August 15, 2011

Grade Inflation

three days of the condor.jpg
speculate on the use of a Tardis

Today we're going to talk about the causes of grade inflation.  "Wait, is this going to be on the test?"

You're a professor and you grade the paper a C.  The next day Type A Personality Only Child comes up on you, "how is this a C?  I answered the question correctly, didn't I?" Yes, but you write like a nine year old, 80% of this is the syntactical equivalent of "umm" and "ahhh", and many of your sentences are minimally altered passages right from Wikipedia.  "But this is a history class.  Why are you grading my writing style?"

There's really no good way for a professor to respond to this nut.  The depth of his stupidity precludes any explanation from being meaningful; he will not be able to understand that the writing is a reflection of the rigor of the ideas which is a reflection of the knowledge of the material and etc.  So you give him an A and head to a strip bar.  I sympathize.

Two explanations are commonly offered for grade inflation-- and let me clarify that the grade inflation people complain about is the kind that happens in the introductory survey courses.  No one worries about grade inflation in the 400 level thermodynamics class.  1. Universities don't incentivize teaching, they incentivize research, so the teaching suffers. 2. Students are drunken idiots.   While both have merit, let's see if there isn't another explanation that shrewdly protects the unconscious of most of the players..


Here's a nice graph:

grade inflation.jpgThe only surprising thing to me about this graph is nothing.  Since no one over 90 is reading this, let's focus on 1986.  What happened in 1986 that changed the grading trend?

Generation X went to college, that's what.  Coincidentally, psychological researchers Twenge et al found that that was the year narcissism on campus began to rise:

narcissism college.gifAnd by "coincidentally" I mean "not coincidentally."  It's hard to tell a growing population of narcissists that their schoolwork blows, so you don't: A.  Makes sense.

Most people stop their analysis right there, but you should really go the extra three steps and not just pee in the sink: now those students are 40.  They grew up to be the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History of the World, so narcissistic that not only are they dumb, but they do not know how dumb they are and cannot be told how dumb they are.  They are aware that there are things they don't know, but they are certain that they have at least heard of everything that's worth knowing.  Whenever the upper management guys at Chronicle Of Higher Education or The National Review pretend to disagree about the "classics" or "Great Books" or the "value of a liberal education," after five minutes it becomes clear that even they haven't read all those books, or most of them, or even a respectable minority, or three.  They've read about them, ok, that's what America does, but when you finally pin them down and they admit they haven't read it-- which would be fine-- their final response is of the form "there's no point in reading Confessions now since we've all moved beyond that."  Oh.   And those are supposed to be the smart ones; everyone else in the generation thinks that the speed at which they can repeat the words they heard on TV or read on some magazine's website is evidence of their understanding.


Which brings me to the main point, the other cause of grade inflation that no one ever talks about: in order for a grade to be inflated, a professor has to inflate it.  In other words, grade inflation isn't the student's fault, it is the professor's fault.  A kid can complain and whine/wine all he wants, but unless that professor buckles, there's no grade inflation.  So the starting point has to be: why does a professor inflate a grade?

Yikes.  Now that shudder you're feeling is not only why you never thought it, but how it is possible no one else ever brought it up?  The answer is: every discussion about grade inflation has been dominated by educators.

The "college is a scam" train is one on which I'm all aboard, but that doesn't mean each individual professor has to be scamming students; there's no reason why he can't do a good job and teach his students something that they aren't going to get simply by reading the text.  If a student can skip class and still ace the class, the kid is either very bright or the professor is utterly useless.  Right?   Either way, the kid's wasting his money.

And I know every generation thinks the one coming up after it is weaker and stupider, that's normal. But  why would a professor who thinks college kids are dumb turn around and reward the King Of Beers with an A?

The answer is right in the chart and in a book by Allan Bloom that most college professors have read about.  When that professor who was 40 in1986 was back in college in 1966, he was part of a culture that believed there are no "wrong answers, only wrong questions", like "you really think we should we stop shaving?" or "should we listen to something other than CCR?"  And meanwhile the rate of As doubled.  So now you have to put up your money: if you believe that grade inflation at that time masks/causes a real shallowness of intellect and education, then those students, now professors, simply aren't as smart as they think they are.  Unless you also believe that bad 60s music and even worse pot somehow augmented their intellect.

And if you accept my thesis that narcissism prevents insight because it is urgently and vigorously self-protecting, then these same professors are not aware of their deficits.  They think they know the material they are teaching simply because they are teaching it.

The problem is they are grading your papers and they do not know how to value a paper.  Of course they can tell an A+ essay and they can tell an F- essay, but they are pretty foggy on everything in between. But they do not realize they are foggy.  They think the problem is "the students complain."  So they judge essays in comparison to others in the class or they fall back on the usual heuristics: page length, sentence complexity, and  "looks like you put a lot of work into it."

And worse-- much worse, given that they are supposed to be educators-- they have no idea how to take a so-so student and make him better; what, specifically, they should get him to do, because they themselves were similarly mediocre students who got inflated As.  Do you think they got their A in freshman analytic philosophy and said to themselves, "Jesus, I know I really didn't deserve this A, I better go back and try and relearn all this stuff."  No: they went ahead and got jobs in academia, so that when a student comes to them asking, "how can I do better?" they can respond,  "You need to apply yourself."  Idiot.  The system is broken.  You broke it.


Here's an example. Say your essay question is, "describe the causes of the American Civil War."  Ok, so far everything the kid knows he learned from Prentice Hall, but something inside him thinks the answer is: LABOR COSTS.  Hmmm.  Insightful and unexpected, let's see what he does with it.

But there's not much he can do with it, there aren't many obvious resources to pursue this "feeling" he has.  He does what he can.  It's not that good.  C.  Grade inflation gives him a B.

Meanwhile, Balboa the el ed major searches carefully in his textbook and discovers the cause was... SLAVERY.  He airlifts two sentences each out of five other books, asks for an extension because his grandmother died, adds nine hundred filler words including "for all intensive purposes" and "he could care less", and then waits in the parking lot to threaten you with "but this is a history class.  Why are you grading my writing style?"  He gets an A.

The problem is that the first kid is strongly disincentivized from pursuing his idea, from becoming a better thinker, in very specific ways. 

First, and obviously, since the majority of the students are going to get an A, he just has to do just as well/horrifically as the average student, and if they're all writing about slavery with the enthusiasm of a photocopier then if he wants an A he better buckle down and learn the truly useful skill of masking the words of a Wikipedia page. 

Second, he is very nervous about offering a professor anything that he didn't hear the professor explicitly mention, let alone endorse. What if it's "wrong?"
Third, because grading an essay is subjective, all professors try to make it objective by attributing value to measurable quantities which are actually stupid.  For example: in most undergrad classes, the bibliography counts for 5%, maybe even 10%.  How you (that's right, I said "how you") going to pad a bibliography with six sources when you can't even find one to support your thesis?  So the pursuit of an interesting thesis is blocked by the 5% of the grade that comes from something that should count for exactly -20% of your grade, i.e. if you have a bibliography, you're a jerk.(1)  This false value has two consequences: it "pads" the grade (e.g. the student already starts with an easy +5-30%) so it is easier for him to get an A.  But more importantly, it is now easy for the professor to justify giving him an A.  "His content wasn't that great, but the points added up; and besides: what the hell would I tell him to improve?"

I can't emphasize that last part enough-- the cause of the ridiculous grading is not the complaining of students but the convenience of the professor.

This is why if you are in a class and you feel the need to ask, "how many pages does this have to be?" and rather than look at you like you just just sneezed herpes on his face he instead has a ready answer, you are wasting your money.  I get that you need the degree, I understand the system, but you're wasting your money nevertheless.


Take a quick scan of what these academics consider the highest level of academic scholarship: read their own journals.  Here are the first three paragraphs of the first article ("Terrorism and The American Experience: A State Of The Field") in the temporally coincident  month's Journal of American History, and I expect you to read none of them:

In 1970, just months before his death, the historian Richard Hofstadter called on U.S. historians to engage the subject of violence. For a generation, he wrote, the profession had ignored the issue, assuming that consensus rather than conflict had shaped the American past. By the late 1960s, with assassinations, riots, and violent crime at the forefront of national anxieties, that assumption was no longer tenable. Everywhere, Americans seemed to be thinking and talking about violence, except within the historical profession. Hofstadter urged historians to remedy their "inattention" and construct a history of violence that would speak to both the present and the past.1

Over the last four decades, the historical profession has responded to that challenge. Studies of racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory make up some of the most esteemed books of the past generation. Yet on the subject of "terrorism," the form of violence that currently dominates American political discourse, historians have had comparatively little to say. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, a handful of conferences have addressed historical aspects of terrorism, from its nineteenth-century origins to its impact on state building and national identity. Scholarly journals (including the Journal of American History) have devoted the occasional special issue to examining terrorism's roots and present-day implications. Within the historical profession, several book-length works have taken up episodes of terrorism, examining the production of both violence and state repression. Social scientists and journalists have offered sweeping global histories, tracing the problem of terrorism from antiquity to the present.2

As a result, we have a better understanding of terrorism's history than we did a decade ago, but it would be hard to classify this surge of work as a flourishing subfield or even a coherent historiography. Almost a decade out from 9/11, most U.S. historians remain hard-pressed to explain what terrorism is, how and when it began, or what its impact has been. There is little consensus about how best to approach the subject or even whether to address it at all. This is partly because the issue poses knotty political questions: How do we talk about terrorism without reinforcing the "war on terror" or lapsing into hopeless presentism? It also brings serious methodological problems: Is terrorism a word to be traced through centuries of semantic permutation? Is it an epithet to be applied to forms of violence we do not like? Is it a concept to be defined, however loosely, and followed through time?

Like any project that takes its cue from current affairs, constructing a historiography of terrorism requires caution and a light touch...

If a student wrote this I'd punch him in the bladder and get a good defense lawyer, assault charges be damned.  I've deliberately avoided the easy targets like the po-mo journals; this is "the leading scholarly publication and the journal of record in the field of American history" and the author  goes on like this for 20 pages.   Can you trust this professor to grade an undergrad paper?  The first two paragraphs are filler, meaningless noise in the guise of a sophisticated introduction. Maybe she can tell an A+ and she can tell an F-, I have no idea, but is she in any position to know a C from a B?  And help you improve?  Do you want to write like her?  If you had questions about the history of terrorism, or terrorism, or history, would you call her?

I picked her because she was at random, but the same forces apply ubiquitously: academic journals are long, boring, poorly written academic-ese that no one reads because whatever insights or information they possess are buried in...the syntactical equivalent of "umms" and "ahhs."  Even those who theoretically need journals to do their jobs every day (e.g. lawyers and doctors) avoid them.

Apart from boycotting any classes taught by these people I don't know what the solution is.  Some professors cleverly include a "class participation" grade, and these professors pride themselves on using "the Socratic method."  Sigh.  Asking random students random questions is not the Socratic method, it's annoying,  In order for it to be a true Socratic method, the professor would have to ask the student to state a thesis, get him to agree to a number of assumptions, and then masterfully show, through dialogue, how that agreement undermined his own thesis.  In other words, the professor would have to have considerable fluency with his topic and be interested in each individual student, as an individual.  Good luck with that. (2)


If you reconsider grade inflation not as a function of the quality of the output but rather as the result of a hesitating lack of confidence about what constitutes good quality-- and again, I'm talking not about A+ and F- but the differences between the B and C levels where most "good" students are; and accept that, simply as a numerical reality, these "average" students are then the ones who (likely with the assistance of grade inflation) go on to become future academics, then a number of phenomena suddenly make a lot of sense. And the most important one is the one that students have long suspected but never dared say out loud: professors do not know the material they are teaching, but they think they do.
An American History professor may be considered somewhat of an expert because he's been teaching the Civil War for the past 15 years, but he's only been repeating what he knew 15 years ago for 15 years.  And every year he forgets a little.   How carefully is he keeping up with it-- especially if his "research interests" happen to lie elsewhere? 

I know doctors who have been giving the same receptor pharmacology lectures to students for a decade.  I know they are narcissists, not just because they are too apathetic to keep up with the field, but because it never occurred to them that receptor pharmacology might have advanced in ten years.  They believe that what they knew ten years ago is enough.  They are bigger than the science.  These aren't just some lazy doctors in community practice, these are Ivy League physicians responsible for educating new doctors with new information.  Yet the Power Point slides say 2001.  "Well, I'm just teaching them the basics."  How do you know those are still the basics?  Who did you ask?

You think you philosophy professor re-reads Kant every year? The last time he did was in graduate school-- when his brain was made of graduate student and beer.  Think about this.  Hecko, has he even lately read about Kant?  Do you think he tries, just to stay sharp, to take a current event and see what Kant might say about it? No, same notes on a yellow legal pad from Reagan II.  Does he "know" Kant because he's been "teaching Kant" for 20 years?  When in his life is he "challenged" by someone else who "knows" Kant?  Seriously, think about this.  For two decades the hardest questions he's been asked come from students, and he's been able to handle them like a Jedi.  How could he not think of himself as an expert?

The sclerosis of imagination and intellect that inevitably happens over time will make it impossible for him to grade a paper that does not conform to his expectations.  I don't mean it agrees with the professor, I mean his expectations of what a good paper looks like.  Students already have a phrase for this: "What he likes to see in the paper is..."

So when it comes time to write a paper about Kant, it is infinitely less important that he understand Kant then it is for him to understand what the professor thinks is important about Kant-- and it is way easier to get through college this way.  And if you have the misfortune of being taught Kant by a guy whose "research interests" are not Kant, forget it.  You're getting an A, and he hates you.


This stuff matters, it has real consequences.  When one narcissistic generation sets up the pieces for the next generation, and you put the rooks in the middle and leave out the bishops and hide one of the knights, and then you tell the kids that they lack the intelligence or concentration to really learn chess, you have to figure they're not going to want to pay for your Social Security.  Just a thought.

Also: TAs are helping grade some of the papers, and some is worse than all.  In order to ensure grading consistency, the essay answer has to be structured in a format that facilitates grading-- because if the professor can't value a B form a C, how can a TA?  So the answer must mirror the six points in the textbook or the four things mentioned in class.  This, again, means you shouldn't spend any time learning, you should spend it gaming the essay.    So if the essay question is, "Discuss some of the causes of the Iraq War" you can be dead sure that "some" means specifically the ones the professor thinks are important.  There may be others, but you're taking a big risk mentioning them. The TAs are just scanning for keywords.  As long as they're in there, even in grammatically impossible constructions, you win.  A. (3)


Here's one solution: abandon grades.

"But we have to have some way of objectively evaluating students!"

Haven't you been listening?  You can't just suck the Red Pill like a Jolly Rancher, you have to swallow it.  Grades aren't objectively measuring people, the whole thing is a farce.  The grades are meaningless.  Not only do they not measure anything, but the manner in which they are inflated precludes real learning.  Stop it.

"Some grades aren't inflated."  But how would anyone on the outside know? Can you tell them apart?  The long term result will be: bad money drives out good money.

"Well, I earned my As."  No you didn't, that's the point.  I'm not saying you're not smart or didn't work hard, I'm saying you have no idea how good or bad you are,  you only think you do.

"Just pass/fail?  But how will employers know a good student from a bad student?"  Again, you are avoiding the terrible, awful truth because it is too terrible and too awful: when  employers look at a GPA, they don't know anything.  The 3.5 they are looking at is information bias, it not only contains no information, it deludes you into thinking you possess information. You can't erase that 3.7 from your mind.   In what classes, in what levels, against what curve?  Just because employers do it doesn't mean it's useful.  They use sexual harassment videos, too.

Grades do not only offer incorrect evaluations of a student's knowledge, they perpetuate the fiction that professors are able to evaluate.  They can't.  Again, they may be able to tell an A+ and an F-, but a B+ from a B?  Really?  That's the level of their precision? But a professor cannot ever admit that he doesn't have that precision, because it cannot enter his consciousness that he doesn't.  "I've been teaching this class for 15 years."   And I'm sure it gets easier every year.


Speaking of Iraq: on the eve of the Iraq War many Americans got together to demonstrate.  I'm not in the protest demographic, the only way I'm going to be at a march is if there's alcohol, but I accept the fact that a protest is sometimes the only way to be heard and the last resort against a government that has forsaken you.  I get it.  Ok.  So I'm watching the protests on TV, and a lot of people quite obviously don't want to go to war, and want it stopped at all costs.  And I see a group of people with signs walking behind a long banner, and the signs and the banner say, basically, "UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS AGAINST THE WAR."

I've no doubt that there wasn't a little bit of the old Vietnam nostalgia there, but what made me furious was the signs.  They actually believed that identifying themselves as university professors was helping the cause?  Did they think Americans were going to slap their foreheads, "wow, educated people are against the war, maybe I gots to rethinks this?"  Yes, that is exactly what they thought.

They could not see that they were sabotaging their own cause, that anyone ambivalent about Iraq would either not think anything or be blinded by white rage, "look at these mother--" and vote for Bush six more times.  These professors were coming from such a profoundly  narcissistic stance that they didn't see this, or they didn't care.  They may have wanted to stop the war, but what was much, much, much, much, much more important was to be identified as against the war, even if by doing that they were causing other people to support the war.

Here's what TV didn't show: the next day, those professors went to their classes, taught a bunch of anxious, restless but bored students stuff that they really had no business teaching, and later asked them to write essays that could be graded essentially as multiple choice questions so that they wouldn't really have to read them.  If these professors didn't realize or care that that they were violating their own principles about war merely to self-identify, do you think they care about you?  They have much bigger things to worry about.  A.

1.  Bibliography, as distinct from references.  Anyone who produces a Bibliography without specific references as some sort of support of the truth of their idiocy is on notice.  I'm talking to you, DSM.

2. An interesting educational experiment would be to come at things form a negative perspective.  "Look, class, Hegel was a complete jerk, and his ideas were infantile pseudo-buddhism garbage.  I'll give 50 points and a candy bar to anyone who can explain to me why."  And see if that doesn't inspire the student to want to understand what Hegel was trying to say.  I don't know if this will work.  I know that a disengaged professor saying that Hegel is a great German philosopher and then reading lecture notes written back in 1986 on a yellow legal pad very clearly doesn't work.

3. Here's an essay I'd love to read, hell, love to write:  "There are numerous "established" causes of the Iraq War, yet they almost always cite reasons that occurred after 1990.  Please watch the 1975 film Three Days of The Condor.  Other than a Tardis, what explanations could there be for director Sydney Pollack's ability to predict the future with such accuracy?  Please discuss some of the events of the late 1960s to early 1970s that made the finale's prediction possible."


Also: Here is precisely one of these professors


It's just--well. It sucks.... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:00 AM | Posted by thestage: | Reply

It's just--well. It sucks.

I'm a student. I graduate in one semester. I will graduate with a 4.0 because I quickly discovered that it was impossible for me to not graduate with a 4.0. And I'm not alone in that--over 5% of my graduating class (at a very terrible school) will join me. That's a huge number, really. A ridiculous number. But it isn't just that. Professors single me out. I'm not just a 4.0 student: I'm the best student. I'm the guy. I'm the one they pin their hopes on, I'm the guy that is the best student they've ever had, I'm the guy that "the other students (that care) look up to." I'm the one that should be a professor. And, uhhh--I'm not a great student. I'm just not. I'm above average. I'm intelligent. Maybe even good. I'm not young (for a student), so I don't act like an idiot. I care about my education. But I'm irrevocably lazy and prone to poor scholarship. I value education, but most of my time is spent finding ways to not kill myself before it's time to go to bed again.

But here I am, 4.0 and the Hope of the Future.

When I was in high school, I almost didn't graduate. I was in the bottom 5% of my class. There were two reasons for this: I was incredibly lazy; and: the whole education system is so irrevocably bankrupt and depressing that I couldn't handle facing it. The only difference between that student and this one is I'm now old enough to be a little desperate in the face of mortality. Apparently that's enough for a parade. I feel like there are forces actively pushing us to waste our lives and be proud of it. And every time I do something right, I weigh myself against history and think: I can never add up, because the intellectuals of 60, 100, 200 years ago weren't spending their lives clicking refresh on computer monitors until they passed out. I recently read an interview with William Faulkner from something like 1957 that discussed Abaslom, Absalom!. It wasn't until the end of the interview that I read that all the questions were asked by undergrads at the end of a guest lecture he did. I read that and I thought: what the fuck, these are questions that most professors today would not be capable of asking, much less under-fucking-graduates. This was not very long ago.

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Generally agree with this. ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:10 AM | Posted by JMiller: | Reply

Generally agree with this. Frankly I suspect it happens more and earlier in public (high) schools with state standardized curriculum, teachers specialized in Teaching rather than in teaching a Subject, and ~150 essays to grade with the worst ones necessarily taking the most time and attention. And that impacts most kids, not the universitified minority who increasingly consider themselves customers, not students, of the university... because that's the relationship created when you give somebody money to provide a service, right? (Note: this shouldn't be read as disparaging to teachers; I am mystified and humbled by -- and utterly not envious of -- anybody willing and capable to put up with that much crap year after year.)

But what surprises me is that the analysis doesn't track back to the 1968 spike where the grade inflation really spiked... keeping kids in college and out of the draft would be my speculative guess at it. And that's the first generation that thinks they're more clever than the one that came before because they've figured out how to not try to blow people up and gotten good grades doing it, regardless of how featherbrained their thinking actually is.

(Speaking of featherbrained thinking, I really need to eat some dinner...)

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Nailed it. The few classes ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:19 AM | Posted by Sean: | Reply

Nailed it. The few classes I've taken where I could write a paper and be graded accurately on the coherency of my own argument, instead of having to vomit key words, were taught by professors such as one I'd see sitting on a bench afternoons reading a tattered copy of Faust and jotting down new notes, despite having taught the same course for a decade.

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The Air Force gives reviews... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:23 AM | Posted by Sevesteen: | Reply

The Air Force gives reviews on a 1 to 5 scale and then calculates a weighted score based on the last few reviews. Max possible score is a 135, average is a 129 representing a 4 and two 5's. If I'm responsible for ratings, what score is fair to an average subordinate?

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In the time I spent at a mi... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:51 AM | Posted by Kai: | Reply

In the time I spent at a middling Canadian University, I had a couple abysmal professors, a number of mediocre ones, and one or two standouts.
The best professor I had by a long shot was teaching a history of political thought. I was by no means qualified to judge his background of knowledge, but it was his style that stood out. In looking to any new author, he first took the position that the man was a genius to be heeded. He made the author's arguments, and did his best to convince the class of whatever was being sold in the work. He tore holes in counter-arguments, and generally did an excellent job of convincing people of whatever the writer was attempting to say.
Then he turned around and declared the writer a quack, and spent a similar time taking apart his works, discrediting the theories, poking holes in the arguments he had previously sold, and generally explaining and inviting explanations for why the works were infantile garbage.
For a change, I came out of that class never quite certain of the professor's own political views, and with a solid look at both sides of each argument, whether or not it seemed to have a clear answer.
I thought it far more effective at actually getting an understanding of the concepts and implications of the teachings (and this was pretty introductory - The Republic, Symposium, Aristotle's Politics, Leviathan, Second Treatise of Government, The Prince, etc.) than a one-way study.

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My favorite story from grad... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 1:00 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

My favorite story from grad school at Penn... The class was "The Films of Alfred Hitchcock". I finished work at 3 and had to wait till 6 for class to begin, so of course I spent those 3 hours at a bar with the local construction workers and over-employed Penn professionals. I watched and discussed films with our "distinguished" panel. The only grades in the class were for a presentation of a paper and the paper itself. I killed the presentation, had the professor asking me questions like we were the only two in the room. Never wrote a paper. Never turned one in. Got a B +. For the semester. Just cause she knew I was oiled up enough to be gregarious and fun in discussions. Thanks, Ivy League, for an amazingly retarted graduate degree...

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"I expect you to read none ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 1:24 AM | Posted by JohnJ: | Reply

"I expect you to read none of them:"

I read it just to prove you wrong.

I had professors in law school that would joke about grading papers by throwing them down the stairs and giving A's to the ones that landed on the first step, B's to the ones that landed on the second step, etc.

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Former TA here. I will now ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 3:06 AM | Posted by Mastiff: | Reply

Former TA here. I will now be having recurring flashbacks of my time in front of students, grading papers based on how imbecilic they weren't and little else.

Every word rings absolutely true to my experience. We are failing our students so badly it makes me rage. Almost as bad, after having read over a thousand scholarly articles, I find that my own writing style has been horribly damaged. Most of the students, meanwhile, do not have a writing style so much as something that looks like output from the Eliza bot.

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well, one of the arguments ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 3:26 AM | Posted, in reply to Mastiff's comment, by thestage: | Reply

well, one of the arguments is that it isn't schools that are failing those students, but administrators, politicians and social circumstances that are failing the students that don't fit into what you are saying by allowing, encouraging, and mandating that the ones that do be herded through college in the first place.

a little of A, a little of B.

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This is so true. I'm a rece... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 7:36 AM | Posted by Liz: | Reply

This is so true. I'm a recent college graduate, and I figured out fairly early on that grade inflation is rampant.

I'm about average in intelligence, but lazy. I think I would have been better off going straight to work after high school (which I drifted through as an A/B student, doing no work) and just reading widely. I needed a degree just to show that I'm average. As it is, whatever work ethic I had has withered. It's not like I needed it.

I spent most of my time in the library anyway, reading whatever was not on my course. I did my papers at the very last moment. I skimmed over class reading. Most of my bibliographies were made up with books I googled and stuck in, and none of the professors and TAs noticed.

And I got As and Bs just by figuring out what the people in power wanted to read. There's somethine depressing about realising that if you disagree with the professor, they will punish you in their grading.

I've graduated and I have no idea how smart I am. I have no idea what I know, what I'm meant to know and just what a liberal education is meant to mean. Now, I'm a grown woman and I'm trying to make that up now while I'm young (like a grown up), but I'm still pretty angry that the supposed elites let everyone get away with so little. Yeah, someone might whine about a grade, but they're the people with the power.

And if I don't know, how can anyone else?

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"Bibliography, as distinct ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 7:39 AM | Posted by Liz: | Reply

"Bibliography, as distinct from references. Anyone who produces a Bibliography without specific references as some sort of support of the truth of their idiocy is on notice."

Really? There are people who allow that? Things are really that bad? My class lied about their references but they never dared *not* give them.

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That "A" curve looks a lot ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 7:41 AM | Posted by Dan Dravot: | Reply

That "A" curve looks a lot like the curve describing the percentage of American kids who were in college in those years. In 1966, the curve starts going nuts because they're evading the draft. By 1986, enough of them have tenure for the thing to really come unglued.

Most of the kids in college don't belong there and most of their professors don't belong there either. Back in the glory days when it was just a mere 80% or so who didn't belong there, the knotheads were rich WASPs who were at least well-bred about vomiting on the quad, and probably not so many of them went into academia themselves.

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Thanks, Alone. This is good... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 9:02 AM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

Thanks, Alone. This is good inspiration as I revise my syllabus for fall. Three years ago I figured out the idea of assignments where I don't know the answers.

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In conclusion, <a href="htt... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 9:26 AM | Posted by CubaLibre: | Reply

In conclusion,

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Depressingly accurate. And ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 9:27 AM | Posted by Methossa: | Reply

Depressingly accurate. And the sad thing is this is what the system, starting in K-12, supports. I remember writing my senior thesis in 12th grade for my AP English class. 10 page piece about value of liberal arts education. I thought it was great writing at the time, but I was also 18. Teacher gives it back with a 92. I ask what's wrong. She says "Well, you didn't follow the argumentative essay template." Right, but what's wrong with it structurally as an argument? How did I do a bad job proving my point? What's wrong with the writing? "Nothing, but the grading rubric says that 8 points of your essay come from this format. Look, you can revise it for half of the points back." Nah, I'm good.

College teachers like to blame the raw material they're starting with, but I had the same experience as most of the above commenters and I was in Computer Science*. A couple teachers that kicked my butt, one who prided himself on only giving 1 A every semester to stand as a bulwark against grade inflation. Some mediocre ones that read the book to you, but if you asked a question, would try to get back to you earnestly. And then about half of them that were just like high school teachers not even bothering to even treat their position like a 9-5.

*Most people say "Well, the hard sciences and engineering haven't been watered down at least." I fully disagree. It's a bit harder to fluff math or a programming assignment, but they'll still happily give you a Gentleman's C.

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I think all of that is more... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:04 AM | Posted by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

I think all of that is more or less right, but misleading, because of what it omits. I do the template thing. Why? Because when I don't, they buy papers off the Internet. I devote less time than I'd like to the mediocre majority. Why? I have a hundred students and ten weeks. I know who to give constructive feedback to the best papers, and for the worst papers, nothing can be done except to send them to the Writing Center for tutoring. Most of the in-between papers, I do the best I can with the limited time I have available, but most of it ends up being grammar and usage correction. I have to choose my battles. I can tell when the student has not made an effort, and that's most of them, and so I spend comparatively little time critiquing thought that didn't happen. It's true that I don't bother with secondary literature to stay fresh because so little of it is any good, I do read my primary text (I only teach from primary texts) almost every time, with one or two exceptions, and I think that it is this, and my honest, often perplexed and confused engagement that gives my classes their reputation for integrity such as it is. I do not know if an assistant professor can get by with bad student evaluations and still make tenure; at the best schools, sure, obviously. Everywhere else? It's hard to say, and that's the point: you can't know enough to know whether you can risk being a good, and hence "bad" teacher, and so you quickly do anything in your power to get strong evaluations. For the pre-tenured (or the adjunct who can be terminated) the uncertainty is terrifying, and objectively so. So why do we continue to give As to real papers, Bs to junk that is in English and Cs to the functionally illiterate AFTER tenure? Force of habit. This is what tenure is really for (I don't know anyone who has used "academic freedom" for the purpose intended): to establish habits that will last a lifetime. They do. So while I appreciate and largely agree with the subtler analysis supra, sometimes the shallower one is the more important: we are put in an up-or-out tenure regime where the odds of career destruction after first tenure denial are pretty good, we are forced to hold popularity contests with our students who desperately need A-/B+ averages to stay in the middle class and are not told what will happen to us if we fail to win them, we are given way too many students, who are so poorly prepared that attempting to actually educate more than about 10% of them is completely futile, and we are human, and hence creatures of habit, and six-plus years is more than enough to create some. Oh, and the narcissism thing, like you said.

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How to grade term papers in... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:24 AM | Posted by Guy Fox: | Reply

How to grade term papers in social sciences/the humanities:
1. Read a paper.
2. Prepare comments on the paper. These should be at least 1 paragraph unless all there is to say is "Wow. I enjoyed reading it and learned something myself. Great work." DO NOT ASSIGN A GRADE YET.
3. Repeat 1-2 until the stack is gone.
4. Pick out the best and worst as the basis for piles A and F.
5. Sort the rest of the papers relative to the extremes.

1. Each student will have feedback about their work and know how to improve it, where necessary.
2. Since each student will be graded relative to her peers, all of whom you've presumably taught, their grades will be relative to the (in)adequacy of YOUR teaching.

1. Takes forever.

If you don't have time for this, then you need to grade with multiple choice, which is a cop out for humanities/social sciences but can work in introductory courses. If the class is just too damn big for this, then the expectations on you might be unreasonable, but this is YOUR problem to solve, not the students' to suffer. If you can't muster the gumption to do it or want to spend the time on your research, then don't teach. Get a job at a think tank or elsewhere. If they won't hire you, then you're probably in the wrong business anyway, in which case you can jump off a bridge or flip burgers.

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My gosh, are you in for a s... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:33 AM | Posted by egoiste: | Reply

My gosh, are you in for a surprise when you write about the narcissism Millenials.

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Three things to keep in min... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:46 AM | Posted by FL: | Reply

Three things to keep in mind:
1. What else was going on in the 80s, 90s and 00s? The increasing percentage of college classes taught by adjuncts, who can be fired with ease (or not re-hired, as they're often on yearly contracts).
2. The strong correlation between expected grade and student evaluation and the even stronger correlation between getting an A and not complaining to the department chair.
3. The way the significance of a grade depends on what other people are doing. (E.g., "begging the question" used to mean one thing; now enough people use it differently so that it has an ambiguous meaning.) What an 'A' signifies depends on patterns of use.
This is a collective action problem, and you're talking about individual graders in isolation.

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"this is YOUR problem to so... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:47 AM | Posted by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

"this is YOUR problem to solve"

Oooh, tough love. It's not as if we don't know *how* to do this. Actually, I *do* solve it: since all the non-weekend days go to re-reading the primary source and thinking about it anew, I can and do this, but only if I take more than one weekend to grade the hundred papers. On occasion, I hand back my comments on the midterm essay exam a few days before the last day of class. Making my classes be small enough to be teachable by my (and your) standards is not a power that has been conferred upon me. I think we could have excellent teaching if we had a semester system, two classes per, and classes capped at 25: one hundred students per year. But I have three times that many, and I know people whose loads are worse. What people want simply cannot be done. You can have professors who think carefully about the material they teach instead of sleepwalking, but then they must give far fewer assignments, or less feedback, or impose unreasonable delays in getting the feedback out. Or you can have professors who sleepwalk but spend more time on the feedback. But here's the thing: I could do it all if the classes were smaller, but I also can't help but notice that the extent to which it is impossible is pretty close to the extent to which the students are unteachable. So talk to admissions, not to me; two-thirds of my students have no business being in college in the first place, and I was not trained to teach English as a second language to people for whom it is actually their first.

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I don't buy it. Maybe parti... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 10:59 AM | Posted by Herbie: | Reply

I don't buy it. Maybe partially true for humanities but it's never been easy to grade those, even in some pre-sixties age when professors were good and only the elite went to college.

Grade inflation also happens in hard science and I don't think it's because the professors got worse or lazier. The commonly held explanations you start out with are a lot more plausible than yours.

Having said that I still very much enjoyed your attempt to use narcissism to explain grade inflation. A for effort!

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You are seriously reaching ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 11:23 AM | Posted by jake: | Reply

You are seriously reaching with this post, LastPsych. As a testament to your thesis I didn't even finish reading it because like the academic journals you slander wholesale, it was a lot of "ahhhhs" and "ummms" and bullshit sweeping generalizations.

I'll stick to Marc Bousquet and Michael Berube.

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I came across this site on ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 11:42 AM | Posted by JMSmith: | Reply

I came across this site on Sunday, and then spent the better part of Monday exploring your archive. Thanks. You do great work.

I'm writing from deep within the beast, as a professor at a large American public university, and agree with most of what you say. We need to focus on the narcissism of the professors. It's should be obvious, really. Most professors are similar to high school football coaches who, back when they were 18, dreamed of making it to the NFL. The difference is that the professor, back in graduate school, dreamed of being the next Kant or Einstein, and then entered a system designed to shield him from the fact that he wasn't even remotely like Kant, or Einstein, or any other great intellectual. The beauty of sports (I was a "student athlete") is that they crush illusions. High school football coaches usually come to understand that were not all that good; university professors, not so often. In fact, one might say the modern university is designed to preserve illusions (of professors, students, parents, etc.)

Here are four professional experiences that helped me to cut through the b.s. of academia, and of my own false and inflated sense of my own merit and ability.

1) Listening to the lectures and conference presentations of other professors, I recognized errors. I'm sure I didn't spot every error, just enough to know that the speaker was not primarily interested in his subject, but rather in being the kind of person who gives lectures on that subject. I'm not a psychologist, but this fits my lay understanding of narcissism. Discoursing on, say, the causes of WWII was what you would call an "accessory" to their sense of self.

2) Editing an academic journal for many years, I came to see that most referees have nothing useful to say. They either nit pick over typographical errors or write vacuous statements such as "does not cite the relevant literature," or "represents an exciting advance in the field." If they gave an example of missing literature, which they seldom did, they could not explain why it was relevant, and if they specified the advance, they did not explain why it was exciting. This parallels what you say about grades on undergraduate papers.

3) Reading graduate student applications, one soon becomes aware that the normal graduate student is not all that different from a normal undergraduate. There's variations between fields, and a semi-rigorous selection process in graduate programs, but a great many Ph.D.'s are no more intelligent, informed, or curious about the world than ordinary lawyers or business school graduates.

4) Reading the internet made me realize that the world is full of people, apparently with day jobs, who are more interesting and informed than my colleagues I are.

I don't know what to do about the institution. These days I'm working to control the blowhard in the bathroom mirror.

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I was Valedictorian at UC: ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 11:57 AM | Posted by pageantry: | Reply

I was Valedictorian at UC: Santa Cruz with the first class that was required to receive letter grades. I was valedictorian by democracy, because the school decided that (nevertheless) grades did not determine who would give an interesting graduation speech. However, while I was there, all classes continued to require of the professors "narrative evaluations" along with the grade.

UC: Santa Cruz tries very hard to demand more of its students than grade-grubbing. I'll give them that. But that didn't stop it from being a waste of time.

If my experience is evidence, your thesis w/r/t narcissism stands. The problem is, social radicalism (such as the experiment of fostering conscious learning through narrative evaluations) is usually only supported by social liberalism. And since colleges sell to college-aged people, they're selling an affiliation with identity. "Being liberal" is already a nice big Costco-sized bulkrate identity. But because of UCSC's social experiment, our identity was: "RADICALLY AND UTTERLY LIBERAL." As if universities weren't already liberal enough.

I don't mind liberalism per se, but intellectual homogenization is unforgivably dull.

It was the kind of school where kids would say, "Oh, that's capitalist," and no one questioned that "capitalist" was code for "baby-stabbing."

I could take intellectual risks--and did--but at the extreme risk of being met with blank stares. Most of those kids were there specifically because they thought "no grades" meant their many asinine beliefs wouldn't be challenged.

For effective education to occur, we need universities that foster a diversity of opinions among their professors. A school's core ought to be critical but reasoned debate, modeled by the teachers and then taught to its students. Schools should teach that if a paper was boring to write, it's boring to read, and boring your teacher means lower grades. Kids should be rewarded for taking intellectual risks. But I have seen few if any places in the world where this exists, because most people aren't interested in ideas, they're interested in IDENTITY.

My point is, a school is a community, not a system. You have to attract the right audience to create your magical school where people learn and grow and think beyond 'identity,' which paradoxically means you need the right marketing. Unfortunately, social radicalism is the wrong marketing for that. So what's a better incentive?

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At the better schools, sure... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:06 PM | Posted, in reply to JMSmith's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

At the better schools, sure. At third and fourth tier schools, not so much. Since I've taught at both, I know, and am not offended. One possibility is that there may be two other distinct populations here. People pre-tenure still in the paper chase explain themselves: they have too much at stake, and the people you have to please are likely to be the sorts of narcissists you describe. If you are post-tenure and you are still playing, you probably think that playing and winning is meaningful, and hence are more deluded and more narcissistic. But why would someone who is post-tenure and non-narcissistic spend a lot of time writing or refereeing for journals, giving presentations, etc. if they don't have to? Both the post and your comment on it strike me a unselfconsciously elitist. Down here in the trenches, we have few delusions of grandeur, and I at least count myself lucky in that regard. I continue to do non-teaching stuff (it seems odd to call it "research" but it is very time consuming - a translation - honest, non-blowhard toil for which I know I will get little praise) but many do not because they have no further need to bullshit themselves and others. Ironically, these are precisely the ones most criticized by conservatives as "tenured deadwood" because they make their students their priority. Our students may have delusions of grandeur, but since they too are down here with us, that will correct itself, quickly and painfully, soon enough. Pray that it doesn't though: look at London.

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"I had the same experience ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:08 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"I had the same experience as most of the above commenters and I was in Computer Science*. A couple teachers that kicked my butt, one who prided himself on only giving 1 A every semester to stand as a bulwark against grade inflation.
*Most people say "Well, the hard sciences and engineering haven't been watered down at least." I fully disagree. It's a bit harder to fluff math or a programming assignment, but they'll still happily give you a Gentleman's C."

This was also my experience. The marking scheme in CompSci made it extremely easy to get a C, but extremely difficult to get anything above a C+.
The other issue I had was with sneaky sliding scales.
If a class is to be graded on a curve, that's perfectly reasonable. But I had courses which were ostensibly not curved (clear direction given for what would achieve a C or a B or an A, and in both the hard sciences and humanities), where if too many people earned an A according to the set standards, the professor reserved the right to adjust the scale to lower the grades.
Supposedly to keep out grade inflation, where changing the standards should have done.

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What percentage of 300 stud... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:15 PM | Posted, in reply to CubaLibre's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

What percentage of 300 students per year, 270 of whom are illiterate or nearly does your average SJ tutor teach? Your solution is a fraud, even if St. John's isn't, because the problem is, how do we as a society provide an early 20th century quality college education to *everyone* regardless of ability to think or ability to pay? How do we produce a handful of well-read, moneyed conservatives ready for law, politics and business is actually not a problem to be solved - we're good to go on that score. But what we have discovered is that we can't. What we can do is persuade people that they *have* received this even if they haven't, and set up a financial mechanism which cripples the personal finances of the next generation and will make someday make the housing bubble's burst look like a Sunday picnic.

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I sincerely doubt you're a ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:25 PM | Posted, in reply to A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time's comment, by Liz: | Reply

I sincerely doubt you're a professor. At least, I hope you're not. Whatever the faults of the university system, professors would know how to use paragraphs, right?

You're making an interesting point, but the fact that it's just one big blob makes you look like a lying idiot.

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Why do you assume there act... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:26 PM | Posted by No One: | Reply

Why do you assume there actually is a "B" or a "C" in the humanities, and that a good professor could tell them apart? Personally, I value terseness (that is still complete) much more than eloquence. They are often at ends - a properly worded 10 line argument may take longer to read than an eloquently worded 5-page version of the same argument. Every single humanities professor I've had preferred eloquence and verbosity. Even some science professors expect it, which is baffling.

When I last attended a history class, which was in high school, I used to submit 5 line answers when 5 pages were expected. I'd get a C-, ask for the explanation, and usually get a B+ or an A; mostly because the original grading was with a "which-step-it-falls-on" method, rather than on content. Those 5 lines included everything I knew that could be fact checked, stated as fact, and when called for, my opinion in one line ("I disagree with X, as facts (a), (b), (c) stated above contradict X as presented"). Making it 10 times longer does not provide any benefit to the reader, or demonstrate better knowledge of the subject matter by the writer.

I view the (nowadays expected) verbosity as a case of veblenism, unless your class title is "Verbosity & Eloquence in discussions of American History".

Perhaps that's why I'm an engineering major.

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No sweetheart, just impulsi... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 12:36 PM | Posted, in reply to Liz's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

No sweetheart, just impulsive and lazy, just like you. This is the blogosphere right?

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Liz:I didn't see thi... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 1:31 PM | Posted, in reply to Liz's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

I didn't see this before I responded to your comment about mine. This is painful for me to read (and I see now a bit of the context for your tone in reacting to mine, and apologize for snarking back). Yes, we have failed you, in a big way. What I described was my own experience. The only thing I know how to do is give the best damn lectures I know how, and the best and most honest comments on the papers that I can. But oftentimes the day of reckoning doesn't come until a student comes to me asking about graduate school and I have to tell them that they won't survive it, they're not good enough, and that's when the discrepancy between the two messages becomes most poignant, and shameful.

New Paragraph! There is another side to this though, and that is: if I and I alone start uninflating (I think that would be roughly to drop everyone by one letter, except for the best) consider the larger context this occurs in. It is very difficult now even to find rotten employment without the appearance of an education, and since my grades, taken in an individual case, will be judged by the inflated standards, I do nothing except punish that student to make a statement no one will hear. And since I teach at a fourth tier school, the harm is more significant. I really don't want to be even partially responsible for preventing someone from being able to work and survive. So I think the only solution is going to have to be collective, as in law schools (mandatory curves). What I can tell you is that I do try to give meaningful feedback in my comments, and as you see, people generally get more than they need from me in that regard, not less.

But I don't think the system can be fixed. Perhaps there can be a workaround of some kind? What would you like to see happen for you, personally, now? In practice, a small percentage of my students get an *excellent* education from me, much of which occurs outside the classroom, in emails, chats at Starbucks, etc. but this is hardly fair to the rest. I'm open to suggestions. And despite my obnoxious comment to the Johnnie, an MA at someplace like that for someone like you is exactly the damage control that would make things right. I just don't think that can work for everyone, because there are too many.

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I'm sorry if my comment cam... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 2:22 PM | Posted, in reply to A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time's comment, by JMSmith: | Reply

I'm sorry if my comment came across as elitist. It wasn't intended that way. Whatever elitism I had was scoured away by the four experiences I described, and by the recognition that I was no better (and I hope no worse) than the other phonies. I'm agreeing with what I take to be a point of the post by LP, that deflation begins at home. Once I stopped thinking of myself as the star of a movie called "The Amazing Professor," I could stop playing a supporting role in movies called "The Amazing Student." And then the students and I could get down to the real business at hand.

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As much as I loath and avoi... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 3:03 PM | Posted by HeXXiiiZ: | Reply

As much as I loath and avoid being consumed by resentment, I have to say (at least to myself) that grade inflation often touches a nerve with me as any preface to reasoning out my thoughts on the issue decoupled from my emotional reactions towards it. That being said, I think one could draw a similar conclusion with regards to the typical American college experience as you did with the immigration system in the previous post. Rather than being an aberration or degeneration in what is otherwise a system with clearly established imperatives, perhaps grade inflation and the apathetic attitude of many professors today can be seen as integral parts of how this system works on an unconscious level.

While the explicit message to those today going to college is that they will first and foremost learn, become more intelligent, become more critical, become more aware of themselves, become more worldly, etc... as Zizek might put it, are not most students given implicitly the superegotistical injunction by the system itself "to enjoy". That is, while engaged in a class on some subject about which a student might develop a deep interest and take seriously, the message is to the contrary that to do such would be transgressive. Instead, there are clear set implicit procedures one, not just can, but ought to follow in doing bullshit work that gesturally and even sarcastically touch on a rigid set of criteria.

In a sense, taking the work seriously would make one the poor fool in such a system. Such a person is as one who comes a "reading group" meeting, and to everyones surprise, has read the book and intends to discuss it; someone inevitably takes this person aside chuckling at their naiveté and clarifies for them that the "reading group" is really about drinking and sharing abusive gossip amongst friends. Similarly, a person who works hard in a liberal arts class gets cast as a superlative prick, while those who are in on the secret and have learned the real lesson of how to cheat well (I could say 'orthopedically' in the sense Lacan uses the term) are rewarded and go drinking with the professor later.

College today in many ways has become a factory for breaking students into this divided reality because in many ways sustaining this inconsistency is the lifeskill required to keep so many social systems functioning in spite of their explicit and often dysfunctional imperatives. The message is ultimately "play by the rules, keep things functioning, and in the margins you are free to enjoy". The American college takes this a step further even, striking a bargain with its participants that they are free during college to dive into total hedonistic enjoyment, while feigning education, so long as in return they do not question the system and agree to upon leaving quickly get married, have children, move to the suburbs, and uphold a normative lifestyle supporting traditional conservative values. Furthermore, part of the agreement is that enjoyment is only permitted in the margins and that it must always be kept a pathologically precarious and self-destructive secret; some people must necessarily be hurt or traumatized by it, and everyone will agree to hide the bodies as a means of building solidarity.

In short, grade inflation is just a small part of American college today as a system to break people into the divided logic of authoritarianism and hedonism that makes up American conservatism.

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Y'know, it's amusing to me ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 3:51 PM | Posted, in reply to No One's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Y'know, it's amusing to me that on this blog you feel the need to self-identify as "not one of the retards Alone is talking about, at least, today" by stating your major. New here? :->

You think the sciences are that different? You've never seen a test that was obviously designed around what's easy and efficient to mark?

Maybe we don't really value education because we don't even know what it would look like anymore.

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This has all been rather cu... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 4:24 PM | Posted, in reply to JMSmith's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

This has all been rather cut and thrust this a.m. but on reflection "unselfconsciously elitist" means something different from what I know I intended, since "elitist" is an *attitude* and what I meant was "it may seem that way at higher ranked places" - a point about access to information, not attitude. Honest. You didn't take it wrong, I just misspoke by writing too quickly. Of course I'm assuming a lot by assuming that that is your environment, and if that speculation is wrong, double apologies. That said, by doing what you're doing, it sounds like you may be or yet become the Amazing Professor after all.

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Liz is absolutely right.</p... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 5:10 PM | Posted by Bardak: | Reply

Liz is absolutely right.

Not only was the comment she criticised an ugly, incoherent blob, but so were a number of replies to her criticism.

Some of the snide and defensive answers she received only intensified the sense that she had hit a nerve:

No sweetheart, just impulsive and lazy, just like you. This is the blogosphere right?

New Paragraph!

Not very impressive.

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Because everyone knows you ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 5:28 PM | Posted by thestage: | Reply

Because everyone knows you must start a new paragraph if your previous one is over 200 words. Wait, that's just what they tell you in school.

get it.

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I'm going to be be teaching... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 5:37 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I'm going to be be teaching Kant's ethics in a few weeks, and am in the process of re-reading the Groundwork (again). Nevertheless, your point stands: I'm meant to be one of the 'better' grad students, yet my preparation for the class is driven mainly by fear of screwing up or having my identity challenged.

On the other hand, I'd say you underestimate the importance of the more obvious explanations: teaching Kant's ethics in a week to a class of 60 unmotivated students with very limited reading comprehension is pretty tough no matter how good you are (and I'm not). I'm going to be setting primary texts (e.g. Kant, Mill, Aristotle and Nietzsche in ethics), but the chance of the majority of students getting much out of them seems slim.

As for grading, the institutional pressures others have noted mean that anyone without tenure will typically either buckle or be forced out of academia. I'll probably end up giving the requisite number of A grades because it's required of me to graduate and move on with my life.

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If you think that anyone is... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 5:45 PM | Posted, in reply to thestage's comment, by Bardak: | Reply

If you think that anyone is going to read turgid 200-word paragraphs on a non-academic web log, you need to roll over on your pillow and tell Mr Hegel:

"Georg, I can't do this any more..."

It's fucking pathetic.

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Fair enough.I had ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 7:19 PM | Posted, in reply to Bardak's comment, by A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time: | Reply

Fair enough.

I had not seen anything but her statement that I was liar, and responded only to that, off the cuff, thoughtlessly. And apologized when I noticed the other posts by her which were not replies to me, but heart-felt complaints about how these grading practices have affected her personally. "New paragraph!" however was meant playfully. Oh well.

The problem that motivated me to write was that there *is* something to what Alone is saying, but it has to be taken in the context of the institutional pressures we're subjected to as well, which all by themselves would bring about the same effect. My impression is that Alone is not an academic. I had thought that some longer description of what it's actually like in the trenches would be helpful, but perhaps there was defensiveness in that as well? If so it was in response to Alone, not Liz. Is the demand for something that can be read in a matter of seconds an indictment of the educator or the educated? A bit of both, I think. I could easily generate rambling text equivalent to speaking on my feet for 50 minutes, for obvious reasons, and am accustomed to an audience that has to put up with it. What others can tolerate reading probably has something to do with how well they've been taught patience with reading, but I can assume a share of responsibility for that as well if you like.

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Okay. I'm a teacher. At pre... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 8:23 PM | Posted by John: | Reply

Okay. I'm a teacher. At present, I do not suck. I'm pretty new, I'm still learning new things about my field all the time, I'm not yet bogged down in minutiae and teaching all my content by rote.

How do I avoid a sclerotic imagination? You got a solution for me?

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I've taught college for 29 ... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 9:16 PM | Posted by cosmopolite: | Reply

I've taught college for 29 years and expect to retire soon, because my university is running out of money and has to let people go. So I think I am free to say what I truly think.

An educational psychologist once told me that experiments involving multiple academics grading the same piece of work fairly reliably categorise such written work into 4 pigeonholes: call them A, B, C, and Fail. If you go for finer distinctions, the reliability quickly degrades. I incline to agree with this, and conclude that professors can evaluate term papers and answers to essay questions.

Grade inflation occurs for the following reasons:

* Generous grading assures that students will not shun your courses in favour of those taught by your departmental colleagues. It is not sufficiently appreciated that people with low enrolments tend to be forced out unless their research is excellent. By "forced out" I mean frozen pay, remaining an Associate forever, no conference funding, no sabbaticals, being ignored even ridiculed at department and committee meetings. The less popular your teaching, the better your research has to be.

* Generous grading lifts course evaluation results. Academics with poor course evaluations can find themselves unpromotable and with frozen pay.

* Generous grading encourages people to take unpopular courses, and do unpopular majors. Many traditional disciplines are threatened with closure because of low enrolments and few majors. The total number of BAs in traditional liberal arts subjects awarded by USA colleges and universities has not changed in 40 years. Hence the market share of traditional majors has substantially declined. Many departments such as linguistics, classics, foreign languages other then Spanish, history of science, African-American studies, are under a sword of Damocles.

Case in point. A public university in Mississippi closed its economics department a few years ago, because the number of majors had declined to 3-5/year. The business school then hired 3 teaching specialists to teach the required 3 econ courses that every business major needs to take. Case closed. If this can happen to economics, which is quite in fashion nowadays, it can happen to any discipline.

Grade inflation is less in disciplines that are currently popular (economics), have always had small enrolments and high standards (math, physics), or are closely monitored by a nationwide professional association (accounting, chemistry). Finally, incompetent engineering kills people. That motivates engineering professors and their students to get the details right.

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Firstly, I want to thank yo... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 10:27 AM | Posted, in reply to A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time's comment, by Liz: | Reply

Firstly, I want to thank you for your incredibly gracious reply. (And the "New paragraph!" comment was taken as I assume it was meant.)

I find this difficult to see this from the wider perspective you mention, so that's useful. However, there is a part of me that thinks that, for all the attention that employers (don't) pay to grades, I'd take honest grades in return for knowing what I do (and don't) really know. Or do employers pay more attention to humanities grades than I realized? (Totally possible.)

"What would you like to see happen for you, personally, now?"

In terms of education, some honesty would be nice, even considering the structural problems you mention. I can take the possibility that I and the people around me are a lot less intelligent and informed than we thought. It's that no one seems to know what constitutes an education, or what we need to know/read.

If no one else knows that, how can I evaluate what I got out of it?It's hard to know what I've learned from college, and I what I could have learned by getting a job and reading a lot. (Let's pretend we live in a world where an 18 year old high school grad can get a job.)

Yes, I've been told that I'm well read, but when the comparison is with my classmate who's in his final year and still doesn't know the difference between things like "discreet" and "discrete", or "apposite" and "opposite", what does that mean? What does one have to read to be truly well read, or at least on the way to it?

I've been given As, but when the assignment was a 3,000 word paper and I banged out 1,800 words the day before, what exactly have I written?

I could deal with being uneducated or undereducated. I could deal with being told that I don't know A and B, and I haven't read X.Y and Z. I could deal with having something to aspire to. It's the not knowing that's killing me. I don't know where I am intellectually, where I need to be, or what I could do to improve myself.

I just want to get into the grown up world and get a job. (I could do the MA, but...I don't want to. I'm done with academe. Burnt out.) The problem, apart from the oversupply of college graduates, is that a degree means nothing. What exactly does it tell people that you've learned?

Sorry for the rant.

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To continue the comment/ran... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 11:11 AM | Posted by Liz: | Reply

To continue the comment/rant above, I'd also like to not know the politics of my professors and tutors. At least, I'd like to not know it within the first fifteen minutes of the first lecture or tutorial.

The best college teachers I had were those few who never revealed just what they themselves thought. They could explain the pros and cons of the positions equally well. It wasn't an ego boost, or a chance to proselytize. It was just teaching.

That's another problem with undergraduate teaching. A lot of the time, it's not imparting knowledge or helping us learn to think. It's a chance to press their ideology (mostly leftism) on young, vulnerable people. There is nothing worse than listening to a lecture and realising that you're getting, at most, half the story. It makes you lose respect for academics.

Now, that isn't aimed at you, and I could say it was a good thing in that my pride forced me to read opposing viewpoints. But I don't want my experience of college to be boiled down to "Professor X unwittingly goaded me into reading Y". I didn't want to have to write my papers based what I knew people wanted to read.

There is a terribly closed minded atmosphere in many colleges. That's not entirely the fault of the teaching staff. But, again, it's depressing to see how many people (myself included, I'm sure) had never even considered alternative points of view.

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"On the other hand, I'd say... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 12:38 PM | Posted by Slow Lane: | Reply

"On the other hand, I'd say you underestimate the importance of the more obvious explanations: teaching Kant's ethics in a week to a class of 60 unmotivated students with very limited reading comprehension is pretty tough no matter how good you are (and I'm not). I'm going to be setting primary texts (e.g. Kant, Mill, Aristotle and Nietzsche in ethics), but the chance of the majority of students getting much out of them seems slim."

I'm reminded of my demanding required core philosophy survey classes.

I was motivated.
I was interested.
I was overwhelmed.

Alone probably means people like me, when he examines American higher education. I certainly wasn't "ready" and as Alone suggests about so many perhaps I wasn't even right.

However in retrospect after seeing classes in other colleges and overseas, I ask if the fetish for primary texts in introductory survey courses is perhaps misplaced?

A brief outline of my introductory course:

Week One: Plato, Week Two: Aristotle, Weeks Three through Twelve a blur of Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Burke, Hegel, Marx, Kant, Nietzsche, and others I've certainly forgotten. At the time I didn't question the wisdom of "doing" Plato, Aristotle or any of the others each in a week (or less). But in retrospect it seemed like a "discovery" process that the lawyers do in the US when they are swamped with documents and evidence and have to find the hidden gems for themselves.

I recall at summer camp how frequently the adults would often embark on long hikes or tours, that perhaps might have been child's play for them, but left the poor kids overwhelmed and worn out.

"No time kids to dawdle and look at the scenery or examine some insignificant bit of nature, we have to get to our destination."
"Having fun yet?"

Like the camp leaders, the instructors (and professors) of introductory courses might be better of easing the kids into it. Reading comprehension a problem? No kidding. It's a pretty big jump from the low expectations at high school, what do you expect? Set priorities - decide what's really important and let it actually sink in so the kids can perhaps discover an interest. Some brief excerpts or secondary treatments carefully selected by thoughtful professors have left more of an impact than the pile of classics other professors buried us with at the tender age of 18 and expected us to figure it out on our own. Indeed the class discussions after reading carefully selected brief texts were usually more lively and interesting, because the ideas at stake were more clear and everybody was on the same page. Later on if the kids are interested, go deeper and make 'em interpret the original sources and the various perspectives for themselves. Whom are we kidding? Is it even possible to "do" Plato in two sittings of 90 minutes? If it's really such an important classic, might it not be worth spending a little more attention? Perhaps we're all just doing it for show, so we all can say "I read Plato." That certainly might seems classier than just crassly wearing some luxe fashion brand, but it's just as bogus.

I was always more interested in the ideas than who said them. Do any of us really care who Alone actually is or even if he isn't really Alone but rather a club of rum fans sharing a keyboard?

Oh and it's too bad if you didn't get the meaning of the material from introductory surveys, but it's even worse if you missed out on the foundation that would be necessary for an interesting discussion in a higher level seminar - or for that matter graduate school. What a waste of time and money.

Sure many of the students are unmotivated and uninterested. But many of the instructors could do a much better job breaking the journey down into realistic steps to make the destination interesting and accessible.

Everybody's just faking it.

Everyone pretends to care about primary texts
(Invoke the Classics for God's sake!)
As if the content of the ideas aren't enough to stand on their own.

Instructors pretend to be teaching when they confuse a "challenging reading load" with "rigorous standards."
Is "dumbing it down" so bad if it makes the content accessible? Isn't that their job - teach their students (customers). It's as if a personal fitness trainer is complaining that his customer is fat, out of shape and can't go run a marathon with him.

Students pretend to care and superficially perform according to expectations. Gotta get that degree... Keep up a good GPA...

Employers pretend to care that the material taught is relevant and necessary to hire graduates, when the only thing they care about are the evaluations (grades) that tell them which candidates are conscientious, agreeable and likely to follow direction - because they are too lazy and uncreative to develop a better personnel development pipeline and recruiting screen.

It's a racket.

It's time we consider an apprentice system of professional training for all levels and classes of society.

You frequently hear students express their lack of interest or curiosity when they ask "What's the point of all this? I'm not going to need this for my job am I?" Why should we be wasting scarce resources on people who clearly don't care and lack motivation? Maybe it would be better for us to make all that "liberal education" available when people actually start asking the big questions. Let us in the great masses satisfy our hunger for the wisdom of the humanities with lifelong learning classes; something like "A Philosophy for Dummies" or "The Last Psychiatrist"

They say;
"Youth is wasted on the young"
So is education.

There is no question that as a grown man with a little life experience that I would get much more out of it all than I did when I was a skinny little pimply kid.

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For nearly 30 years, I have... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 1:15 PM | Posted by cosmopolite: | Reply

For nearly 30 years, I have run my college courses in the following way. I set 1-2 midterms and a final exam, and award marks fairly finely. Very recently, we have been asked to set more term papers to force our students to learn to write, and I agree with the problem. If there is a term paper, it reduces the number of exams by one.

The result is an aggregate mark for the entire course, and I use that mark to rank the students. The top 15-20% gets As. The bottom 15-20% get Ds. The median mark gets the lowest B-. Students below the median, but who are better than Ds get a C. Students who fail to show up for an exam or to submit a term paper, get Fs. I adopted this rule for two reasons:
* It prevents me from committing egregious grade inflation;
* My distribution of grades does not vary from year to year. Administrators like this;
* I never look like I am using easy grades to buy favour with the students;
* The students do not suffer when, as is often the case, an exam question of mine proves harder than I thought it would be.

The above rule contravenes my department's policy. Therefore I cannot articulate it in the syllabus, and am cagey when I mention it in class. Quite a few students are pleasantly surprised by the grade they obtain from me, given their marks. But by that time, they have completed the course evaluation. Administrators at my university do not know that a course evaluation is statistically invalid unless the students are asked what grade do they expect to get.

My department is the second harshest grading one in my entire university. So much so that in recent years, I have become one of the more lenient graders.

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Thanks for the insightful b... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 1:15 PM | Posted by Donald Atkinson: | Reply

Thanks for the insightful blog. College is one of the biggest scams around now. They have discovered that parents have put money in an education fund and then accept young men and women to upper education that should be in technical school or an apprentice program. These high school graduates are frequently from Special Ed programs and parents expect the college to adjust their programming to accomodate the disabilities or incur the wrath of the ADA.
The professors have to artificially adjust the grades to keep their jobs and please the parents so that the money will keep flowing to the college. I continue to rant and curse Bush 1 for the ADA and Bush 2 for saying that all children should go to college. I don't see it changing anytime soon.

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The problem with vocational... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 2:10 PM | Posted, in reply to Donald Atkinson's comment, by Slow Lane: | Reply

The problem with vocational and apprentice programmes in the US is that middle class parents think that they are great - for other people's (working class) kids.

In Germany, many of the best and most motivated students at university had already completed an at least 3 year long coop training programe in places like a banks, engineering companies, hospitals, public administration, etc. There isn't much stigma in "not going to university" and when and if they do, they know better what they want out of life and are ready to make the most of the education. Many in Germany are concerned that so few go on to higher education compared to other countries. But for most higher education probably is a waste, and by most I mean students, graduates and their employers.

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At most 10% of students can... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 2:40 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

At most 10% of students can benefit from a traditional liberal arts college education. The rest should get vocational training. A great deal of what passes for college education nowadays in the USA is indeed just vocational training. Universities offer such stuff (mainly business and health sciences) to keep enrollment numbers up.

All of US higher education stands in the shadow of what evolved at Columbia and the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s. The survey course doing one author a week. Reading 300pp of original source material/week. This is fine for those with IQs over 130 or 140, but is not very effective for the rest. But if liberal arts education is scaled back to the Happy Few, there will be a lot fewer jobs for intellectual PhDs. But I concluded years ago that North American doctoral programs should be drastically scaled back. I enjoyed a liberal arts education 40 years ago, and earn my living teaching pragmatic stuff out of standard texts.

In my opinion, the internet has made self-education vastly easier, starting with Wikipedia, and primary texts in Project Gutenberg. All college texts are readily available in Amazon, which does not charge for shipping within the continental USA. To begin reading Plato in one's 40s is definitely an option. The science books for thoughtful lay people are better than they have ever been. Self-education by reading alone has never been easier.

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Wonderful Article, LP.... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 2:56 PM | Posted by SeeMoreGlass: | Reply

Wonderful Article, LP.

The state of education in this country makes me want to cry. Head down, sob on the pillow, cry. I am a graduate student. I work three jobs during the school year. I tutor at my school's Writing Center. I see these "functional illiterates" that some commenters have described. I also see students who write incredibly well, and want to hone their skills to get into graduate programs. What do I say? "Sorry honey, the gig's fucked, better luck next life, nice paper on Marx though". I try, in the space of 20 minutes during a 10 hour shift, to teach some students them basic grammar. Noun, Verb, Subject, Object. I try to get others to critically examine their arguments. I offer some counter arguments. Most days, I am so excited to see a coherent sentence that that is almost kills me.

There are days when I would go from my dish-washing job, to the tutoring job, to class, to a warehouse job. Some papers I would write the night before they are due. Others, I worked on all year, and came up short page wise. The profs who cared about ideas gave me no grade on the papers, just grades for class. The profs who cared about "identity" gave me Bs or Cs, no explanation, and in some cases lost my work.

The fact that students are doing work the night before isn't always because they're drunken buffoons. Sure, the King of Beers isn't always doing his best work, but you know what? Neither is the exhausted student, who is as one commenter said "desperately trying to stay in the middle class."

I have complained, rallied, protested, written letters, talked to professors, done all the required bullshit about how we can turn the curriculum around at mid-level state institutions, critical thinking, focus on basic grammar, splitting up intro comp courses into major specific comp courses, and it doesn't fucking matter. It doesn't matter because the Academy is screwed, the process is screwed, and the students and teachers are exhausted. There are amazing, talented, brilliant professors working thirteen hour days and writing all night. There are driven and intelligent students working ten-thirteen hour days at three different jobs (because no ONE job will pay enough) and somehow attending classes and trying. We haven't failed the system, the system has failed us. I still hope one day to be a professor, but some days I feel like I ought to stick to dishwashing. This is one of them.

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> Y'know, it's amusing to m... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 3:21 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

> Y'know, it's amusing to me that on this blog you feel the need to self-identify as "not one of the retards Alone is talking about, at least, today" by stating your major. New here? :->

A little new here, yes. I've been reading the articles but not the comments for a while. However, that was not a "I'm not one of the retards" statement. Rather, "Regardless of whether or not I might have anything to contribute, I would not have survived it".

> You think the sciences are that different? You've never seen a test that was obviously designed around what's easy and efficient to mark?

The sciences are different, in the sense that there actually IS a right answer one cannot dispute, and it makes a world of difference. Efficiency of marking is, of course, a problem -- but a lesser one. A calculus test that includes (e.g.) 50 forms to differentiate may vary from professor to professor in how hard or how different from homework the questions are, which means curves are not generally compatible -- but they do tend to average out over the entire degree, at least in respectable universities.

> Maybe we don't really value education because we don't even know what it would look like anymore.

I agree about that. The question I do have is -- did anyone ever know or have one?

Reading the comments, almost everyone seems to agree (a) there is a mostly-objective A,B,C,Fail ranking of students that correlates to anything other than how academia currently looks, and (b) things used to be better when a much smaller percentage of the population had access to this education. Neither assumption seems well supported to me.

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<a href="www.tremblethedevi... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 3:56 PM | Posted by Kurt: | Reply

A free ebook on terrorism written by a former DOD analyst that answers all those questions the lady from the journal asked. Try it, you'll like it.

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Hi Slow Lane,I'm Ger... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 4:01 PM | Posted, in reply to Slow Lane's comment, by Marco: | Reply

Hi Slow Lane,
I'm German and I can't really support the claims you're making. (Hope you're not German as well :P ) In fact, I think there's a farily huge stigma in "not going to university".

That's why almost *all* parents try to get their kids into "Gymnasium" which is the top one of the 3 (high) school forms we have, instead of the one unified high school in the US or UK, and which is the only one that allows you to go to uni. This trend is so bad, that at the two other school forms (Realschule and especially Hauptschule) you have an immigrant density of well over 80%.

As Uni was basically free up til some years ago and now costs relatively little (0-500-750€ per semester). You had and still have a fairly sized population of students who studied for 6-8 years and don't have a bloody clue what to do later on. And now media picked up the word: generation "coop training programme", which means that even after studying for 5 years and getting a goold old "German" degree, at most places you get "coop-ed" for the next couple of years with lously pay.

As always, there are exceptions but I can tell you this: The stigma situation is so bad, that when you run around with only a "Bachelor's Degree" all the "Masters" guys look at you and go "nana na na na". And then there's the old German "Diplom" and guess who they are laughing about? The Masters.

As long as I've been around (which isn't that long),in Germany it never really has been about really knowing stuff or mastering topics. It's always been much more important to have some sort of paper, certificate or other bullshit bingo credentials which "prove" that you mastered a topic you really didn't. What scares me though is that we're still a prime example of an efficient "Vorsprung durch Technik" economy :P

Take all this with a grain of salt ;)


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Marco,You're quite... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 5:03 PM | Posted, in reply to Marco's comment, by Slow Lane: | Reply


You're quite right about the German obsession without certification. The first question is always, "What profession have you trained in?" Not "Can you do the job?"

My sense is that some people value more a certificate more than experience or potential, an absurd example a German issued credential showing you speak English compared to having worked for some years in North America or the UK.

As far as the stigma of doing an Ausbildung as opposed to going straight to Uni. My sense is that for the middle classes, doing an Ausbildung (Traineeship / Apprenticeship) after Gymnasium is a much more legitimate path in Germany than anything comparable after High School in the US. Certainly many Akademiker (college educated) parents will pressure their children to follow their own path through Uni, but the situation in Germany can't compare to the lack of options for US American high school graduates.

I stand by my remark, since it is something I've frequently heard often from many mouths of middle - upper class educated Americans. They pay lip service to the idea of apprenticeships and professional and vocational training. "Apprenticeships - a great idea!" But I suspect when it comes time for their own high school graduate children to choose their own path, I doubt that they would be so supportive of professional and vocational options.

In short, the US provides no real viable alternatives to going to college - no matter how useless it often is.

As far as the exploitation of Generation Praktikum (all those eager young -and not so young- internships willing to do real work for the often vain hope of an eventual real job) and the Auszubildende (paid minimally) for that matter, my sense is that the labour unions are only interested in helping those privileged insiders who already have it quite good. Too bad for the young, the unemployed, or other outsiders and those in low status services like the cleaning, retail and hospitality who could actually use some of that power and privilege. But that's not an issue for today.

One possibility would be for certain high reputation leading companies to set the standard. If the kid gets an apprenticeship in science, technology, business or finance high status company, (Think Wall Street, Proctor and Gamble, Microsoft, etc.) perhaps parents might not think it's such a bad step after all. And at last kids won't be able to ask; "Will I ever need this for my job?" Their colleagues will show them right away why it's essential. Most jobs (exception perhaps in MINT / STEM fields - even much of what doctors learn is never used, quickly forgotten or soon obsolete) hardly leverage all what graduates previously learned. Perhaps it's time to stop wasting those resources and spread the investment in training and education throughout peoples careers, instead of the big block before.

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"They could not see that th... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 5:20 PM | Posted by lemmy caution: | Reply

"They could not see that they were sabotaging their own cause, that anyone ambivalent about Iraq would either not think anything or be blinded by white rage, "look at these mother--" and vote for Bush six more times. These professors were coming from such a deeply narcissistic stance that they didn't see this, or they didn't care. They may have wanted to stop the war, but what was much, much, much, much, much more important was to be identified as against the war, even if by doing that they were causing other people to support the war."

Boo-fucking-hoo. They were right. You can't go around hiding who you are because you are afraid of the ressentiment of others.

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I wrote three papers my fre... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 6:54 PM | Posted by Ferris: | Reply

I wrote three papers my freshman year (well I wrote more than that, but three that are relevant here).

1) Paper 1 was a gem. It had a unique thesis. It was twice as long as the teacher had requested, because I had more to say on the subject. It buttressed every point it made with multiple historical examples and analysis of the consequences of those examples culled from multiple sources each. It not only supported its own thesis, it tore down every competing thesis just for fun. It got an A.

2) Paper two was good. It had a solid thesis, good writing, and relevant examples. It wasn't great, but it displayed original thought and some interesting perspectives on things. It got a B-.

3) Paper three sucked. I forget if I was drunk or sick, but it wasn't started until the sun had risen on the day it was due, and a printer jam would have caused me to miss class entirely. It was an incoherent mess and I distinctly remember laughing at loud at how bad my filler conclusion was as I stretched mightily for the minimum page requirement. But take the time to rewrite it? Hell, I didn't have time to correct my own typing errors. Fuck it, an F is better than a zero. It got an A.

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As an Air Force vet, I'll h... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 7:59 PM | Posted, in reply to Sevesteen's comment, by Ryan: | Reply

As an Air Force vet, I'll have to go with: A firewall 5 backed up by numbers invented the week before the review, unless the ratee is unpopular or has received an Article 15 during the year.

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Odd, your extract from Jour... (Below threshold)

August 17, 2011 8:50 PM | Posted by NothingFromNobody: | Reply

Odd, your extract from Journal of American History seems quite straightforward. The paragraphs you quote (there are 4, not 3) are made up of a series of simple, declarative statements introducing the topic that (I assume) is further elaborated in the body of the essay. It is a relatively refreshing break from your rather windy, chest-thumping style, made up as it is with fake-quotes, childish asides ("an earpiece and a 9mm" - really? What would you do with either of those?) and mind-reading.

You spent too many formative years on posing on fraternity row, where you learned words like "grift", and how to toss them around. You seem fairly intelligent but you have mistaken a zippy, rhetorical style for insight. Hit all the right buttons for the internet though, I'll give you that.

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Again, what I said in your ... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 12:21 AM | Posted by The Wobblies: | Reply

Again, what I said in your last post. Signaling theory, pooling and separating equilibria.

You have interesting perspectives on the normative aspects of this subject -- the blame game and so on -- but your explanation of the dynamics of this is a bit primitive, and the sophistication of normative claims is bounded by the sophistication of the underlying positive theory.

I have a bad feeling about the book. It seems you're soft-pedaling on narcissism. The one thing you need to decide is how high-brow the book gets. If you're willing to go high enough, an explicit statement of what role Wittgenstein (the abuse of labels as substitutes for concepts that aren't "really real") and Nietzsche's Last Man (drunken pirate doctor steals Michael Bay's girlfriend) play in your general theory of things. If you want to sell more books, go straight for "HOW NARCISSISM IS FUCKING AMERICA".

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This wasn't UNB by any chan... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 1:05 PM | Posted, in reply to Kai's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

This wasn't UNB by any chance, was it?

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for one so interested in na... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 2:54 PM | Posted by tesseract: | Reply

for one so interested in narcissism, is it amusing or depressing that the vast majority of your readers/fans/groupies respond with, "yeah, what you said, now let me tell you about me"?

education in this country, at all levels, is working exactly as intended. when a system achieves it results so uniformly across divergent geography, demography, and ability, one has to assume it is working perfectly...and once you accept this premise, you just have to ask, "what does it achieve?" in order to understand what it was designed to achieve. the answer is pretty much the same as the one for the asylum system, or the ssi/d system, or the first class airfare upgrades system...but you probably already realize that.

there was an experiment testing the intelligence of grown captive chimps, against that of young human children.

an experimenter created an opaque box that had a drawer that held candy within it. he then showed the box and the candy to the chimps and to the children (separately of course, one wouldn't want to risk the chimps ripping the face, feet, and testicles off of the children in a fit of pique). after which, the experimenter went through an elaborate exercise of poking a stick into various parts of the box in order to retrieve the candy.

both the chimps and the children excelled at copying the elaborate poking sequence to get to the candy.

then the experimenter produced a transparent version of the box, which made it perfectly clear that all the poking was pointless. the candy was just sitting in the drawer and the drawer could be easily opened to retrieve it at any time--all the various and sundry pokes never even reached the candy drawer. they all hit a false bottom instead.

well, the chimps could not be induced to continue with the pointless poking to get the candy, once they learned that it was unnecessary. the children however, dutifully continued to perform all the pointless poking. and not a one even asked why. this tells you everything you need to know about humans and why our societies and institutions are the way they are.

ps: there never was a golden age of academia: Socrates was the biggest fucking narcissist to ever live..."come, bask in how smart i am, euthyphro;" Descartes is revered for the worst piece of circular, navel-gazing fluff every uttered; adam smith spent 500 pages building a solid argument that private property is justified because of labor, so long as enough is left for everyone else, only to dismiss the whole thing in one incoherent sentence about money being magical and so never-mind (translate: "the east india corporation is paying my bills"); and shakespeare wrote for the amusement of illiterate, ignorant peasants (it's only "hard" now because it's in a different fucking language). he was the elizabethan david cameron for fuck's sake.

and you don't seriously believe that professor hegel encouraged or rewarded dissent or unique thought do you? come on, he was a fucking prussian. they were fascist before fascism was cool.

hegel's students got the equivalent of A's for giving hegel what hegel wanted (which was his own ideas parroted back to him) just the same as every kid today from pre-k to post-doc does for every garden-variety narcissistic teacher or professor they have to deal with (at least hegel's groupies chose to be forced to fellate his ego, unlike our poor compulsory-ed masses--and yes, college is now compulsory--just try to get a minimum wage job without a degree, if you don't believe me).

all you need to know, to understand american education, higher and lower is that:

no "smart" person has ever rewarded having his ideas and conclusions challenged.

we are a species of pointless stick pokers.

and the american flag was originally the corporate flag of the british east india corporation (no lie).

(epistemology c'est tout)

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"Most of the stud... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 9:52 PM | Posted, in reply to Mastiff's comment, by TheDavid: | Reply

"Most of the students, meanwhile, do not have a writing style so much as something that looks like output from the Eliza bot."

Why does that upset you? And why do you think their writing style should look like something else?

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I like your posts on other ... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 10:30 PM | Posted by Gene Combs: | Reply

I like your posts on other topics much better than I like your narcissistic rants on narcissism.

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I'm 48. The... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 11:03 PM | Posted by TheDavid: | Reply

I'm 48.

There are times when I feel I've wasted my life dropping out of 8th grade at 13, taking and passing the GED at 16 because the big PhD in the apartment upstairs told me he'd kick my ass if I didn't, and achieving nothing I can point to except getting on SSI when I was 23 and staying on it since then.

Then there are times when I think I was right as a kid: Normal Life is a bullshit scam, that only exists because people are not very bright and not very brave, that I want no part of.

Either way I've decided that if I want to write like Henry James I should do as he did: dictate.

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Reading the comme... (Below threshold)

August 18, 2011 11:50 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by TheDavid: | Reply

Reading the comments, almost everyone seems to agree (a) there is a mostly-objective A,B,C,Fail ranking of students that correlates to anything other than how academia currently looks

There isn't. Top-down education is more about exercising power than anything else, and except for a few total freaks people in a position of power reward submission and perhaps imitation. Paychecks aside, for the teacher the goal is to boost his own ego if he's a "good" teacher.

and (b) things used to be better when a much smaller percentage of the population had access to this education.

Nah. Things were worse then. I believe that most people can benefit from literacy and numeracy and that some superstitions born of ignorance and Tradition need to be dispelled. The alternative is living like a medieval peasant, at best.

Or do you mean specifically "Higher" education? In that case I agree with the doc that most college courses are vocational rather than academic/intellectual, so that, e.g., nurses don't need to even know who Plato was to be good nurses. Kids should learn how to educate themselves about philosophy in high school so they can concentrate in nursing school on learning how to nurse. Those who aren't interested in philosophy shouldn't be made to sit through classes on it.

It is possible for the average person to learn more than she'd ever need to know with a high-school reading level and a library card and/or an internet connection. (Or both: I know of at least one public library system that lets random cardholders use JSTOR from home.) Most geniuses were self-educated anyway, or at least educated themselves in what they were geniosical about. The hard part is getting most people to that reading level without making them hate what they've been told is Learning.

My father started teaching us how to read before we entered kindergarten, walked us up to the library to show us we could continue on our own, and was pleased when he saw us reading -- even went into debt buying us a set of encyclopedias. That's the only system of education that ever worked for me. As for practical skills, I have none that anyone would pay for. But them I'm weird.

I'm also very tired. Please forgive me that this isn't better.

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"for one so interested in n... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2011 12:43 AM | Posted by Slow Lane: | Reply

"for one so interested in narcissism, is it amusing or depressing that the vast majority of your readers/fans/groupies respond with, "yeah, what you said, now let me tell you about me"?"


Indeed (I)ronic, but we share what we know best. Whatever opinions we hold - they're based on something we've experienced personally - or through recounting by others. Speaking for myself of course, I value hearing about other people's experiences, so I can add their wisdom to whatever mass of evidence I have already collected, always refining my view.

The points about "compulsory education" are interesting. Somebody else has decided it's important, but why? Most of the stuff we are supposed to learn, we forget, but perhaps it shapes our character somehow more indelibly.

Consider the case of revolution or conquest. Bang! Everything you ever learned about history, civics & government, economics & business, arts & literature - all wrong - worthless in an instant. Or how do you think it worked out for the people who grew up with a Communist Soviet or East German - or for that matter Taliban Afghan education? American pupils are drilled in the unquestionable nostrums of their "republican democracy" such as "checks and balances" "separation of powers" and so on. ... Which might have been state of the art for the enlightenment, but how's that working for you now? How much longer do you suppose all that will be on the lesson plan?

In contrast to typical compulsory education methods, what do you all think of the more unconventional self-directed approaches, i.e. Montessori, Waldorf, etc.? Harness the power of curiosity and independent exploration? I don't know how effective this approach would be; many are probably just content to vegetate (see me or TheDavid who is subsisting his whole life on the dole). Like Tesseract's monkeys, he saw through the whole game and is just taking the candy without playing. Don't know if I can criticise that. Actually TheDavid is playing, we've just changed the rules so that's an effective strategy.

As far as self-directed learning goes, I'm not sure how that would work. (Narcissism alert!) I was a sucker for all that nonsense feel good propaganda, "Follow your bliss!" "Do what you love and the money will follow!" I love massages by nubile blonde maidens and sleeping 'til eleven; how come nobody's calling?

It's not easy being in the dumbest generation in history. But that's ok. Some of us have our rum. I'll be getting back to my own regularly scheduled programming of addictive electronic screen based oblivion.

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Professor, as I got my doub... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2011 1:31 PM | Posted by SDN: | Reply

Professor, as I got my double major bachelors and MBA, I found that an absolutely reliable indicator of a bad instructor was that they strictly enforced the mandatory attendance policy... because they were so ignorant / boring that no one would have shown up except for exams.

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In light of your comment, I... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2011 6:43 PM | Posted, in reply to Slow Lane's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

In light of your comment, I've amended my class materials a bit. We'll still being looking at the primary texts, but I've highlighted the most important passages so students don't get too overwhelmed/lost.

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Nice work, Phaedrus.... (Below threshold)

August 19, 2011 8:31 PM | Posted by caballosinnombre: | Reply

Nice work, Phaedrus.

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This thread’s probably dead... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2011 4:00 AM | Posted by Ron Mexico: | Reply

This thread’s probably dead, but I hope some people are still reading it. I’d like to make two points.

The first point is a narrow, logical point; it’s this:
The rationale for giving grades is, primarily, in order to provide information to other people about the quality of the student: prospective employers, etc. Grades also have the secondary purpose of getting students to work hard, or anyway, harder than they otherwise would. (It works, I assure you.)
Now there’s a tension here between two factors. On the one hand, the wider the grade distribution is made to be, the more likely it is that some of the differences between grades will be illusory, i.e., won’t report any real difference: it really would be silly to try to grade papers on, say, a one-hundred point scale: we really *can’t* tell the difference between a ‘73’ and a ‘74’ paper. (Pitchforkmedia) This is a point you appear to recognize, ‘in a cloudy way’, Alone, when you disparage the idea of professors being able to distinguish between a B and a C. (But ask yourself: Why did you choose *those* two grades? Won’t the problem reoccur between an A and a B? And if not, why not?)
But this is equally sure: make the distribution *narrow* enough, and you will *lose* information. (This is the only good argument against grade-inflation: while it may hurt your parents’ feelings, it actually makes no difference whether grades are distributed between an F and a B, or between a D and an A.) At the limit, we have: no grades at all.

Insofar as you argue anything, Alone, what you argue is that there’s less precision than we pretend to in our grades. (I’ll come back to this.) If you really believe that, what you ought to be arguing for is, in fact, *more* grade inflation. (You don’t appear to recognize this.) But the relevant question is: Is it the case that professors are *utterly incapable* of distinguishing between the quality of papers? You don’t argue for this; I daresay it’s improbable; and in fact you concede that it isn’t true when you allow that professors *can* distinguish the A papers and the F papers. (You do say that, and not ‘the A papers *from* the F papers’; I wonder if you really mean the latter; that is wildly implausible, but it’s the argument you actually need.) In any case only *that* conclusion—that we can’t distinguish papers by quality at all—would imply that we should give up grades entirely. If we took seriously what you write, we would have to say that what you’re *actually* arguing for is a system in which there are only *three* grades: A, F, and something in the middle. Perhaps that’s true; I myself have graded a lot of papers and I can’t say I agree with you.

You have a weakness for extremism, Alone; it makes for enjoyable reading, but it doesn’t make for very good arguments. If you were in my philosophy class, e.g., I would give you a worse grade than someone who *can* make good arguments. I assure you that we are capable of *that* level of precision. I would put you between an A and an F.

The second point is a roughly sociological one, but it should be understood in light of what I just wrote; it’s also from a somewhat narrower point of view, since I can only speak from experience (the first, logical point, is independent of my experience). The ‘sociological’ point is this:

In the first place, ‘narcissism’ is no part of the explanation for the ‘inflated’ grades that my colleagues and I assign. The biggest determinant of grade inflation, now, is momentum: if we were, e.g., to make a ‘C’ the most common grade in the classes in our department, our classes would be the only ones that graded in that way; there’s something felt to be senseless about giving grades that align with no existing system. (Although recall the first point.)

What’s more, it’s also true, as someone noted, that deflating grades can potentially harm students’ lives, and we are reluctant to do that: there are graduate programs—I don’t mean serious PhD programs, although it’s obviously true of them too, but irrelevant (see below)—that do look at grades; so that giving a student a C can actually cause real harm. It may be objected that “those students then don’t belong in that graduate program anyway,” but that’s not true: remember, grade inflation is everywhere. (Also, recall the first point; you have to get straight about your view there before you can have a view here; if you don’t understand this, I encourage you to re-read the first point.)

Which brings me to a further point: you say, Alone, that “these ‘average’ [B and C] students are then the ones who...go on to become future academics.” That’s preposterous. It’s *possible* that there are fields in such states that they would accept graduate students into PhD programs who earned Bs and Cs in college; but this is certainly not the case in, e.g. the ‘big three’ humanities (English, History, Philosophy): *no one* in, e.g., the graduate program in my department, received Bs and Cs in college; and *almost no one* in that program will be fortunate enough to actually get employment as a college professor (and our program is ranked in the top 5 in the country). Try to think what that means.

This *matters* for your argument, since, as I say, you suppose that students who are the beneficiaries of grade inflation go on to become professors. In the sense that *every* college student now benefits from grade inflation, this is true; but my estimate is that the future professors are bye and large straight-A students. (I don’t know what the state of things is in, e.g., community colleges.) And so if you’re right that—as you repeatedly concede—professors *can* tell which papers are ‘A’ papers, then your other thesis has to be wrong: the people who wind up as professors being straight-A students, they would, by your lights, be so under any grading regime. Now in my own view it seems quite possible that students who otherwise would’ve received merely high Bs, or some mix of As and Bs, are now being admitted to grad school (but again, just what *is* your view about the fineness of grain we’re capable of? Remember that you have to figure this out first); but that last is doubtful too, since prospective graduate students are required to take the GRE, which is normalized, and has a fairly ‘soft’ right wall.

You also write: “When in his life is he ‘challenged’ by someone else who ‘knows’ Kant? Seriously, think about this.” I thought about it. And the answer is: since knowing Kant is a requirement of earning a PhD in philosophy, he will be challenged frequently by his colleagues in the department, who will also know Kant, provided he ever has discussions with them at all, which is the norm.

Having tipped my hand, I’ll also add: it’s simply not true, in philosophy departments (anyway, mine) that professors want their students to give back *their own* views of (say) Kant, except in this, evidently harmless, and in any case inevitable sense: insofar as (say) I have some understanding of (say) the Groundwork, which I pass on to my students, the ‘exposition’ sections of their paper must either a) repeat what I’ve told them or else b) succeed in convincing me that I’ve been, till now, wrong about Kant. (It would obviously be illicit to conclude that, since a professor has to judge a paper on Kant by what--*as he believes*, of course!—is the correct view of Kant, he is necessarily doing something wrong in asking his students to rehearse the view of Kant he gave them! Ask yourself: what’s the alternative?)
Option (b) is certainly possible; but if you think that such papers appear at a rate of more than 1 in 1000, you have an extremely inflated sense of the wherewithal of undergraduates (a sense which is in tension with some of the other things you say). (Note that option (b) isn’t ‘be right about Kant where I am wrong’; that may be common enough—who knows?—but it’s, in and of itself, irrelevant to the merit of a philosophy paper, which is judged on how well it’s argued, not, as cynics are quick to notice, on whether or not it’s right.) If you like, we can say that this has nothing to do with the intelligence of the professors, and everything to do with the fact that Kant is very difficult; and has been studied for 250 years; and so it’s extremely unlikely that an undergraduate will unseat the conventional wisdom about his work after studying him for (say) ten weeks. Obviously, it can happen; but I’d say at a rate of much less then 1 in 1000.

But then too, the papers *we* assign anyway are largely structured in this way: the first half of the paper is reserved for rehearsing the relevant argument; the second half calls for original argument. Interestingly, here, it’s *just because* there are no proofs in philosophy—not ‘no right answers’, just ‘no proofs’—that professors have no reason to be biased in favor of ‘our own views’: what we look for (in *this* half) is good, original argument—a rare bird, yes, but we’re certainly not looking, here, for the student to give us answers that we (secretly?) telegraphed to them. No doubt, there are some bad teachers that do that; I don’t know any among my colleagues. (To convince yourself of this, you may have to already be familiar with just how *rare* it is to see *any* good arguments *at all*.)

Of course, there really are less benign incentives for grade inflation: we dislike, e.g., having to deal with whining students; and though we do, of course, and inevitably, it would nevertheless become intolerable if, say, more than half the class was angrily protesting their grades. It could be that we should, all the same, take the high ground (but remember the first point!), and give them all Cs; but it’s a little hard to see what greater good that would serve—as I say, it’s not as though *this* grade inflation is allowing mediocrities into grad school, as you seem to suppose. The incentives for deflating grades depends, again, on your views about the first point, above.

And just what *is* our level of precision? For my own part I find that it is sometimes difficult to discriminate between, say, an A- and a B+; or a C- and a D+ (yes, I’ve given D plusses!). But that may not reflect a deficiency in the professor, so much as the inherent difficulty in balancing off against one another different dimensions of evaluation: how well a paper is written, say, as against the originality of some argument. (Note that this is not the same as saying that such balancing is ‘subjective’.) But under any plausible assumptions, the imbalances thereby created would wash out over, e.g., several classes.

My own view is that, in any case for philosophy, we have enough precision to distinguish between 8 gradations.

B-. You can rewrite it.

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Why? Why is that the quest... (Below threshold)

August 22, 2011 12:34 AM | Posted, in reply to A Professor Who Usually Posts Under His Own Name But, Boyo, Not This Time's comment, by Jaha Arnot: | Reply

Why? Why is that the question? That's not the question - that's an assumption. If you get crap from the massive sausage factory that is trying to convince itself that it is doing the noble work of "educating society," maybe you should just drop it. Of course, everyone suckling at the teats of The Beast will respond with howls of protest, but who cares? You're taking shots at schools that take the learning seriously, I guess because they're incapable of "educating society." But at the same time, you're also granting that society isn't getting an education. So you can keep whining about student:faculty ratios, and your impossible curriculum, and your idiotic students, or you can strap on a pair, walk away, and find a way to do it for real. St. John's did. TAC did. Granted, pretty small student bodies, but what if more people actually EXPECTED SOMETHING from their education, and what if more faculty actually expected something from the experience of TEACHING? Would you continue to grind out the same volume of putrid offal from the sausage machine? Probably not. So what? You really think the national IQ will go down without your crappy "Survey of Western Philosophy" course? American innovation will collapse without "Fierce Herstory: Maenad Culture and Male Insecurity"?

Get this straight - they're not learning anything, and you're not teaching anything. If you just stop, it won't matter. Not really.

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I made my 12th grader watch... (Below threshold)

August 22, 2011 5:02 AM | Posted by Brit: | Reply

I made my 12th grader watch 3 Days of the Condor last night. He had a joyous time ranting about all sorts of bits from it this morning.

Alrighty then: I told him to write a response to Alone's essay question.

I love homeschooling.

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The thing is, I have... (Below threshold)

August 24, 2011 1:35 AM | Posted by TheDavid: | Reply

The thing is, I have never stopped educating myself. I might have done it badly sometimes, I might have not worked as hard as I could have, and I did spend a few years working very hard at what turned out to be miseducation, but I've never been able to vegetate entirely. My biggest weakness in this regard is I've concentrated almost exclusively on a few subjects that interest me, to the exclusion of science, math and Kant, so in this regard I resemble an insect more than I really should.

Be that as it may, I could, with a week's notice, churn out a nice paper contrasting and comparing the Muslim murji'ah with the Chinese Legalists, the point being that for all their many differences they were both servile bootlickers who cared most about getting their bread buttered.

But then I'm weird.

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Where can I find that Histo... (Below threshold)

August 25, 2011 8:02 PM | Posted by Biology Student: | Reply

Where can I find that History teacher? The first one that I had years ago gave me Fs on papers because she said that they were TOO intelligent and well put together. "This isn't English class. Write simple."

I love college.

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First day of class, teacher... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2011 2:06 AM | Posted by DG: | Reply

First day of class, teacher asks "who wants to get a C right now?"

not a single hand went up.

"What's wrong with a C - what's wrong with being average?" he asked.

That's the problem, narcissism made us too stupid to realize when "settling" is the correct option

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The professors are a big pa... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2011 3:08 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The professors are a big part of the story as far as turning a high C into a low B, but I think there are other bigger trends at work here.

First off, graduating college is almost a de-facto requirement to obtaining gainful employment. People who would have never even thought about even a technical degree need a BA or BS to even get on the list for Administrative Assistant (we used to call them seceretaries), and just about everyone else up and down the line. That leads to a lot of people who aren't really "college material" in the traditional sense (not the nerdy bookish types) to seek college degrees for the sake of the job.

The problem is that most of these students believe that they are essentially buying a decent degree at a decent GPA in order to get their foot in the door on a job. They really aren't there to learn, just put in the 4 years and get a 3.0 GPA and a diploma. In their minds, they've hired the teacher to give them the credentials. He's a hired hand like the lady at McDonald's who makes you a hamburger, not a scholar who is charged to make sure that you learn anything. And much like the McDonal's lady, if the product is not satifactory (the grade isn't high enough) then it's not the customer's fault, it's the hired hand's fault for not giving them what they want.

Another trend in that general direction is that most colleges rate their staff on customer ... er student ... satisfaction. If you make the customers in the seats mad by giving them the grades they earn or demand that they not read the paper during class, you will be downgraded. if you have tenure they probably cannot fire you per say, but don't expect to move up very quickly.

So most people take the easy route. Make everything copy-paste from either in class lectures (money saving tip -- unless the prof assigns the questions at the end of the chaper as homework, for most nonmajors you don't need the book at all), the summary at the end of the chapter, or whatever wikipedia has online. Give lots of extra credit, class participation, internet discussions, and effort points. Never count spelling or grammar. And for the love of god be entertaining. You'll get marked down for being boring.

Honestly, I don't respect any degrees outside the hard sciences. They're worth about as much as it would cost to xerox one at kinkos. And that's a sad thing for America.

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Thank you. For years I've ... (Below threshold)

August 27, 2011 3:58 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Thank you. For years I've had to justify myself to others for the lack of a degree because apparently, you may only know a thing if you have that paper. I love to learn...yet I am a nerd with no paper. It makes people uncomfortable because it exposes the myth of higher education for what it is--a masturbatory machine that exists solely to employ a dynasty of parrots.

Poor and fresh out of high school, I drank the kool-aid and went to a "great" university. It cost a great deal of money even with the grants, and frankly scholarships mostly go to the kids whose parents care enough and can afford extracurricular activities. Therefore I mortgaged my future economic stability on the slim hope that attendance at this school would ensure my success

My program had the same requirements as the premed kids, so I had to compete with them for class space, face time, and resources. In addition to that, their program was actively weeding them/us out so they didn't kill their future patients. My calculus class was taught by a Chinese exchange student who didn't speak English very well at all, my geology class never left campus, my chem TAs were sophomores, and my latin prof wrote her own textbook "system" which resulted in wasting half the semester un-learning the logical way to learn the material or risk her failing me for not "paying attention." Furthermore, I was advised that I didn't have enough electives to take what I was interested in because there were too many prerequisites required. I learned nothing at all.

I also worked in both my dining hall and a department store so I could pay for books and materials we barely used because my professors didn't like to grade stuff. It is enough to make me scream even now.

After my nervous breakdown, I came home to my local community college. I paid for whatever classes I could afford while working full-time to pay for it. I had fabulous teachers who were employed as such, not researchers fulfilling their contract. I have enough credits for one degree at least, possibly two, but I don't care because I learned what I needed and wanted to know. This differs widely from what Big Ivy decided would make me well-rounded. As such, I am an adaptable jack-of-all-trades who has never been unemployed.

I also read voraciously, for pleasure, in a wide variety of subjects, because I never learned to hate it. Bite me, Ivy League. Universities are a lie, and would be a farce if they weren't such tragic debt-generators.

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I noticed I neglected the s... (Below threshold)

August 27, 2011 4:05 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

I noticed I neglected the subject of grade inflation; I see it as implicit in my experience as a college student but it may not be so clear to others.

My "great" university could never have operated as it did without grade inflation. Keep the rich kids happy, toss in a few poor ones to keep the community happy, and in a few years the alumni association can call them up for donations.

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I think you're mischaracter... (Below threshold)

August 27, 2011 5:56 AM | Posted, in reply to Ron Mexico's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

I think you're mischaracterizing Alone's point. From what I can tell, he's saying that grade inflation is a result of narcissistic professors' being lazy about critique and critical thought with regards to the material. The problem is not whether professors have the precision to judge between B or C papers (they may or may not, but it's irrelevant to the point), rather, professors almost always THINK that they have such precision, and because they are narcissistic, they are unable to tell whether they actually do or not. Additionally, this narcissism causes the professors to be lazy while critiquing papers, making it so that instead of having the paper's argument critiqued, the professor instead falls back on easy and reliable heuristics of critique that have nothing to do with arguments at all. The important thing to consider here is that professors may very well be capable of such precision, but due to their NARCISSISM, they can't really tell (and Alone would probably say that most professors these days lack this precision because they were educated by professors who were also narcissistic).

So if you want to argue anything you're going to have to argue AGAINST professors being narcissistic. And so far the only argument you've brought up against professors' narcissism is: "In the first place, ‘narcissism’ is no part of the explanation for the ‘inflated’ grades that my colleagues and I assign. The biggest determinant of grade inflation, now, is momentum..."

Which isn't an argument. You tell us that you're not narcissistic but you have no explanation for why other than something about "momentum."

You spend the last half of your (kinda long) post talking about how you (A PROFESSOR) and your colleagues (ALSO PROFESSORS) evaluate papers. That's fine and good if the topic was how philosophy professors evaluate papers, but the topic is how narcissism contributes to grade inflation.

It seems like you're really into being a PHILOSOPHY PROFESSOR judging from what you've written (lots and lots about being a professor). It doesn't help when your writing is so very difficult to decipher (nest those digressions!), which is a (admittedly stereotypical) trademark of philosophy professors. This is you proving Alone's last point. It's extremely important for you to identify yourself as a philosophy professor! So important that you absolutely HAVE to call him out for making subpar "arguments." And obviously you have to grade the article, you know, because you're a professor and everything.

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It's not "useless" it's jus... (Below threshold)

August 27, 2011 11:28 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

It's not "useless" it's just that most people going there don't really need it for their jobs except for perhaps getting a piece of paper that bossman requires. It's really about what you want to do. I think in many cases the 4-year uni program offered at traditional colleges is a waste on the students in those classes. They just don't have the backgound in maths and science to get the full effect of a college level physics or math course. What intro classes and nonmajors classes are in most cases what would have been a senior high school class of 50 years ago. Other than maybe logic and ethics, most of philosophy is not really needed for the vo-tech crowd. So for those classes, honestly half of the class doesn't need to be there.

I think the people who need uni rather than vo-tech are the ones that are going to be professional engineers or pure scientists or lawyers or the like. It's not that the rest can't benefit from some of those courses, but that it's not needed for the career they plan to go into. The rest would be better served by a vo-tech community college (which costs less than 1/2 what a uni costs anyway), and doing the basic reading of any other subject that interests them on the side. It's cheaper in the long run, and it probably gives the student better job skills, and allows them to pick up the rest at lower cost. I can get a used college level textbook at the average YMCA bookfair for about $1.00 to $1.50, read it at my own pace, and get more out of it than I could ever get at a uni. I'm slowly working my way through Hume right now, and since I don't have to worry about what is on the test, I can get more out of the text. I've read a lot of things that way, not just philosophy but religion, literature, and basic sciences.

Colleges don't really want independant learners anyway. They want the world to believe that you must have attended their diploma factories to be educated. Competition sucks for them, and since home-study is competitiion, they don't let on that you can get the same materials for cheap online or in somecases free. They don't want you to look to apprenticeship programs for education because then they don't get all the cash from student loans and tuition.

Grade inflation is to my mind almost the twin problem to health care inflation. The people paying for the product (parents and the government) are not the same people as the people getting the product. Mommy and Daddy pay for school, but the kids go. The kid just wants good gradeswith minimal effort, and a big name school to boot. Grade inflation keeps them happy. And the schools as I said before caters to the students because they are the reason the lights stay on. The government in the US doesn't really subsidize the uni the way they ised to. Grants are shrinking, so the college boards are not about to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. And doing anything about the poor students who have gotten into the institution but really aren't up to uni standards or the high grades that keep said students paying the bills would probably kill a lot of unis in the US.

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Anonymous (@5:56 a.m.):... (Below threshold)

August 27, 2011 10:45 PM | Posted by Ron Mexico: | Reply

Anonymous (@5:56 a.m.):

You write: “The problem is not whether professors have the precision to judge between B and C papers (they may or may not, but it’s irrelevant to the point), rather, professors almost always THINK that they have such precision, and because they are narcissistic, they are unable to tell whether they actually do or not.”

You’re making a mistake here. Actually, the sentence is ambiguous, but I take it you mean that ‘the real problem is their narcissism, not the question of their precision’. Let’s suppose that college professors are, in whatever negative sense you (and our host) attach to the word, ‘narcissistic’; nevertheless, it obviously still matters whether or not they *do* have such precision: so, e.g., the narcissism of professors would no longer be a problem (so far as grading went) if, as a matter of fact, they all *did* have the requisite precision. Surely that’s obvious. So it remains true that the question over how much precision professors have is prior to the question of whether or not they’re ‘narcissists’.

Again, you write: “The important thing to consider here is that professors may very well be capable of such precision, but due to their [all caps] narcissism, they can’t really tell.” But again, that’s a mistake: if they’re capable of such precision, then their ‘narcissism’ falls away as irrelevant (again: to matters of grading). (Useful for comparison: suppose I claim I can always tell the difference between lemonade and limeade; some halfwit proffers, as explanation (for my so claiming), the fact that I’m a ‘narcissist’; but then it turns out I really can tell the difference every time. I think we can see that the ‘narcissism’ charge drops away: it may still be true, but it could hardly be substantiated by the fact that I think I’m an accurate lemon/lime discriminator; and, even more obviously, it obviously would now be a terrible explanation for my having made such claims.)

So it’s not true that if I “want to argue against anything,” I’m “going to have to argue [all caps] against professors being narcissistic.” If I could establish the point about the precision, the point about their narcissism becomes irrelevant (to grading).

You then quote the preamble to my argument, and say: “which isn’t an argument.” There’s a little confusion in that paragraph of yours, I think (what am I supposed to be explaining: “why” *I’m* not narcissistic? Surely *that* doesn’t require an explanation); but in any case, what follows in my original comment is a description of the various pressures professors face; these are intended as an alternate explanation (alternate to ‘narcissism’) for the phenomenon of grade inflation. It seems to me—and let’s allow that I’m in a slightly better position to judge—that these are better explanations than the ‘narcissism’ charge. --Though it may be worth adding here that ‘narcissism’ isn’t an explanation of anything; it plays the role, in our host’s cognitive economy, that ‘damned’ played for certain religious sects.

I think your last point is again off the mark: as I noted, I remarked on my field in order to signal the possible narrowness of my experience: if someone wanted to claim that it was quite different with (say) history professors, I’d be in a worse position to deny it. Though what is true, of course, is that many people identify to some degree with their jobs; if that’s ‘narcissism’ then ‘narcissism’ could hardly be the pernicious thing we’re told it is.

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Far too many people are con... (Below threshold)

August 30, 2011 6:38 AM | Posted by Mrs. dT: | Reply

Far too many people are confusing training with education. Training provides someone with a skill or a profession. Education is intangible. It builds character, morals, and intellect. It isn't job training.

Grading training is for the purpose of evaluating the instructor AND the student — to determine if the content was absorbed, but to determine if content has been absorbed, it has to be tested months later, not a week after the material was delivered. All that's being done is testing someone's short-term memory, but it is the best anyone has at the moment (unless anyone wants to do follow-up testing months later).

It makes perfect sense that grade inflation is occurring because education is no longer occurring in colleges and universities, as they continue their horrid slide into high-priced trade schools. Professors must prove their worth by having their students get decent marks (even if their students are dullards and their forced textbook choices miserable and expensive). If their students aren't passing, it is a reflection of their teaching skills. Unfortunately, they have no power to eject poor-performing students from their seats.

Those seats must be filled in order to keep the lights on in the building. There is a shortage of students, just as there is a shortage of customers in every business in this economy. Now that the baby-boom is over, schools are desperate for students. They had to lower their standards. That's the great big secret that isn't a secret anymore. Anyone who can pay full tuition can get in to just about any school. A parent with the money to endow a chair will get their child in that school. Do you really think that a part-time professor would be able to give that student anything less than a B? Professors, even those on the lowest rung, used to have power. The finance departments run the schools now.

Please look up the essay by Albert Jay Nock, "The Disadvantages of Being Educated." It was originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1937. He explained what was going on then! A reprint is available here:

As someone mentioned above, it is time we brought back apprenticeships for those who want to learn job skills at a university (which is not the purpose an educational institution): lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. After high school (or earlier) channeling students who show aptitude in these areas would be much better for all concerned. There have been numerous studies that show that the cognitive learning method is much better for teaching these types of skills anyway. I wish it would happen in my lifetime, but it won't.

To eliminate "the racket" concerns, I agree fully that the foundation skills ARE important before launching into dense material, but it is not the responsibility of the institution to determine if the student has them. It is the responsibility of the student. That's why professors have office hours. Ever consider knocking? Ever consider a tutor? There are also books on the subject such as, "How To Read Book Book" by Mortimer J. Adler. There is also the Internet. Post a question and get an answer. "Voila!" Read that book. Problem solved. If it doesn't solve your problem, you're in over your intellect. Go to a trade school. You don't have the intellect for the Humanities.

As to the question of: "Have you learned enough in college? or "Were you taught enough?" The answer is "No" or the answer should be "No." You've never learned enough because learning is never over. If you came out of college not knowing that, you were cheated; however, the fact that you are asking the question means you're ahead of most of your fellows. Good on ya! Anyone who came out of college thinking they now know everything (or "enough") is the person to stay away from.

If you are wanting to be educated (not trained, as I said above, different animal entirely), then keep at it, as it is a life-long journey, not a destination. Keep reading. The Western Canon is enormous. It is as large and long as man's history on the planet (well, since we've been writing things down). Make a goal of reading 5% of it before you die, or 10% — or decide that you want to know everything there is to know about one particular author, painter, scientist, etc., but become an expert in something. It can be a hobby or as your profession. It doesn't matter. Then you get to grade yourself.

Make it a goal to become educated. You don't need to go to college to do that, but it helps. Education doesn't stop when college stops either. An educated person can do anything. A trained person can do only what they've been trained to do, but not everyone is educable. I'd suggest a minimum IQ as a requirement, but that's much too controversial; however, some sort of minimum intellectual stamina is required.

"One wonders what idea of history is present in the minds of those who teach it; whether the goal of historical studies is to make one historically-learned or historically-minded. Properly, history shapes the mind into a tool to think with, not to remember with. One would not give a button for all the routine historical learning in the world; by comparison with the appraising power of historical-mindedness."
Albert J. Nock, “NEW AND MODERN,” The Freeman, 1930

By the way: In American grammar it is period end-quote (Example: "This is a quotation.") or comma end-quote (Example: A list of "one item," "two items," and "three items."). The period or comma is never placed after the end-quote (unless you're British). Since folks were correcting the Professor's use/non-use of paragraphs, I thought I'd throw that in. It is just a pet peeve of mine. If you have a college degree you should know that. But on the Internet, where it is such informal writing, we should forgive a lot. Maybe a bit of grade inflation of our own? ;p

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"Schools should teach that ... (Below threshold)

September 3, 2011 2:58 AM | Posted, in reply to pageantry's comment, by GAinNY: | Reply

"Schools should teach that if a paper was boring to write, it's boring to read, and boring your teacher means lower grades."

Such good advice, and not just for the sake of grades. Find something in the assignment that interests you—that will bring out your originality and creativity.

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You kind of sound like a na... (Below threshold)

September 9, 2011 12:32 PM | Posted by lol projecting: | Reply

You kind of sound like a narcissist.

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Excellent discussion. As a ... (Below threshold)

September 18, 2011 6:29 PM | Posted by SystemsProf: | Reply

Excellent discussion. As a professor, I have participated in this system at various levels and have a few other points to add:

1. it is a complex system with many constituent parts and it is lazy to target one portion, professors, while neglecting the other forces at work.

2. The increase in enrollment is not insignificant. In more recent times, this has been motivated by revenue generation (see point 3). The net result is a vast diversification of the purposes of education according to the major players (students, parents, profs, administration, government, employers - see point 4). The issue of grades is odd because averages should be lowering, regressing to the mean, but they are not. As a result, university has become the high school of the past (see point 5).

3. The university is a bizarre non-profit organization. With no real bottom line, there is no accountability. Even tenure is being denied in fewer and fewer instances. Why? With the main financial goal being "no deficits," the threat of legal action has directed a great deal of policies.

4. What is the purpose of higher education? Depends on who you ask. many posters here want to value scholarly pursuits and the advancement of knowledge. That's what I value but I am not so narcissistic to believe that is the only value. For better or worse, higher ed functions as an extended interview for employers - could the kid hack it? In fact, I have come to see a large portion of the grade variance as just following directions. I am continually amazed at the proportion of students who fail because they just did not follow simple directions. More and more parents and by extension students view the enterprise as consumers. I purchased an A, now give it to me. I have heard (perhaps an urban legend) of students handing a prof a cell phone before they are even done returning exams. On the line is mom or dad requesting an explanation for the grade.
My question then is, what is the point? What is the purpose - or more realistically purposes - of university? They must and will always be multifaceted.

5. The grade problem starts earlier and is related to TLP's posts about self-esteem. In my region, high schools have separated grades from timeliness. So, a student cannot be docked points on anything for being late. Then they come to university.

6. I know of no professor at a research institution who pursued the career for evaluating student progress. It is an unsolvable system, but a relatively necessary evil. In Canada where I work there is the extra problem that an 80+ is an A. You can get 20% of your answers wrong and get the top letter grade. Further, there is a requirement for the class average to fall within a certain range, which is different for each course year (100 level mean = 70, 400 level mean = 81). So how is this achieved? Make the graded assignments such that an average success is right at the class average - variability takes care of the rest. Every class. Every year. So, we have manufactured no cohort effects (or at least we like to think so).

7. I have an idea that perhaps what needs to happen is the same thing that is happening in the medical profession - greater stratification. The doctor-nurse-technician hierarchy has necessarily branched into multiple strata of increasing specialization (or is at least trying to). Higher education could benefit from the same movement. This would take an enormous shift in public expectations and attitudes that would require a crisis to obtain (much in the way that the mantra of "everyone must own a home" has been shattered by the housing crisis). Celebrate diversity and rail against hegemony!

8. Because I review many graduate school applications in order to choose those I want to mentor in research, I am also a consumer of grades as info. I see grades and GREs as evidence that a student can follow the rules, face a challenge and conquer it. Nothing more. What puts people in the interview pile is a well-written and cogently argued statement of interest and good references. So, though the complaint about the fine-grained differentiation of B's and C's is accurate, it is not important for my purposes.

Most posts have covered the rest. I am quite open to suggestions as to how to approach this all differently. I favor scholarly interest and insightful criticism in students....and blog posts.

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I'm a doctoral candidate an... (Below threshold)

October 12, 2011 9:21 PM | Posted by Janet: | Reply

I'm a doctoral candidate and a TA. I am told that my class must have a B+ average at the end of the semester. If the class (because it is full of spoiled rich kids who have always been told they are brilliant and have never had to actually work for it) is actually quite stupid and unskilled, the professor for whom I work tells me that I must be sure that the class average is a B+. What does that mean? Inflate everyone's grades.

I have had a first semester FRESHMAN challenge me and tell me that I obviously have no idea what I'm doing since I gave her [piece of shit paper] a C+ (and "did I even bother to read it?"). A FREAKING FRESHMAN with a rich daddy. A freshman who attended a private high school and now attends a private college full of Harvard wannabes who didn't get in and used this one as their safety school. A majority of these students should not have graduated from high school. Literally. They cannot think or write themselves out of a paper bag. Shockingly and disturbingly, most of the students I have to teach are on their way to becoming physicians. And daddy will make sure it happens. And if it doesn't happen, he'll drive up in his BMW 7-series and he and his high-priced attorney will get out and beat you senseless.

Anyway, back to my original reason for writing this response. When students are given course evaluation forms at the end of the semester, it is made clear to them at the top of the form that their responses will be used to make promotion and salary decisions about the instructor/TA. If you happen to be someone who stands your ground in a fruitless attempt to bring lazy and stupid students up to some level of scholarship worthy of your institution's name, guess what? You're fucked. And when I finish my doctorate, if I choose to teach (and you could not possibly pay me enough to do so...), I will have to provide my course evaluations when I apply for university positions. Any stupid undergraduate who holds a grudge against me for making them work too hard could ruin my career before it even starts. Grade inflation has everything to do with the existence of course evaluations. Period.

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I'd have gone to college an... (Below threshold)

October 16, 2011 12:10 PM | Posted by crumbskull: | Reply

I'd have gone to college and loved it(and not have been asked not to return after one semester on account of egregious awesomeness) if it had had anything to do at all with education. When you hear people saying that getting a degree enabled them to, like, read and then be able to discuss what they read in an organized and cogent way or else, like, shows that they can be given a medium term task and complete it I get all gigglin'. Basically a straight admission that it took sixty grand and four years to get taught to approximate an adult. Its like "Thats wierd because I've been able to read for, like, ever?" Its a bummer and I know that there is a boat load of us "too smart to have to try" kind of kids that were totally underserved and uninterested but then had this idea that higher education would be a place of, like, actual higher learning and not just a really expensive refresher on everything we were already taught for the last twelve years. Plus, also, that whole idea that you'll never be as drunk or as laid as you were in college is also just, like, "haha, what?".

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Haha. "You're right, THEY ... (Below threshold)

November 2, 2011 2:12 PM | Posted by Ozgur: | Reply

Haha. "You're right, THEY totally do that, not ME. Because they don't really know what they're talking about. I, on the other hand, know everything worth knowing."

Lot of that on the comments. Obviously the result of making a point successfully.

I was an astrophysics student subjected to the old "research universities throwing 10 hours of homework at students a day with no real guidance or teaching just to thin them out a bit and have fewer to deal with later on" phenomenon. So mostly didn't run into this, just a different variety of narcissism in professors. Realized I was wasting my time and money, realized switching to English would get me a degree easily but still waste my time and money, and got out. I don't regret it, but I'd really rather have had good professors who actually taught. I was amazed at how interested professors were in killing creativity in the sciences. Last time I checked, creativity was crucial to nearly all great discoveries, but mostly the profs just wanted to do their research and proclaim they already know everything they need to in order to teach effectively (and pretend there is no conflict of interest between those two attitudes).

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Loved every minute of readi... (Below threshold)

December 7, 2011 2:34 AM | Posted by Ashok: | Reply

Loved every minute of reading this. I've been thinking hard about how to make my own classes useful, especially with the horror stories of students that don't care at all and the knowledge that good students are overburdened at times with too much work. I don't know. Ultimately, we are a materialistic society that wants our grades, wants our titles to count more at a protest, doesn't really want to learn.

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This is tangential to the o... (Below threshold)

January 21, 2012 11:32 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

This is tangential to the original post, but I'd hate to see people make a false idol of the "hard sciences." I have 2 bachelors degrees (yeah, I know-- what?), one in the humanities, one in a STEM field. I hope I never see a bigger clusterfuck than the one I witnessed in the sciences. If TAs are bad, the fact that TAs do the vast majority of the "teaching" in science programs is horrific. Most of the material isn't "taught" at all; professors wave their hands, draw stuff on the board, and then give 10+ hours per night of incomprehensible homework (including obnoxious amounts of group work) that they often didn't even bother to grade. If you seem semi-articulate and don't hand in papers written in text-speak, you're guaranteed an A. In my Intro courses, professors gave, quite literally, the exact same tests in the same order for years at a time. Of course, any student in the know got the old tests (multiple choice, no less), memorized the answers, and sauntered off the campus with honors. Anyone who seemed interested in going above and beyond, or in recognizing that the Emperor was a nudist, was branded a troublemaker and penalized with lower grades. (This happened to me - bitter...)

In my humanities program, I was taught by full professors in classes of 15-20 students. They may not have succeeded in educating us, but dammit, they tried. Say what you like about the impracticality of "soft" subjects, but the only skills I learned in school that I've used in real life have been 1) how to write coherently, and 2) how to wade through complex information and find a common thread. Neither of these skills were called upon at all in the STEM courses. What a learned in those was how to do the bare minimum amount of work required to beat the curve and get an A-, and/or cheat for an A.

I'm interviewing now at several of the top 10 grad programs in my field. How? I do well on standardized tests. Why? Because I want to do research. I'll be damned if I get roped into the university scam for the rest of my life, though. Industry it is. I'd rather investigate the biophysics of splatter patterns made by Ronald McDonald's favorite brand of ketchup for the rest of my life than mime "teaching" while undergrads stroke my ego and the educational system collapses around me.

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Please excuse all the typos... (Below threshold)

January 21, 2012 11:40 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Please excuse all the typos and lack of subject verb agreement up there in the previous post. Rum, etc.

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It pisses me off when I spe... (Below threshold)

January 24, 2012 12:10 PM | Posted by Steve: | Reply

It pisses me off when I spend two weeks on a Comp Sci project, get an A, and the guy sitting next to me--who still hasn't figured how to use a for-loop--waits until the night before and somehow earns a B. The worst part? I'm not even exaggerating this story. It actually happened.

As a student, and one of the maligned Millenials, the only chance I have to separate myself from competitors is at the interview. Why even bother getting good grades?

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That you are consequently ... (Below threshold)

April 1, 2012 4:47 AM | Posted by cheap jeans: | Reply

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So much narcissism in the c... (Below threshold)

April 19, 2012 3:46 AM | Posted by Gral: | Reply

So much narcissism in the comments. So many people bragging about what college they attended, what difficult major they had, what is their vocabulary.

None of that has any bearing on TLP's essay.

It's like a big ego-wank to some of you. Disgusting, actually.

As to TLP's main entry -- excellent, and I agree completely, and I think it has application well outside the university/college setting, extending all the way down backward from 12 to kindergarten in schools, and applies to all hierarchies that I've encountered in the working world as well as formal team sports and other entities where hierarchy is part of the game being played.

Short version:

* People are lazy as hell.
* People would rather suck up to someone above them on the totem pole than stand by their own convictions.
* Most American hierarchies rely upon the two points just said.

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PS:Computer scienc... (Below threshold)

April 19, 2012 3:50 AM | Posted by Gral: | Reply


Computer science is not a "hard science." It's an applied science, like engineering. Slightly less rigorous, if you ask me. I'd say the "hard sciences" are simply math, biology, chemistry, physics.

Please don't try to squeeze sociology, economics or "political science" in there.

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That you are consequently ... (Below threshold)

May 7, 2012 2:17 AM | Posted by oakleyeyeglasses: | Reply

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Anyone can ensure you that ... (Below threshold)

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The title of the essay we j... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2013 5:55 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The title of the essay we just did was "[Module Title]: A Synthesis of Learning Across Topics". In other words, there's no point in thinking of anything new, we just have to vomit back up the information in the lectures. To be fair, they say that 'quality of writing' will be marked...

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You think you philosophy pr... (Below threshold)

February 17, 2015 12:48 AM | Posted by Ziggy Mehta: | Reply

You think you philosophy professor re-reads
You think your philosophy professor re-reads

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February 25, 2015 11:15 PM | Posted by Ziggy Mehta: | Reply


Or, in simpler terms, these protesting university professors were guilty of committing the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority.

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Random ideas for making col... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2015 1:15 AM | Posted by Ziggy Mehta: | Reply

Random ideas for making college education better (more measurable):

(1) Now: the professor who teaches the class also designs and administers tests. Future: Make the testing function a task performed by a second professor who DOES NOT consult with the teaching professor. The engineering world learned long ago that V & V (validation and verification) must be done by engineers other than the designer, due to obvious psychological biases that prevent the later from seeing all the potential holes in her own design. The best technology companies even place physical and cultural firewalls in between their design engineers and V & V engineers.

(2) Don't let the same professor teach class X for 20 straight years. Class X should have new professors -- for both the teaching and testing (see previous point) functions -- every Y years. How do we encourage that? We should suggest to US News and World Report that they use "Average number of professors who've taught any given class over the last 20 years" as a metric in their annual college "rankings".

(3) GPA's (official or unofficial) should be supplemented with a histogram showing the distribution of A's, B's, C's, etc., for all classes taken. Do this for transcripts, too, where each classes' grade is accompanied by that classes' grade histogram. If histograms are too clunky and require too much manual visual inspection (not computer-readable), then the next best substitute would be to report the distribution's average and standard deviation.

(4) Too many colleges (Ivy League, Stanford, etc.,) have lofty reputations whose origins are un-trace-able. Some of those reputations might be due to what Malcolm Gladwell calls selection effects, not processing effects. i.e., Is Harvard great because they can do better than other universities WITH THE SAME INCOMING RAW MATERIAL, or because they have the pick of the litter (brightest high school students = best incoming raw material) due to their "reputation"? Why not demand that a prerequisite for getting a Bachelors degree is to take the SAT test again right before graduation? This way we can measure the delta (SAT_college_commencement - SAT_senior_year_high_school) and have some benchmark as to how smarter students got DUE TO THIS UNIVERSITY.

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Now in today's world, a per... (Below threshold)

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