Grading as Truth-Telling

A false balance is an abomination to Yhwh, but an accurate weight is his delight. (Proverbs 11:1)

Grading papers is among the most difficult parts, and is certainly the least pleasurable part, of my generally agreeable job as a professor.

It is difficult because one must pay close attention to the various qualities, measured along various axes, one is assessing in a piece of written work, re-setting one’s mental adjudicator with the beginning of each new paper. No matter how clichéd the prose (and it’s usually clichéd: there isn’t much truly original writing among students who are, after all, trying to write in imitation of the scholars they admire), how familiar the territory (which is pretty darned familiar, of course, or I shouldn’t be charged with grading the papers), how irritating the recurring flaws (“Really? You don’t know how to use commas parenthetically? You haven’t bothered to look up the correct punctuation for a footnote? Really?”), the grader has to hew rigorously to a consistent standard, avoid giving in to surges of emotion (“That’s pretty funny!” “Hmm, that was frustratingly obscure…” “You’re clearly a lazy idiot and deserve a good smiting”) and provide not only both encouraging and critical words, but also a final, cumulative grade. “On the whole, all things considered, this paper deserves a ___.”

It’s tough work, then, sorting all this stuff through, paper after paper (and after about 10 papers, the eyes and the mind glaze over in sheer self-defence). But it’s crucial work, among the most important things we do as educators. Students need us to tell them the truth: How good was my assignment? How does my work stack up against that of my peers in this course of study? Am I truly getting it or not? Is this subject the path I might follow for a career, a pleasant educational digression, or a pit of frustration I ought subsequently and forever to avoid?

To “use” a grade, therefore, for any other purpose than to tell students the truth about the quality of their work is to use a false balance.

It is abominable, that is, to grade harshly, as some professors do, in a pose of machismo: “I’m the roughest, toughest hombre in this here department.” (Uh, get some therapy, man, and stop taking out your insecure overcompensation on your students.)

It is abominable to play favourites, to reward any other behaviour than the behaviour of putting forward a good paper. (I refer not only to various degrees of hanky-panky—or worse. One of my professors was notorious for refusing to grant an “A” to any student who didn’t major in his own field.)

It is abominable to grade lightly in order to curry more positive student evaluations in hopes of strengthening one’s professional profile toward re-hiring or tenure. (Students don’t always give higher grades to professors they sense are cynical toward them, so beware this nasty little tactic.)

It is abominable also, however, to confuse grading with other legitimate modes of education, such as encouragement, sympathy, or compensation. “It’ll make this student feel particularly badly to get less than a ___ on this assignment. He’s been going through a romantic break-up/his heart is set on becoming a scholar/his parents will kill him if he doesn’t succeed/he’s worked so hard on this thing/he didn’t get that scholarship.” (So we’ll lie to him? Lovingly?)

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck reminds us in The Road Less Traveled that mental illnesses are, essentially, one or another way of dodging reality. Mental health, by contrast, is taking it on: facing up to what is the case and making good decisions in the light of it.

Professors who give anything other than utterly true grades are failing to give students the crucial gift of reality: This is truly what I think of what you’ve done. I might be wrong, of course, and another expert might see it differently. But you’re paying me your money, time, attention, and respect in the hope of receiving from me not only reliable information about the subject and its required skills, yes, but also my judgment about your work as you respond to the challenges of the course. For me to deliberately mislead you is simply to fail in my job. It’s malpractice.

Most professors with whom I have worked truly love giving high grades and hate giving low ones. Very good work is simply more pleasant to encounter, of course, whether it’s in a course paper or in a student violin recital. But it also is truly painful to have to assess substandard work and name it as such. No one is indifferent to receiving a low grade and we professors all know that. Only to students who have been true nuisances do we enjoy giving bad grades—and (I’ll tell you a secret) even then, as soon as we do, we usually feel sad for such a student who is clearly so unhappy that he or she has chosen to lash out at us, and the educational opportunity we represent, instead of embracing what we have worked hard to offer him or her.

Our pain in offering bad grades, however—including, yes, the pain of anticipating those tense confrontations in the office afterward, which are “fun” only for the bellicose or sadistic—simply cannot justify rendering any other judgment than what our professional training says we ought to render. The world, and each of our students, needs all the truth it can get.

Yes, we professors should couch our judgments in encouraging langua