I spent some time arguing that those with power/wealth, whether they were university administrators or capitalists, insisted on maintaining the work equals sustenance principle because it served their interests, and that there were other criteria besides how much one produces upon which to measure how much one “deserves”, one such criteria being need. Applied to grading, this would mean roughly that students with low grade averages, scholarship students, and students who were majoring in social science would all get A’s, while those with high averages, plenty of money, or majors in other fields could take lower grades.
The initial reaction to my proposal was surprise and confusion. The first questions were about mechanical aspects of the grading system, such as, “What should I do if I’m not sure what my other grades are going to be?” or “I haven’t decided what to major in yet, so I’m not sure how important the grade in this course will be for me.” To all of these questions I replied that whenever some doubt existed about which of two grades were needed, the student should always opt for the higher of the two.
With issues like these out of the way, the real difficulties of communist practice began to surface. The lip service that some of the students paid to radical innovation was only a thin gloss covering over the usual bourgeois, liberal hang-ups. Before long, objections to grading on the basis of need were raised which ran the gamut from guilt over taking an “undeserved high grade to violations of the achievement ethic to simply wanting the highest grade average possible. But for each student voicing an objection of this sort, there was at least one other ready to point out the contradictions between their objections and their anti-grading value biases which had been articulated in the previous discussion and more generally during their lives as students. What is the rationale for feeling guilty about violating a system that violates you? What is the function of the achievement ethic? Who are you competing with, and for what?
This discussion was not an easy one for most of the students. People on both sides of the argument had to sharpen up their analyses because they were struggling with a real and immediate decision. Unlike abstract value discussions in which most elite university students tend to go along with innovative and iconoclastice norms, genuine self-interest, competitiveness, and fear emerged quite clearly and were very forcefully confronted. Eventually opinion shifted in favor of the need system, and this opinion was reinforced and made more enduring by the students immediately committing themselves to the behavior that was its logical consequence, namely, agreeing to the system of grading on the basis of need. If the system achieved no other end than provoking this discussion, it was well worth it.
Once unanimous agreement was reached on the communist practice solution, one student pointed out that its effectiveness was limited to this one class, that it did nothing to combat the overall system of grading. Others then suggested that if we set an example in this class it could be used to organize campus-wide opposition to grading. While this met with general enthusiasm, a few of the students were pessimistic. They argued that the university was concerned with perpetuating the status quo and wtth producing people who were psychologically fit to function under capitalism. If we did away with “capitalist” grading, the university would feel threatened, see it as an invitation to student rebellion, and consequently prevent it from happening. However, most of the students felt that if the university did make an issue out of the new grading system it would be playing into the hands of those who wanted to organize on its behalf. If there was not significant administrative opposition, at least a nonalienating solution would have been arrived at for this one class. As it turned out, the administration was informed that grades were distributed on the basis of need, but they chose not to oppose it, perhaps because I am on a one year contract and they preferred to wait me out. Because of either a lack of motivation or an absence of organizing skills, my students never mounted an effective anti-grading campaign on the campus.
With the organizing discussion out of the way, we went around the room and the students one by one told me the grade they felt they needed. There were nine A’s, twelve B’s, and four C’s. They wanted to know if I considered this an adequate distribution and I told them I did. I asked them to spend a few minutes thinking about the decision they had made and we then went around the room once more, only this time everyone gave their reasons for taking a particular grade and everyone had the opportunity to change their minds.
The reasons were too diverse to report here, but one exchange between two of the students was especially interesting. When her turn came, one of the women, Mary, said she needed an A because she wanted to transfer to another school at the end of the year. Her reasons for wanting to transfer were couched in political terms, but it was apparent that she essentially wanted a more pleasant environment. Boulder, Colorado was her target area. Six or seven turns later, Arthur, a militant Black, explained why he needed a C.
Arthur claimed that the university’s system of required courses and degree programs was totally irrelevant to his needs. He wanted to help organize radical change in the Black community. His approach to the university was to take advantage of the printed material in its libraries and the expertise on its faculty so that he could gain the knowledge necessary to help bring about that change. Consequently, he did not keep up with required work in any of his courses and intended only to survive in the university as long as he could without doing the standard course work. When the university regulations caught up with him, he would leave and return to the Black community. He then said that since he had not done most of the readings in this course and had not written a paper, he did not deserve more than a C, and furthermore a C was adequate for his survival.
For a dramatic moment or two no one said anything. Many students had a questioning or confused look on their faces. Their dilemma was quite evident. Here they were being confronted by someone who practiced what some of them preached and most of them endorsed. yet this person, who was in some ways the most politically advanced in the group, had somehow missed the point about “need” and “deserve.” Finally, Mary said, “Wait a minute, you don’t understand. Your really need an A more than any of us. You take my A and I’ll take your C.” The students rallied in support of Mary, the earlier discussion about communist practice was summarized and reviewed for Arthur, and the trade was accepted.
I would argue that grading on the basis of need is in some ways a more effective method of drawing out the contradictions of grading than simply giving all A’s, although the latter is probably better in heavily tracked school systems. Like the all A’s approach, determination on the basis of need undermines the rationale for any kind of evaluation with respect to learning. However, it also more sharply points up the artificial competition and trivial achievement that are encouraged in the schools. It not only exposes ruling class manipulation through grading, but also provides students with a vision of an alternative system of distributing wealth that has easily perceived implications beyond their classrooms.