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.

A Little More on Tenure Requirements

During the tenure workshop I attended, the Associate Dean told us, “Do you see these enormous binders that contain the applicants’ tenure dossiers? Sometimes, you have to pore over every piece of paper they contain to see whether the applicant really deserves tenure. On other occasions, however, you open the binder, look at the first page of the research narrative, see a staggering number of publications, and realize that you don’t really need to read anything else in that dossier.”

I really want to be that applicant whose research narrative makes people go, “Ah, well, obviously. . . I mean, how the hell did she do that?”

Publication Requirement

In 2010, I had an article accepted by a scholarly journal outside of my immediate discipline. (I had reasons to want to publish there that I won’t go into in this post.)

The article was accepted but because of the financial constraints many universities are experiencing, the publication of the journal’s new issues kept getting delayed. Articles that are accepted for publication don’t count for tenure. Only the articles that have actually appeared in print do. This makes sense because nowadays a journal can easily go out of business before it manages to publish its last accepted pieces.

Only yesterday did I get the news that this article had finally been published and I will soon receive the print copy of the journal. The actual printing of articles (at least in the Humanities) can get delayed for any amount of time these days. This is why I’m extremely happy that I have fulfilled my tenure requirements in what concerns publications 1,5 years before I have to submit my portfolio. Now I can work on my research without worrying that articles wouldn’t appear in time.

If you are just beginning a tenure-track career, please don’t let the false security of having six years ahead of you lull you into a dangerous sense of complacency. The time you have is a lot more limited than you think now.