Teacher, Bureaucrat, Cop (guest post)


“We can free ourselves up to pursue a wider range of educational goals when we see that fairness is not an absolute demand for all classroom life, but only one goal among many. And sometimes, we can trade away some degree of fairness in the pursuit of other goals.”

The following is a guest post by C. Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


Teacher, Bureaucrat, Cop
by C. Thi Nguyen

I was teaching a first-year “great books” seminar, doing the Tao Te Ching. During the class discussion, I asked my students to imagine what a truly Taoist school might be like. They said: there would be no central authority figure. There would be no grading. Students could pursue whatever paths interested them. There would just be resources available for them to explore, to play around with. I asked them why our educational system wasn’t like that. They said: it must be because our educational system was more about evaluating them, getting them to fall into line, then about actually helping them grow and develop.

They were getting super excited. Then one of my students said: “Professor? Could we do that? Could we just do whatever final project we wanted?” The whole class was vibrating with enthusiasm. My syllabus had the usual final term paper programmed in, but the students were boiling over with other ideas. An animation student wanted to animate some of the poems we’d read; a women’s studies student wanted to write a feminist updating of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”.

And I froze. Because how the hell was I supposed to grade this stuff fairly? I didn’t want to just point-black refuse, but how in god’s name could I issue meaningful grades to an animated movie, a critical paper, and a film script? We’d been extolling the virtues of creativity and open-mindedness, originality and adaptability, and here I was about to embody the bureaucratic authoritarian. I was about to tell them: “You cannot do this thing that you love and are excited by, that actually integrates with your life path and goals. Because I could not grade you fairly.”

So I let them design their own final projects: whatever format they wanted, so long as it engaged with the class material in an interesting way. I had them pitch me their ideas, and we negotiated a project that would satisfy both of us. And what I got was completely amazing. About a third of the students did the standard term paper. The rest went wild. I got a short film, and a podcast about Homer’s concept of heroism. A ceramicist tried using traditional Japanese ceramics methods that she’d never used before, and kept a diary, informed by Japanese aesthetics texts we’d read. The women’s studies student gave me a (sharp, hysterical) screenplay updating the Wife of Bath, called The Wife of Wall Street.

Was this a teaching success or a teaching failure? What the students gained here was the ability to integrate what we were doing with their own career paths, their own animating values. They got to exercise their creativity and their intellectual autonomy. What I lost was the ability to grade with anything like perfect fairness. And I came out thinking not that fairness was entirely unimportant, but rather that there was a complex tension here, a trade-off between different values—and that in the past, I had unthinkingly gone all-in for fairness and left other pedagogical values on the wayside.

Then I remembered a thought that had been implanted in my head way back in grad school. I’d been in the “how to teach” class for first-time teaching assistants. One of our faculty was talking about the purpose of grading. They said: “Imagine that you’re grading. You give both Dennis and Kate a B on their first papers. But after you’ve sent out the grades, you realize you’d made a mistake. On further inspection, Dennis’ paper is actually worse than Kate’s; he actually deserved a B-. Now their second papers come in, and both Kate and Dennis improve a bit on their second paper. Now what grade do you give them? If you value fairness, you should give Kate’s paper a B+, and Dennis’ second paper a B—the grade it deserves and that’s in line with the grades for the rest of the class. But then you won’t be performing another vital function of grading. You won’t be signaling to Dennis that he has improved; you won’t be visibly rewarding his increased effort and skill. Fairness here asks you to give him a B, but many of our other educational goals say you should give him a B+. So what should you do?”

I expected them to say: give Dennis the B, because you’ve got to be fair. But what they actually said was: “Well, it depends a lot on the specifics of the situation. But, in many circumstances, the right thing to do is give Dennis the B+, because the educational signaling function of grading is often more important than strict fairness.”

This blew my mind. Because I had never actually separated out those two functions before. There was just this one edifice in my mind: grading. And the presumption was that grading always had to be maximally fair, that that was what the whole thing was for.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking: the job of a class instructor actually encompasses a number of separate functional roles. Privately, I call these functions “teacher”, “bureaucrat”, and “cop”.

The function of teacher is to educate and improve their students. To give them knowledge, grow their skills, charge up their critical thinking, train their intellectual virtues—anything like that.

The function of bureaucrat is to fairly evaluate the students. It is to offer some relatively objective assessment and ranking.

The function of cop is to enforce the rules. Perhaps the kinder way to put it might be that the cop functions to maintain the current social order. Though, in some cases, the way to maintain the social order is to inculcate a sensibility of pure obedience to the letter of the law.

(This isn’t a claim about everything it is to be an actual bureaucrat, or an actual cop. These are just my internal labels to help me think through my different job functions in the classroom.)

These functions often conflict. And then we have to weigh them against each other. And my worry is that sometimes, we educators act unthinkingly. We teach the way we ourselves were taught, and don’t think about the actual function of our inherited pedagogy.

This has been on mind recently, because the pandemic forced a rapid transition to online teaching; many of us had to make implementation decisions which revealed our actual priorities. I got to watch professors, who taught about Foucault and control—who preached about the dangers of the surveillance state—turn around and go full surveillance. When it was time to start administering tests at home, in the Zoom era, they said yes to every bit of eye-tracking technology, used every bit of surveillance they could take their hands on. The damage that heightened surveillance did to the environment of trust—and the whole dense emotional life of education—was far less important, it seemed, then making absolutely sure that nobody cheated.

Along similar lines: lately, I keep seeing teachers march in the streets against the tyranny of the cops, and then, in their own classrooms, go full cop. ACAB in the streets; cop between the sheets.

This can include open authoritarian bullying, but it also includes much milder-looking, but more pervasive, choices. For example: spending significant resources, in a general education class, on teaching and enforcing proper citation style. In many classes, absolute obedience to the details of a particular citation format becomes a basis for grading decisions.

Does this serve any deep educational function? At the intro level, rarely. It’s not a skill that the vast majority of our students actually need. (You might think that making students cite a page number in texts helps them learn a certain detail orientation, but there’s a big difference between that, and, like, getting all your punctuation right in proper MLA citation style.) Where does the obsession with citation style come from? More than one composition teacher has suggested to me that it comes from the drive for objective grading. It is incredibly hard to justify, in a bureaucratically defensible way, a grade based on creativity or incisiveness of a student paper. But a grade based on obedience to a set of explicit rules is objective and unimpeachable—and easy to process at volume.

More importantly: for a student not headed into the academy, a significant emphasis on proper citation style communicates an underlying value of obedience for obedience’s sake. Because, for most of our students, citation formats are a useless piece of knowledge. Proper citation has no relationship to their interests—professional or personal—and no relationship to the development of general intellectual or critical faculties. It’s just a bunch of rules that we enforce, not because it’ll actually help the student, but because they’re the rules. And students know this, deep in their hearts. They know that they’re bowing down to a set of irrelevant norms, because that’s what they have to do to get the grade. When we push this stuff on our students without any heed to the educational function, we’re being cops.

The difference between the bureaucratic function and the teaching function is subtler. The core question is: to what degree does the process of fair evaluation serve the goals of education?

Fair evaluation is not the only goal of an educational system. You could have an educational system without comparative evaluation. Each student could submit a piece of writing to me, and I could tell them their strengths and weaknesses. I could suggest ways for them to improve. I could help my students become engaged, more interested, reflective, more careful thinkers. I could even tailor my suggestions to their goals and interests. None of this requires a fair comparison between students.

This line of thinking has opened up all sorts of new possibilities in my teaching. For one thing: I started writing these open-ended, funny final exam questions in my intro classes. The questions have a lot of room built in for student improvisation. Like: “Choose any two philosophers we’ve studied and stage a debate between them about the value of Instagram culture.” Or: “Choose any philosopher we’ve studied and say how they would redesign the educational system.” Students often leave the final exam delighted; I hear them arguing about the ideas in the hallways afterwards. Students tell me they didn’t know a final could be fun.

The benefits are clear to me. Students get to exercise their creativity. They get to feel intellectually autonomous, to integrate material with their own interests. And they get to leave the class—sometimes their only humanities class—with a sense that this kind of humanistic, philosophical thinking is alive, delightful, and applicable to their actual lives. But, to accomplish all of this, this style of exam trades away a bit of fairness.

Which is not to say that the exam is aggressively unfair. I can still get a good sense of whether they understand the material vaguely or deeply. But it is quite difficult to make precise comparisons between students because the task is more open-ended. When they get to choose any philosopher from the class, or, say, pick any law to rewrite from according to their choice of political theories, they can end up in every different places. The freedom in the task lets students select, or stumble into, tasks of varying difficulty. In this case, for me, the trade is worth it. I care more about giving my intro students, as their last taste of philosophy, a chance to exercise some creativity and intellectual autonomy, than I do about perfectly precise grading.[1]

Why did we need these precise comparisons anyway? It’s useful, here, to consult the history of our modern, standardized grading system. According to the historians, our modern system of grading was set up to perform a few different functions. One is motivational: the clarity of grades gets students to work. (Although, as many have noticed, it often motivates them to narrowly pursue only those things which will advance their grade.) But the main interest driving the grading system is informational portability. Grades transfer information quickly between contexts. This transfer can have some educational function. Educators can use it to sort students into different classes based on past performance, and do impact studies on educational interventions. But a dominant use for standardized grading is for employers. Much of modern grading arose around during the creation of systems of standardized certifications, designed for employers to quickly sort through pools of potential employees.

This tension between fairness and education shouldn’t be reduced to something so simple as, “Who am I serving—the student or the employers?” (Though, I admit, that reduction is awfully tempting.) The real point here is that issuing fair evaluations is just one particular function among many, for the instructor. Though fair evaluations have some educational use, they are not the end-all and be-all of education.

I could open up the final assignment in that honors seminar precisely because that class wasn’t intended to teach the skill of rigorous argument or careful writing. It was intended to expose students to the riches of “the great books”. So in that context, opening up the final project made sense. I’m not saying that we should never give standard final assignments—the decisions depend a lot on the specifics of the situation. I’m just saying that there are sometimes reasons to move away from the demands of fairness, and the standardization it enforces. The real point is: fairness is only one of our functions. We can free ourselves up to pursue a wider range of educational goals when we see that fairness is not an absolute demand for all classroom life, but only one goal among many. And sometimes, we can trade away some degree of fairness in the pursuit of other goals.

It’s important to be clear about which functions we are serving, and to be deliberate in making the trade-offs. And there’s a big decision point coming. My Twitter feed is full of professors and teachers freaking out about the coming of GPT-3. Clearly, some students will start to cheat using automated paper-writing. People are proposing responses that involve going full surveillance state. They have proposed making students write their papers with eye-tracking software on, or writing all papers in controlled and secure environments, like testing centers.

These choices serve the functions of the bureaucrat and the cop—but not, I think, the teacher’s. Because the environment they are suggesting—an environment of surveillance, paranoia, and profound distrust—is deeply hostile to some of our subtler educational goals. It is hard to turn in a creative expression, to really reflect on your values and world-view, if you have to write your essay in a single session in a monitored testing center under a camera’s baleful eye. Going full surveillance may catch some cheaters, but at the expense of providing a richer, more supportive educational environment for the rest of our students.

It is tempting, when faced with decision points like this, to just default to worrying about fairness. Even for those who deeply wish to be teachers, it is so easy to go full cop or full bureaucrat. It can seem inevitable. In our educational culture, the demands of fairness are often presented as paramount. But we actually have a choice—between policing our students, and teaching them.


[1] Rima Basu does something even more profound. She offers students a choice between a more traditional academic writing in her classes, and a “public writing” track, where students output op-eds, blog posts, and even podcasts. Yet another case where offering more educational integration with students’ interests is in tension with the goal of perfectly fair evaluations.

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David Goldman
1 month ago

I really enjoyed this, Thi! But I have to take issue with the idea that the creative projects you’re describing were less fair, grading-wise, than the creative projects you adopted.

As a bureaucrat, what are you trying to measure with your grading? If it’s strictly and only the quality of the work turned in, and its compliance to the specs of the assignment, then, when the task performed by each student is as similar as possible, you’ll have more consistency and reliability in your ratings.

But most of us, I think, want to measure something further with our assignments: understanding of positions and views, mastery of philosophical reasoning skills, some other things in that vicinity. And in that case, when all students are given exactly the same task, other factors—e.g., their confidence with the type of task being given, the degree to which it resonates and gets them excited—can introduce variability, and unfairness.

Basically: imagine two students who have equally mastered the material. If one of them thinks, “hell yeah, I’m great at writing and I love the example used in this prompt, let’s go,” and the other thinks, “this makes me feel even more like an outsider,” then the task will not *fairly* measure their respective mastery of the material. Giving them each a chance to find a way to demonstrate that mastery, in a way that really resonates and works for them, will be *more* fair.Report

Mr. Anthony Tamburro
Mr. Anthony Tamburro
1 month ago

The undergraduate course St John’s College Annapolis, is perhaps the exemplar non-pariel.Report

Jason Brennan
1 month ago

Incidentally, back in 2009 or so when I was at Brown, John Tomasi, Mark Koyama, and I were team teaching a large PPE course and tried something like this. We told students their final project could be anything at all, as long as it was related to the class. We put on some reasonable limits, such as that we weren’t going to watch 40 hours of material or travel too far to grade something, but we didn’t regulate the content. We told them that we can’t see how, say, an interpretative dance could work for the class, but if the students could figure that out, cool, submit it.

At first, students said this was the coolest thing ever. Then, about a month before the projects were due, many were terrified. They’d never had that much freedom or responsibility before. In the end, we had some amazing things (e.g., a really well-done documentary in which the student discovered his assumptions about worker false consciousness were mistaken), and many regular papers.

What we did wrong, and what the author here did right, as motivate the open-endedness. Nyugen gave the students readings that explained why this radical freedom is a good idea, and the students pushed for it on their own.

One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that students will be much more receptive to both alternative and traditional pedagogy if you show them why you do it. I’ve started writing my syllabi in a “who, what, when, where, why” format, with the “why” section explaining the reasoning behind the assignment. For instance, if I give them experiential projects, the why section might say, “Transfer of learning is a myth and most students learn by doing.” And then I’ll back that up in class with evidence.Report

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

What does ‘transfer of learning’ mean?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
1 month ago

“Transfer of learning” occurs when a person learns a skill, concept, or method in one domain but applies it to another. For instance, we might tell a student that while they won’t write philosophy papers for a living, the skills in argumentation and conceptual analysis they develop can be used anywhere. If they actually use it to do new things outside philosophy, that’s transfer of learning.

Empirically, it turns out transfer of learning is mostly a myth. Most students cannot transfer learning even when prompted, and they rarely do so when unprompted. Instead, for most people, learning is highly particularized. They become good at X by doing X. It remains true that they could transfer learning, but they don’t.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

It depends on the skills in question. Argumentation and conceptual analysis may be more difficult to “transfer” to other industry domains. But criticism, impartiality, clarity of writing, and careful thinking can help students especially if they have to make important decisions that can and will affect their work, clients, customers, patients, the world, etc.

One time in my sculpture class, we had to replicate my professor’s model using clay. I was the only philosopher major there. I took a caliper and measured the model and use it to build my replica. Everyone else was just eyeballing theirs.

I was mediocre at sculpting so I figured: “I wanna work smarter and not harder”. My professor looked and was like, “Ah! Clever! You really are a philosopher.” I laughed, but I wanted to make my labor efficient and easy as a first-timer.

Was my action because I was a philosopher? Was philosophy responsible for my precision snobbishness, cleverness, or thinking outside the box? Or was it because I’m just naturally clever and just happened to be a philosophy major? Or a combination of these?

I don’t know. But I’m inclined to think that philosophy can help hone and polish what’s rough within the students already to a certain extent.Report

Erik Nelson
Erik Nelson
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

Is there any chance you could point me in the direction of the empirical research that shows this? I remember hearing similar claims about the limitations of Critical Thinking courses. The generality or lack of generality of reasoning is relevant to some of my current work, so I’d really appreciate it!Report

Mireya
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

This is a topic every elementary teacher should hear. High school too.Report

Mireya
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

We all do!Report

David
1 month ago

First, I want to say this is a great post and the outlook is pretty similar to the one that drives my own grading and pedagogical choices. But I want to highlight some other fairness related pitfalls of the open-ended, get-creative type assignments that I think are worth considering and how they might be addressed. NOTE: None of this is to imply you have failed to address them in anything you describe in your post! I’m just trying to mark out a different kind of fairness consideration.

I think it’s crucial to note that to the extent there is any bureaucratic function active in a course (specifically, grading in any form), this imposes certain demands on how to fulfill teaching functions that involves fairness in a different regard.

The imposition of grading is a way of assessing what teaching is supposed to impart: “The function of teacher is to educate and improve their students. To give them knowledge, grow their skills, charge up their critical thinking, train their intellectual virtues—anything like that.”

But assessment is verificationist: the demonstration of what teaching imparts in a way that the assessor can register as a demonstration. Teaching which does not teach students how to successfully demonstrate these skills in some form risks being unfair to students in a different way than the kind of fairness you mainly discuss in your post. It is not a comparative unfairness. It is an unfairness that can arise in a class of exactly one student: the unfairness of assessing someone by standards you haven’t taught them how to reach.

This creates problems with totally open-ended projects. Can you adequately prepare students do demonstrate the relevant skills, knowledge, virtues etc… regardless of medium? How do you ensure students know enough about your assessment standards to know whether a project is realistically achievable for them? How do you judge whether your assignments and coursework are imparting the necessary skills in a way that is transferrable to such a demonstration?

I think there are ways to address this, such as what you mention: pre-project negotiation:

So I let them design their own final projects: whatever format they wanted, so long as it engaged with the class material in an interesting way. I had them pitch me their ideas, and we negotiated a project that would satisfy both of us. And what I got was completely amazing.”

This takes a lot of work and can’t be done in large classes.

Another is make sure students can revise and to let only the final grade stand. This at least allows you to clarify standards and address shortcomings in the demonstration iteratively, without necessarily having to articulate them in advance. Done correctly this can be done in large classes, but imposes burdens and risks on students in terms of the number of revisions they may have to make which is in part determined by how clearly standards can be specified in advance.

Another way is to abolish grading entirely (give all As) or adopt pass/fail grading without especially high standards for passing so that the demands imposed for demonstration do not potentially require advanced skills in the medium students will be working in.

In any case, students, whether we like it or not, are spending and borrowing large sums of cash to receive a degree certification that involves a grade. Setting them up to be able to succeed, not just in learning, but in grading is important given the social arrangements we find ourselves in.Report

Betsy
Betsy
Reply to  David
1 month ago

A related point: standards-based assessment can also be an essential tool to improve our teaching. It’s really important to be able to see, in a concrete way, whether the activities I’ve designed are actually helping students build the knowledge and skills I want them to develop. I often think activities are great ideas that fail pretty miserably, and I want/need to know that to improve my teaching. Too many of us assume things are working when they aren’t, and without evidence to the contrary, we go on teaching as if nothing were wrong.

But if I want this kind of feedback loop in my teaching practice, I need to specify what I want students to learn, have the time to think about what that learning would look like when it goes well, target my activities to advance those skills, and take the time to revise those activities if students are not developing as I would have hoped.

These tasks are definitely bureaucratic in a certain sense, and in any context outside of 1:1 tutoring, they are also in tension with giving students complete freedom to set their own outcomes and assignments. But their aim is more virtuous than helping some external group sort/rank students.

I struggle with this tension a great deal because my philosophy of education is aligned with the vision outlined in this post. But when I’ve given absolute freedom, I’ve realized I haven’t had time to design activities that actually *teach* the skills they want to learn, or to develop thoughtful assessment plans that will give me and the students information about whether that teaching is working. One could argue that we’re giving students the freedom to teach themselves in this scenario, but this then reinforces the inequities highlighted by David. Students who know how to teach themselves will do better than those who don’t. And one starts to wonder what the role of the teacher is if not to design activities that foster growth and assessments that provide meaningful feedback.

My compromise has been to develop assessment standards that focus only on the specific knowledge or skills I want them to learn in the course and NOT the skills we typically associate with a strong assignment in a particular medium. So if I want to teach them the skill of evaluation, my rubric is only about evaluation and does not include any standards related to writing a strong paper. As a result, it can be used to assess a paper, but *also* any other way a student wants to demonstrate they have developed their evaluation skills (a play, movie, etc.). This then allows students to choose the medium of their assignment while giving me the ability to see whether the collective activities I have designed are working to improve the evaluative skills of the entire class.

This approach doesn’t completely solve the problem David highlights–students are going to have an easier time knowing how to demonstrate a generic skill of evaluation in a paper than in a film, but his solutions work reasonably well here.

The main (relatively small) point I wanted to make here is that there are other benefits to common standards beyond fairness. They also help us design and improve our own teaching practices to better serve our students.Report

Mireya
Reply to  Betsy
1 month ago

I’m my district there are a lot of children who are smart, maybe not the typical system book smart but they have skills and so according to grades they are failing. Assessments aren’t necessarily accurate and yet they can be.Report

Max DuBoff
1 month ago

Really great post, thank you so much! A great deal to ponder here, especially about how to craft assignments in a way that gives students optimal choice, structure, guidance, and agency, to help kickstart their learning.

I do want to push back a bit on the concept of fairness. I frequently struggle with the question of whether I ought to be concerned about fairness between students at all. My position as a philosophy instructor at the university might give me reason to promote fairness between students (qua bureaucrat), but fairness between students does not seem to serve an educational purpose. If my primary goal is education, shouldn’t I try to get rid of my concern for fairness, at least in any case where it conflicts with educational quality? I might give X and Y the same grade for very different reasons. In a recent course, for instance, one student’s work was consistently strong all term; whereas a different student’s work was not as strong, but they sought help and made significant progress in their final paper, while engaging deeply with the course topic. I make no claim that this comparison was apples-to-apples in a way that could promote fairness, even though in each case an A rewarded a type of behavior.

Curious to hear others’ thoughts about the value of fairness. Thanks!Report

Devin
1 month ago

Great post! I went to an undergraduate institution without grades (Hampshire’s College), and as I’ve had to think about my own grading I have become increasingly convinced that they should simply be eliminated. I’m pessimistic that the different functions grades serve *can* be balanced – it seems to me that they are fundamentally incompatible and incommensurable. As such, my suspicion is that given the existing structures and incentives there is simply no grading practice that does not harm students in some significant way.

I want to add a function of grading that I’m not sure slots fully into your categories, but which I think is particularly salient to students & teachers, which is as a system of rewards and punishment. It isn’t just vindictive teachers who buy into this framing: it’s also behind the anxiety that comes with giving a student a low grade. To be clear, I don’t think it is misguided: it comes from a genuine recognition of the impact a grade could have on the student. But it is also, to my mind, fundamentally incompatible with the functions of evaluation & feedback.Report

Mouse
1 month ago

This is great! I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it is so nice to see that other people are thinking about it too and expressing so many deep and constructive thoughts. Two quick thoughts from my experience.

First, one reason I worry about fairness is that I do not feel competent to assess and grade creative projects. So, I usually just assign “A”s for everyone. I just do not feel confident to assign a grade to a poem or some artwork, for example. I usually focus on the effort rather than the final product in my assessment, but this is exactly why I worry about fairness. I do not know how much effort one puts in those creative projects. In the past, one student used violin music to show the Daoist spirit–I do not know how much effort they put in this. They were a really good musician, and they *might* just play without thinking much. Similarly for poems, especially some short ones.

Second, my experience was that students were *really* good at those creative projects. Although I am not confident in evaluating them, I was impressed each time I assigned work like this. It was truly eye-opening. However, my students’ reading and analyzing skills were not good (and I feel that they are declining in recent years). So, I want my students to learning something that they were not good at from my classes.Report

Immodest Mouse
Reply to  Mouse
1 month ago

I can understand the concern about assessment. When I do this, I give students the option to either do a traditional written or video essay on a set of stock prompts *OR* give them the option to do anything they want. A condition on creative projects is that students also meet with me and come ready with an assessment plan (i.e., “How do you think this project should be graded?”).

Usually, students propose things that aren’t too different from traditional philosophical work (i.e., they might interview their friends or parents on some metaphysical questions or conduct a small study that mimics or relates clearly to course content). On the occassion that a student proposes artistic or abstract projects (usually at least a few each term) I tell them that I’m not qualified to assess the artistic merit of their project and that my assessment will, instead, focus on an explanatory text (informally written and no longer than 500-800 words) that walks me through the project and explains to me, in colloquial terms, how it relates to our course material. For example, an interpretive dance (of which I’ve had several) may be structured to have specific phases connecting to stages of human and post-human/transhuman movements connecting it to a reading they do on Bostrom, a short computer game may connect directly to questions about personal identity (through questions about character spawning) and so on and so on.

I love that stuff and agree with OP that students tend to better remember what they do and the specific course material that they choose to connect with (I’m ambivalent about knowledge transfer). I do think it’s important, as Jason says somewhere in the comments, to explain WHY we offer the creative option. I normally do that by asking students why professors have them take final exams or write final papers. What is the point of doing that? Students usually catch on quick that the purpose is to demosntrate some kind of content or skill competence and so that naturally leads to a discussion of *other* ways that you might demonstrate the same thing.Report

Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Much of modern grading arose around during the creation of systems of standardized certifications, designed for employers to quickly sort through pools of potential employees.

Right — and that’s a perfectly legitimate aim, and the main reason our students, their parents and the government pay vast amounts of money to colleges and universities, making our jobs possible, is that they trust us to ensure that those grades mean what we say they mean.

If we all were to ignore this and just decide to give every single student an automatic A+, we’d find ourselves out of work very quickly. The people who do give out high grades to everyone as a matter of practice are free riders who corrode the system: they reap the benefits of happy students (until those same students find that their grades bear no correlation to the skills they needed to develop for the outside world, but at that point they’re long gone) and great reviews, and they raise the wrong kinds of expectations for low standards for all the rest of us.

We owe it to our students to teach them well. But the fairness of the grades we give are owed to future employers and other third parties and, ultimately, our peers who also depend on the trustworthiness of grades. So I think the question that is often asked rhetorically — “Does insisting on a fair grade here really help the student?” — misses the point. We don’t owe the highest possible grade to a student, but we do owe the fairest possible grade to quite a number of third parties.Report

Max DuBoff
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I don’t think I understand your argument, Justin. Here are two possible claims:
1) There are better consequences for the profession of philosophy teachers if employers and other third parties feel like grades are fair and express a useful evaluation of student quality.
2) Philosophy teachers owe it to employers and other third parties to provide fair grades and useful evaluations of student quality.

It’s not clear to me why 2) would be true, since philosophy teachers don’t tend to have any relationship with employers or relevant third parties. But, they do have a relevant relationship with the university that hired them, if providing fair/evaluative grades is a condition of their employment.

1) might be true, but as I’ve framed it it’s a constraint on teaching, not a value for the instructor in the classroom.

Are you making one or both of these claims, or different claim(s)?

I’m skeptical that we should promote a system where employers rely on grades, except if we have to. But also, I could totally be convinced–especially because eliminating grades can be harmful for students who are not otherwise professionally well-connected.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Max DuBoff
1 month ago

Max! Good to see you here: hope you’re doing well.

Perhaps an analogy would help: suppose I am employed by Acme Assessments, Inc., which various pharmaceutical companies hire to provide an appraisal of the safety of their medicine. Once we make the appraisals, the companies who employ Acme post our reviews on their website, with links to Acme’s own website. In countries whose governments are less than careful in their consumer protections, our appraisals are often taken quite seriously by many medical patients and even some doctors and nurses.

Suppose also that the drug companies who employ Acme bribe appraisers like me very openly, offering and then giving me a briefcase full of money for every positive report I file. I am tempted by the money and see that Acme fosters a culture of corruption, and that my employers all the way to the top openly joke about bribes and even tease the people who don’t accept them, laughing at them for their moral purity. I reflect that my employer has no objection to my taking the bribes, and that those who employ the company I work for also feel fine about it. As for the end users who take our bogus appraisers seriously, I tell myself that I don’t owe them anything, including the truth, since they are third parties at some distance from the employer/employee relationship I find myself in.

Does that not strike you as wrong? True, these third parties are not my employers or customers. But they can be deceived to bad effect if they trust my corrupted assessments, and a further result — the collapse of trust in Acme Assessments — is harmful to my employer even if my employer doesn’t recognize or care about it.

Perhaps the point you’re making is a technical one about the exact locus of the obligation to be honest, but I don’t yet see how it can be at issue that some such obligation exists and that it implies that people who accept the bribes are failing in their moral obligations.

Those who abandon academic standards and give out high grades that bear no relation to the work submitted are also accepting bribes, it seems to me: they’re being bought off by their students, only for something cheaper than a briefcase full of money. The students bribe them with high student evaluations and the positive feelings that come from seeing all one’s students delighted with even undeserved grades.Report

Max DuBoff
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Hi Justin, indeed, yep, doing well!

This is a helpful example, thanks. My first thought in response is that in your example there’s a clear harm to the bribed assessments: consumers could get hurt. I’m skeptical that there’s meaningful harm if employers get skewed results, partly because it’s not clear what grades are supposed to measure in the first place, and partly because I have moral qualms about hiring processes and some of the private sector. (Relevantly, I teach at an Ivy where 40% of undergrads work in consulting after graduation and others go into finance or similar.) In any case, it’s likely more relevant to an employer whether a student works hard than whether they understand philosophy, so would caring about employers give us reason to assign grades mostly based on effort?Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

First, how often do employers check potential employee transcripts? I’m curious if anybody has any data on this.

Second, GPA can be misleading when you’re applying for a job that’ll train you anyway. Many grades in art class, philosophy, literature, economics, etc. may be irrelevant to the job description. If employers think high grades from irrelevant classes imply that the student will be competent in the job, they are making false inferences and myths about professional competence in general.Report

M. Kaplowitz
M. Kaplowitz
Reply to  Redundant
30 days ago

Personally, I doubt that many employers know how to read transcripts. In the vast majority of cases, I presume that they are simply looking to verify whether the student completed a course of study/earned a degree and, perhaps, with what overall GPA.
When employers are looking at specific grades, however, there is no reason to believe that they are making false inferences about the transferability of competence or skill from domain to domain. A more likely inference is that students with higher grades possess the motivation to do whatever is necessary to impress their supervisors. The specific content of the courses is thus irrelevant to employers, but the outcome measured by grades is highly relevant to the workplace. In addition, and contra DuBoff’s intimation, employers would not be interested in effort per se because effort is a means not an end and efforts that do not achieve their ends are simply wasting resources, nor should they be interested primarily in the extent of a student’s growth (what Nguyen described as “signaling.”) For most employers, grades can only be a measure of motivation to and success at impressing a professor. Therefore, it is our duty, as the professors doing the educating and the grading, to apply the standards of our profession to determine what student work we will consider impressive, capable, minimally acceptable, or unsuccessful.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

A fascinating post! I agree that fairness is often at odds with our educational goals and that this is an important problem. Having said that, I’m trying to imagine telling my students that I’m sacrificing some fairness in grading them. I think that a significant proportion would protest that they have a right to be graded as fairly as possible. As professional philosophers, when our own work is evaluated, I think that most of us would want it to be evaluated very fairly.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

If you just asked me whether I’d rather have someone evaluate my work fairly or unfairly, I’d say that I prefer to be evaluated fairly. But that’s because in this formulation of the question, I naturally assume that all else is equal. And yet it never is.

If there’s some award being given in the field, it may be “fairer” to grant the award to whoever published the most papers in the past five years than to get a committee of three idiosyncratic individuals to have a discussion where they choose the person whose work they find the most interesting. But there’s a great case for the latter over the former, even though it’s almost certainly less “fair”. (I say “almost certainly” because there’s surely going to be all sorts of debate about whether publishing is a “fair” metric and whether maybe a committee could in fact be “fair” with their subjective judgments. But that whole debate could be recapitulated in every context where some administrative process says that something shouldn’t be done because it is “unfair”.)Report

Ted Teach
1 month ago

The easier it is to pass university courses without having to demonstrate effort, actual learning and certain kinds of competence, the more that the job market benefits of a degree are determined by who got into university in the first place rather than what students actually did or learned. This in turn means that the students with unjust advantages helping them get in are having those advantages compounded. Disadvantaged students who get in and would otherwise score highly have their ability to differentiate themselves undermined greatly by educators who rally against consistent and fair standards. So so much of how advantages operate is because observers cannot reliably differentiate honest from dishonest signallers so they fall back on proxy variables like race or institutional prestige. It boggles my mind how many people here argue constantly for the need to help disadvantaged students on the one hand and then completely dismiss the idea that they contributing as soon as it comes to something that flatters their prejudices. If you think that students are sensitive to the mere names of authors on syllabi, or stereotypes about philosophers, signalling whehter they belong in this degree, you should really think that employers can only be even more sensitive to how well a degree and transcript signals this applicant belongs in this workplace.Report

Redundant
Redundant
1 month ago

A bit irrelevant, but the fact that college professors are still anxious about giving students a grade and a good education shows just how much of a bad education students received in primary schooling. My English professor once said, “They tell you to go to college because high school already sucks.” There is some truth to that claim.

College, after all, is free from extreme bureaucracy compared to primary schools. Professors are freer from micromanagement and class disruptions are minimal since students are more mature. But still, many college professors are still scrambling to pick up what students are lacking from 1st-12th grade. The tension, anxiety, and frustration of college professors regarding teaching and grading is part of a larger interconnected issue of bad educational systems in the US.Report

Graham Clay
Graham Clay
Reply to  Redundant
1 month ago

While I don’t deny the issues the US K12 educational system faces (including that many students arrive at universities unprepared), I would like to point out that it’s not at all clear whether university professors are better educators or that their environment is better suited for learning in virtue of the lack of “micromanagement.” The lack of pedagogical training, standards, oversight, etc at the university level—even of the most basic variety—is effectively the opposite problem to the “extreme bureaucracy” problem you mention. The scale and seriousness of this problem is observable by anyone at a university, but there is also a variety of books on the topic, like The Amateur Hour by Zimmerman.Report

Redundant
Redundant
Reply to  Graham Clay
1 month ago

I never claimed that professors are overall better. That would be require research. But I do acknowledge the *many* are better.

I grew up poor and went to inner city schools. Most of my teachers just made us copy what’s on the board all quiet. No discussions, no lectures, no demonstrations, no questions that stimulated reflection, no feedback. In fact, consistently, the only teachers that I felt taught me year after year were my math and art teachers. I suppose in those classes demonstration is necessary. While in most, you just could copy the board and memorize things on your own.Report

Louis
1 month ago

Very interesting ideas here. Creative self-designed assignments for students might work for some courses at some institutions, e.g., art schools or Great Books programs. It might also work in a FYS course. I love that and I’ve done something along those lines teaching a Great Books style course myself. For the most part, though, I take a different approach in straight philosophy courses. I’ve found that most students at more traditional institutions really want to get precise instructions so they know exactly what they need to do, especially in an unfamiliar subject such as philosophy. For lower level students, fixing the topic, permitted sources, and even the paper structure creates a level playing field that facilitates grading fairly and also minimizes student anxiety. Making students come up with their own topic, bibliography, and even genre would create tremendous anxiety in some. I’d rather my students spend their time thinking about the philosophical arguments rather than worrying about finding a topic or whether some information they’ve found will count as a good source, much less trying to figure out whether and how to make a film, pottery piece, or interpretive dance. If you happen to teach at an art school or you are designing your own FYS, then, by all means, have at it!Report

ori
ori
1 month ago

“[..] how the hell was I supposed to grade this stuff fairly? […] how in god’s name could I issue meaningful grades to an animated movie, a critical paper, and a film script?”

This seems to presuppose a lot. I’m not saying that the presuppositions are not warranted, just that they are not at all clear to me.

If your best judgement says that the best way to help your students learn, grow and flourish is to let them choose their own projects, and you grade those projects according to your best judgements, then why wouldn’t it be a fair path to follow?

And what is the problem about meaningful grades to these projects? Again, why is your best judgement not meaningful enough, especially if your students think it is?Report

Mireya
Reply to  ori
1 month ago

Yes we’ll saidReport

Grad Student
1 month ago

Hilarious/sad observation and wonderful Usher reference. Great job.

“Along similar lines: lately, I keep seeing teachers march in the streets against the tyranny of the cops, and then, in their own classrooms, go full cop. ACAB in the streets; cop between the sheets.”Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Grad Student
Mireya
Reply to  Grad Student
1 month ago

Oh wow good call. I am a guest teacher and love going in and having the flexibility to to learn from my students. I do go into long term at times but it’s so surprising when children can express themselves freelyReport

Mireya
1 month ago

What a great post! I’m a guest teacher and I stand by teaching in that the real teachers are my students. Students in my district don’t learn the real stuff like communication, money, art…Report

Richard Barbieri
1 month ago

I was interested in this piece until I came upon Thi’s statement that he could not evaluate these products with “perfect fairness.” I don’t think that in several decades of teaching I ever dreamed of achieving perfect fairness. What would that term mean? Grading each student against some Platonic ideal? Grading each student perfectly in relation to all the other students? Last year I read Daniel Kahnemann and his colleague’s book “Noise,” which demonstrates with extensive data that “noise,” or irrelevant factors, blurs the accuracy of innumerable activities, from judicial sentencing to umpires’ calling of balls and strikes. Among other points it makes is that the same person will evaluate the same items differently on different days, that individuals and groups vary in their judgments depending on the time of day, and the tendency to self-correct by noticing they have given certain marks often and adjusting their standards to level the results of their work. (We’ve all seen this at work, for example, when an umpire makes a close call in favor of the pitcher and then makes the next call in favor of the batter to compensate for his doubts about his first call. One of the strongest points Kahnemann makes is that algorithms consistently outperform human beings in many arenas. I think a large degree of humility is essential to evaluating any production as complex as an essay, or the product of an arts class. Humor helps too. I recall a British teacher I knew who returned a paper with a grade of 11. The student asks “Eleven out of what?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know, it just seems like an 11 to me.”Report

Platypus
1 month ago

This may be too late to matter, but FWIW, I think this post belongs in the Daily Nous hall of fame. Thanks, Thi. Great insights.Report