Making Grades Public

An interview appeared in Inside Higher Ed where a prof defends making students’ grades public. :

Yes, I think students’ grades should be posted. By thinking of our students as teacup-fragile, we have probably made them teacup-fragile. I don’t see how this is a service to them. I’ve taught kids in Cambodia and China, and my own son is half-Chinese and started school in Shanghai. Kids are definitely tougher in Asia – they have to face their failures regularly, but their self-esteem is not crushed by it and they tend to excel at whatever they put their minds to. Resilience and the ability to accept occasional defeat, or humbly enjoy the accolades of success, are good for character.

I don’t give all my students the same grade out of some duty to egalitarianism. So why should I hide the true hierarchy from the students? In the West, we stress the idea that our worth and value is a private inner condition of the individual, but in face-cultures like China one’s value is also public. So, public shame and success are considered great motivators. Are there abuses of this? Yes, of course, but most students thrive and excel in this non-egalitarian context too.

I’m bothered by these Orientalist statements and Professor Asma’s belief that meeting a few kids in Cambodia and China entitles him to draw conclusions about everybody in Asia. Asia is not a tiny village. It is an enormously huge and diverse region that should never be dismissed with these facile generalizations just because it is convenient for an American educator to do so to advance an argument.

I agree that students are not fragile and should not be treated as infants. At the same time, I see no evidence that posting the grades has any influence on how well students absorb knowledge. I come from a country where grades are always made public. We are a culture where personal space is never respected and people’s lives are seen as more of a communal property than individuals’ own inalienable belonging. People get used to being shamed publicly not only for their grades but for a variety of other things. For instance, when a medical exam revealed that a classmate at the university back in Kharkov had an STD, this information was announced in front of everybody and shared as widely as possible in order to shame this student.

None of this, however, salvaged our horribly rotten system of education. I would be an idiot if I claimed, as prof. Asma does, that as a result of these practices all FSU people “tend to excel at whatever they put their minds to.” I don’t think that making the grades private would achieve that goal either, of course. Human beings are not machines, and you cannot find a magic button you can press to make them all excel at everything at the same time.

This is the second day in a row where I encounter articles by educated, seemingly intelligent people who don’t have any grasp of what causation is about. They keep advancing arguments of the “The phone called and then it started to rain, ergo phone calls cause rain” variety and don’t notice how silly they sound.

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23 comments on “Making Grades Public

  1. Grades were posted on professors’ doors after the final exam was graded when I was a student. I don’t think it ought to be an issue. A low grade is not shaming, as far as I can tell, nor is a high one. I do think, however, that keeping grades private prevents students’ parents from harassing them about their grades. Some parents also demand that their sons and daughters choose a particular major. I think this is beyond horrible. I am not sure we can do anything about it as long as parents are expected to pay for a college or university education.

    • At Cornell, we received training in withstanding the pressure of parents who thought that paying tuition entitled them to knowing the students’ grades. Some parents would get very obnoxious. They would say things like, “I pay your salary, so you have to tell me this.” We were told to direct them to our legal counsel.

      • It is very difficult to withstand the badgering of somebody who is, say, a successful attorney with 30 years of experience or a Wall St. shark. These are folks who know how to get what they want and a yesterday’s grad student is likely to get intimidated. Hence the training.

  2. I completely agree with you. I just don’t understand the function that making grades public can serve. I agree that college students are oftentimes overly coddled and I make sure to treat my students like adults. But to me, treating people like adults means respecting their boundaries and avoiding the use of public shame.

    On a side note, I do think that the American tendency to cloak things in an excessive amount of secrecy can lead to systemic abuse. For instance, I think all salaries should be made public. The way we whisper about salaries behind closed doors helps perpetuate income inequality and unfairness. So if there was some sort of abuse in the grading system (i.e. only men getting “A’s” in an engineering class), then I could see the wisdom in making grades public. But that would be to protect the students—not to shame them. But other than that, I really can’t see any benefit to publicizing grades. Actually, a part of me wishes we could do away with grades altogether. I don’t think they are particularly useful and for some students, their obsession with grades really prevents them from engaging in true academic inquiry. I know that we won’t ever get rid of grades but I personally try to de-emphasize grades in my day to day teaching—not make them the central focus of class.

    • I have to say that Americans do have an attitude to finances that I find to be a little bizarre. People are so secretive about the whole thing as if it were some dirty secret that is fueled by shame and cloaked in enigma. :-) I have absolutely no problem discussing my salary, my rent, my bills, and my credit card debt with anybody. When I do so in front of Americans, though, I see them get deathly pale, as if I were revealing some intimate sexual details. Of course, I respect everybody’s cultural hangups, so I don’t discuss it any more. But it is kind of weird when my colleagues start being top-secret about their salaries when we have all our salaries published at the governmental website (as a public university).

      • It’s British too, or so I understand. There is some sort of cultural explanation for it that I cannot remember but I think it has to do with class. It would be important to find this answer because it is connected to a lot of other cultural issues, esp. regarding people from the original 13 states which are the most tradtional, and one would understand more.

    • ” for some students, their obsession with grades really prevents them from engaging in true academic inquiry”

      – Very true. This is precisely where the dreaded query of “will this be on the test?” originates.

  3. During my first year in law school I had arguments on this topic over and over again. Not that it was always immediately obvious that that was what the problem was but after a while it became apparent.
    By the end of the year I wanted to staple sheets with
    “Coincidence does not equal correlation.
    Correlation does not equal causality.
    Causality does not equal direct causation.”
    to the front our seminar notes in the hopes of actually having productive discussions.

  4. What in the world does posting public grades have anything to do with students’ fragility? Where I go to school, it’s illegal to post public grades without consent of the students involved, and then students must only be identified by their college ID number. It has everything to do with respecting the student. Letting them choose creates a safer learning environment. Students deserve some sort of respect, and they shouldn’t have to fend off public humiliation. Safety does not equal fragility. It’s about creating an environment in which people are able to learn without feeling like they’re being hounded by the pressure to get better grades.

  5. How about publishing this prof’s dieting results and / or how many hours a week s/he spends doing sports? Or how much s/he smokes or drinks? Or how research is succeeding, when each prof gets a grade thus letting students super-easy access to the info, shouldn’t the students know who teaches them? I believe every person has weak points, the matter is only finding them.

    • Btw, I am against giving profs grades. If somebody is bad, s/he can be fired. Publishing “grades” would create unhealthy environment imo. “I got 8, while my co-worker got 9″. Not all people find public humiliation helpful, for some it has exactly the opposite effect.

    • “How about publishing this prof’s dieting results and / or how many hours a week s/he spends doing sports? Or how much s/he smokes or drinks? Or how research is succeeding, when each prof gets a grade thus letting students super-easy access to the info, shouldn’t the students know who teaches them? ”

      – GOOD point!! :-) I can’t imagine anybody being too willing to see regular public updates on how many articles they have submitted and got rejections. This guy should be made to bear the burden he proposes to impose on others. Just to see how non-fragile he is. :-)

  6. There is no real reason to post grades nowadays. They are available electronically immediately. Forty years ago, posting grades on my office door meant that a student could learn his or her final grade much more quickly, since waiting for the semester grade report to come out could typically take a week or more after the final examination period.

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