One of the biggest steps in transitioning students from high school to college classes is showing them the difference between text and context. When Western music cultures, for example, began notating music and eventually printing and selling it, music as a living cultural expression became a thing. The process of thingifying music–the academic in me says I should probably use a word like reify, but thingify just rolls off the tongue so nicely–explains how the canon of great works formed. This process crosses into other expressions of culture as well, where Shakespeare’s plays became curricular texts and Howard Zinn uncovered another history of America. The point is that when intangible activities and events become objects, something is left out.
When we explain this process of thingification to our students, we ought to introduce the concept of grades as an analogy. A grade is a measurement of performance within a limited parameter, whether it be a quiz, a presentation, or group participation. There are so many things to a class that cannot be measured because despite our best efforts we cannot contain or quantify them. Something is always left out. Have students make lists of everything they can connect to a course: trying to figure out what Schopenhauer is saying, tracking all of the diminutive variants of Crime and Punishment character names, crafting a sixteenth version of a thesis statement that will hopefully pass muster, to name a few. Grades on a transcript ten years down the line will not document these components of the class.
As we help students start to realize the limits of the text and the deep layers of the context, we should also help them start viewing the limits of grades. Grades have their purpose just as a history text has its purpose. But when we thingify the learning experience, we misrepresent value. Anxiety over the impact of grades on job prospects and scholarship requirements may not go away completely, but perhaps this conversation will help remind students that there are many worthwhile components of a class that cannot be represented on paper.