Blogs > Cliopatria > Grading is Academic Freedom?

Jan 15, 2005 5:28 am

Grading is Academic Freedom?

Why do we consider grading policy a component of academic freedom? It's fundamental to our job, or it should be, to fairly and competently judge the work of our students, but I don't see how academic freedom plays into it. Quite the opposite, actually: this is an area where informal norms already sharply limit instructors and in which formal norms often do exist.

Generally speaking, the definition of assignments is up to the instructor, yes. Though there are exceptions: many schools, for example, have"writing intensive" definitions in which a course must meet certain minimum standards to qualify and which students must take a certain number of to graduate; there are departments which require certain kinds of assignments; and less formal systems of expectations, as well, which serve to keep faculty from over- or under-working their students too egregiously. The rubrics under which grading is done should be under their control -- as long as they do not politicize or otherwise distort the process with non-performance factors -- and most schools (I think) have at least an informal system by which grades may be questioned or challenged. But there are exceptions to that control as well: departments sometimes set standards for grades and assignments in multi-section courses, and the use of outside readers on projects like theses (and much more extensively in the British system) suggests that grading is supposed to conform to some general norm.

I'm not convinced, from my own experience, that faculty really are free with regard to grading. Nor that they are really free with regard to curricular and pedagogical matters: there is a range of acceptable activities, within which we are free, but there is also a substantial range of unacceptable ones. Grading is a professional obligation, not a right.

I'm not going to defend Benedict college, but I think that we need to clarify what we mean by academic freedom, as well as reconsidering the idea that grading belongs firmly within that category.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 1/15/2005

Some schools have a reputation for riding herd on grades. My undergrad school had that rep, as well as a rep for low grades -- in fact, it only had a 3.0 system (there was no such thing as a 'D'). The Dean reviewed all grades each semester by computer printout, and counseled profs he thought too generous. If counseling did not suffice, a string of 8:00am classes was tried. Then a parking space a day's march from office. Then the class was given to somebody else to teach.

There was an eternal search for the gut class -- everybody, it seemed, was pre-law or pre-med or pre-MBA. In one such class, the students (about 300 -- it was a music literature class) were confronted the first day not by their expected prof, but a newly-minted PhD from the Paris Conservatory, who had taken his doctorate under Messiaen. After he introduced himself, half the class promptly stood up and raced each other to the registrar's office to drop it.

I also remember from my Ivy days in grad school, a certain prof specializing in Cervantes (I think he had come from UNC), who hadn't made the transition to co-ed very well. He had an ABC grading system. 'A' for athlete, 'B' for boy, and 'C' for chick. I don't know that his grades were ever questioned by the school.

Seems that policies varied from school to school.

David Haan - 1/15/2005

Malcolm Bradbury's "The History Man" turns 30 this year, but seems no less trustworthy.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/14/2005

I agree with Jonathan that there's an employment issue here as well--one of my great concerns with institutions that follow the AAC&U model (and Benedict is clearly one of them--read over its mission statement) is that they're interested in redefining the task of the faculty in such a way that colelges won't need Ph.D.'s to teach. I'd disagree with the union point--at least at CUNY, the union leadership is solidly on board with this approach, because it serves their ideological agenda. The question centers on whether faculty unions are primarily interested in protecting faculty jobs or in engaging in ideological crusades.

Ditto on grading. There's nothing wrong, it seems to me, with WIntensive requirements, or a university saying that, for instance, 35% of a final grade must come from exams. The university isn't taking away from the faculty the right to grade academic content as they see fit. That strikes me as the crucial distinction between appropriate administrative action and what Benedict is doing. Of course, as Jon's post suggests, the line is not always that clearcut.

Jonathan Rees - 1/14/2005

There's a pretty good case to say that this is an academic freedom dispute (and I'll make it in a moment), but I think this is better pitched as an employment issue. If an administration can dictate that 60% of a grade has to be for effort, what do they need Ph.D. faculty for? After all, you don't need a doctorate to see if someone is trying to learn a subject, you just need a pair of eyes. You need a doctorate to adequately judge the quality of college-level work. The more a professor has to grade for effort, the less valuable his or her unique skill becomes and the easier it is to replace them with an adjunct, a video player or someone from the community working in their spare time like the faculty at the University of Phoenix. Benedict College needs to have a long talk with its acreditting (sp?) body, not the AAUP.

That said, there is a good tangential academic freedom argument here. The same education that makes you qualified to speak about biology or history or whatever your discipline is, allows you to judge the quality of the student work you receive. If your department chair or your administration is telling you how to grade (or more likely changing grades behind your back to get loud, complaining students out of their office), the prerogative you earned through that education is being undermined. It is a stretch to go from being able to teach or write what you think is correct to designing your grading system the way you see fit, but I don't think it's unreasonable at all. For most people, grading is the most tangible service that educated professors provide. Why would we have freedom to perform some job functions and not others?

If the AAUP were a real union rather than a professional society, I predict they would be making the employment argument too rather than this one. But we know how popular teachers' unions are in this day and age, don't we? This is just another in the long list of reasons why most campuses could use them.


Oscar Chamberlain - 1/14/2005


Mark Twain used a similar logic in "Letter to the Earth." In it the angels greatly honor a despicable miserly old man for a giving a pittance to his starving sister.


Julie A Hofmann - 1/14/2005

But I think that policies like Benedicts, which clearly undermine standards across the board do interfere with our own freedom inasmuch as we have a certain ethical and professional obligation to uphold what we consider even an informal norm. Seriously, in formal or informal norming, who among us would ever give a give 60% for effort? I am generous among my colleagues, in that I'll give 40-50% for even marginal effort. The grade is clearly an "f," but mathmatically, it allows students who have an off day or who improve over the quarter to salvage an overall grade if the rest of the work has been good.
A question -- if we really graded on effort, wouldn't we have to punish the better-prepared/naturally talented students who can turn out B+/A- papers in 24 hours? Wouldn't that lead to rationales like, "John has an IQ of 160 and finished the exam in 1 hour, so he didn't really have to put in too much effort, whereas Peter only has an IQ of 106, and it took him 3 hours for the exam, so he put in much more effort. John's essay was really good, so he gets 38 points for that, but only 35 points for effort. Peter's essay was really at C level, so he gets 30 points on his essay, but 58 points for effort. John gets a low C, Peter gets a high B."

Er, no. If schools like Benedict want students to pass, then they should do it by adding more remedial work where necessary, or having more tutorial help -- not by lowering standards.