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.
Ahmed Afzaal’s recent piece in The Chronicle, “Grading and its Discontents,” touches on a dynamic hot topic in higher education, student obsession with “the grade.” Afzaal presents several key arguments aimed at distinguishing performance grades from actual learning. He rightfully illustrates how peers, parents, and pre-college schooling have shaped this grade-oriented mentality, but we ought to also consider how the environment of higher education enables it. Too often classrooms reinforce the goals of the individual; students are held to individual expectations and assessed on individual performance. Certainly group activities may temporarily expand responsibility beyond the student to multiple members of class, but this is rarely tied to the overall purpose of the course. What is lacking is a sense of camaraderie.
Imagine a major league baseball team. Individual players are assessed in a variety of statistical categories: earned run average, home runs, on base percentage, innings pitched, etc. These statistics serve individual player goals for free agency, salary arbitration, and promotion from the minors to the majors. But what happens when a team is making a run for the playoffs? The only statistic that matters is team wins. All of a sudden the individual goals are not the driving force of the players. Clenching a wild card spot, knocking off a division rival team, and winning the Pennant and World Series are now the aspiration for all members of the team, something special and uniquely shared within the group. There is camaraderie in this pursuit and it brings out the best in players.
Imagine a non-profit organization’s devotion to a measure on an upcoming election ballot. The stakes are high. The amount of work required to have an edge is endless. There are no 40-hour work weeks. Late nights, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness are required. The members of this team develop camaraderie through the collective experience. The push leading up to the election resembles a semester course: the timeline may be limited but the outcomes will be lasting.
So how do we create this environment in the classroom? First we have to convince students that the stakes are much higher than grades. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: current events, service learning, community outreach, simulations, games, undergraduate research, etc. If students buy into the outcomes of these goals, then they will have a purpose in the class other than “the grade.” A second step is to show students that their semester in the class is a unique experience. When curricular courses are taught by professors the same way each time, there is nothing special about being in a particular section in a given semester. I’m not saying that professors have to start completely from scratch. Framing a course around an unique objective can help students bond and place their efforts into something far greater than their individual pursuits.