It's important for me to preface this post by saying that I don't teach at a Research 1 University, or in any sort of MFA program, but that I instruct at SUNY Brockport, a teaching college where students receive an MA in literature or creative writing. When I first received my tenure-track job, I thought (naively) that both a comprehensive college and a Research 1 university were the same. This was wrong. Where I work teaching and scholarship are of equal importance. At a Research 1 University, primarily only research is valued.
This isn't to say one is worse or better, but that both attract different sorts of students who have different needs. Here most of the time graduate students choose SUNY Brockport for a bump in their salary at either a middle-school, or high school. This is a good thing. The pursuit of more knowledge should be rewarded. No problem there.
I would be doing the same thing.
Most graduate students at SUNY Brockport do not plan on attending an MFA program or becoming a permanent creative writer--their focus is on teaching. Of course, I could cite a number of student in the program who are enrolled in the program for quite the opposite reason. But still. This isn't a critique simply; it is a description.
Some time ago, at a college similar to that of SUNY Brockport, I taught a graduate creative writing class and told my students on the first day that their grade would be based on their participation and writing. I said I would grade their writing in the following way: I told them each would present two stories or two batches of poem during the course of the semester. If they wrote at least a full eight pages or 4 poems, they would receive an A. I told them that the quality didn't matter in any way. I wouldn't judge them on that, even proofreading. All I was interested was in the generation of material. Everyone was also required to write a critique of every other person's work, and, of course, participate.
Of course, the quality of the pieces ranged from the sloppy to a-draft-away-from-publication. That didn't surprise me--that's the way it is in any workshop. What did surprise me was this: a high number of students came into my office to complain about my grading criterion. As one student told me, he felt "cheated." He stated that he knew someone in the class didn't put as much work into his writing as he did.
My response: So? Why does it matter to you?
"Because, it's unethical," he said. "I put more time into it."
This student told another teacher in the program how I assessed their work. The teacher was visibly upset. "Your grades are inflated," he said.
At so many college, there is a strange collective anxiety about ostensibly inflated grades, that we, as teachers, are not creating classes that are "rigorous" enough. "You see the evidence," they say, "look: the university's median grade is an A-. We should be ashamed of ourselves."
This sort of talk always concerns me: why does giving a high number of A's mean that your class wasn't rigorous? That you didn't give them enough to do? Why does giving a high number of A's mean that you are a "better," "more ethical" teacher?
Why do we never ask the following: that a teacher who gives extremely low grades might be a "worse, less ethical" teacher? That perhaps that teacher isn't making the grading criterion for the class transparent enough? That he isn't considering how he might not be succeeding as a teacher in some respects in helping a student achieve their potential? That perhaps he needs to grade on a curve, a choice that one might consider to be a way of inflating grades?
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