Making the Grade

We just finished the first week after spring break here at the University of Chicago. This break was especially enjoyable/productive for me because I finished my winter quarter grading the weekend before AND somehow managed to make it through the rest of the week without getting any emails from students wanting to discuss their grades. I was foolish to think I was in the clear…

About a week ago, I was talking with someone about my grading, and he commented that being the “grader” as opposed to the graded makes you realize how subjective grading can be. I agreed, because of course there is a subjective element, especially when it comes to assigning a letter grade to someone else’s work. That’s what makes conversations about grades so difficult. I have no problem helping students better understand how they can improve in the future; in fact, that’s probably the part of being a teacher that I enjoy the most. However, passing a sort of final judgment on the quality of a student’s work is not something I take great delight in (unless it is of unquestionably high quality or allows me to acknowledge the progress the student has made in the short time I have worked with him/her).

Subjectivity will always be part of grading, but it shouldn’t just be an elephant in the room or a go-to excuse for students who don’t get the grade they want or think they deserve. Instead, instructors should embrace their responsibility to define how they evaluate students’ learning, to align methods of evaluation with course content and objectives, and to communicate these effectively to students. We can’t eliminate subjectivity from grading, but we can mitigate it by providing ourselves and our students with clear criteria for assignments and by explaining why these criteria themselves are not simply products of our own subjective whims as teachers.

Maybe you’ll dismiss this as material from Teaching 101 or just common sense. It is both of those things, after all, but practicing such good habits doesn’t necessarily come automatically or naturally. Nor is it immediately obvious how best practices for teaching and grading relate to the rest of graduate student life. I think they do, though.

One of the greatest difficulties PhD students, especially those who have completed coursework, encounter is how to evaluate their progress. One reason for this is that we are so used to relying on other people to evaluate our work. Even if we possess the capacity to do so ourselves, we are unaccustomed to relying on our own evaluation more than that of our instructors. Additionally, graduate students tend to be deeply committed critics and perfectionists. Hard as it may be to believe for those of you who know us, I think the majority of students direct the greatest amount of criticism to their own work. This pessimism and negativity is compounded at times by a vague understanding of what measures we should use to evaluate our work.

Self-evaluation is a problem not only for work within a PhD program but also for post-graduation outcomes. I suspect that among students entering PhD programs (at least in history), a correlation of “success” with landing a position as a tenured faculty at a research university is far more common than a concrete understanding of how likely one is to gain this kind of employment, what doing so will require, and what working as a faculty member entails. (At least this was true in my case.) In other words, students come into PhD programs with criteria for self-evaluation that do not necessarily correspond to the types of jobs that will be most available to them or even to what kinds of employment they will find most satisfying.

The consequence is anxiety about and dissatisfaction with performance that may not live up to these poorly defined criteria for evaluation. As PhD students, we can benefit from thinking about our careers like (good) teachers think about methods of evaluation and constructive alignment: identify skills that are important to achieving desired outcomes, design our experience as PhD students to acquire these skills, and judge our progress through the program according to expectations that are realistic, clearly defined, and accountable to individual personalities and desired lifestyles. The only real downside to this is that it makes it less feasible to rationalize unsatisfactory performance by reference to the subjective whims of PhD programs, academia, and “the job market” (or claw).

Obviously, this post has been about more than teaching and grading. In conclusion, though, I think it’s worthwhile to reiterate how teaching can enhance the experience of being a PhD student. It is a well-worn cliché that we learn most from teaching. Writing this post has helped me realize that this is true not only of our subject content but also of skills that PhD students can apply to other aspects of our professional life.

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