Sunday, March 22, 2009

things you should probably know about university

pretty much everyone thinks that, in school, if you work hard enough you'll be rewarded for it. that, if you do what you're being asked, you'll get a decent grade.

guess what. that's a dream. apparently grades are actually meant to "weed students out who shouldn't be in universities". students in humanities and social sciences are especially screwed when it comes to marks, because in these fields it is virtually impossible to get a perfect grade.

and why is that? in sciences and maths when you answer the question correctly you get 100%, simple as that. unlike the humanities and social sciences, hard science and math have actual answers. disciplines like women's studies, sociology, political science, history, etc have a more flexible approach to answers because we recognize that the answer is more or less relative and that nothing can be identified as a simple "truth".

that being said it is extremely easy for profs and teaching assistants to hide behind such relative marking, such flexibility and "reflexiveness", as an excuse for using marking as a means of wielding power, of punishing students for not thinking/writing/working in the same ways that their teachers do, and of simply protecting their own comfortable position in the hierarchy that is the university.

simply put, students who don't conform to a teacher's expectations will often face a bad grade as a result. professors and teaching assistants can use bad grades to decide which students do/do not "belong" in university. marking is a form of institutional gate keeping and is regimented in such a way that "progressive" educators can hide behind the university grading scheme and not question their own complicity in its sexist, racist, and elitist logic.

this is an actual quote from an email i received about grading:


i) I think it would be useful for you to think about baseline grades (see clip below from TA handbook). So begin by asking whether the student has done more or less than what is expected for a C"
. I suggest in the future you start from the C grade (average for most students), and grade in relation to it."

"It is also the case that an A+ grade tends to indicate to students that there are no areas in which the student could improve."
"in a B assignment, a student has done all parts of the assignment and followed instructions.

so essentially an A+ is impossible because students are never "perfect".

so what if your pedagogical approach to education is that students thrive on positive reinforcement, that motivating their dedication with a good grade(even if they aren't perfect) is more effective than punitive marking?

well, too bad! the marking scheme says A+ is perfect and we must obey the almighty marking scheme.

what if after a three month strike your students come back to class and they're still into it. they're getting the material, they're excited to be in tutorial and in class, they're applying what they're learning to their lives and they feel energized and excited? and so you decide, hey, you guys studied your asses off for this midterm, you haven't missed any classes, you had to hand in a shit load of assignments in the two weeks before the midterm and yet you still come to class attentive and ready to learn so i'm going to reward your learning with marks that reflect all of this?

well, be prepared for a lot of resistance because marks are the currency of academia and as we all know: mo' money=mo' problems.

marks do work for the university and if you screw with this(regardless of how effective it is for your students--because universities don't actually care about whether or not students learn) you will be punished.

what is most important to universities is that things remain as normative as possible:

"if you have a profile that differs excessively from the ‘normal profile’ , please consult with me immediately and certainly before you hand back grades or assignments, so we can look at your assignments together."

having a grading profile that differs "excessively from the normal profile" doesn't mean that you've done a great job teaching and that your students deserve high marks. it means you're a fuck up. it means you could possibly be trying to undermine everything the professor is doing. it also means you're lazy. the normal profile means everything is as it should be, or as my students have been learning, "just the way it is".

well, if there's one thing i'm glad i've taught my students it's that "just the way it is" doesn't mean it's right. they get this.

and for anyone who might actually believe in teaching assistants having any kind of marking or pedagogical autonomy:

"The final grades are to be determined by you[the professor] and any anomalies have to be investigated. I have had a problem with new tutors not grading according to York standards in the past and have had to have these reviewed. It is the tutor's job to submit the grades and grade breakdowns to you for your approval.”( a recent communiqué from Larry Lyons, the Undergraduate Co-ordinator in Social Science).

so professors get to lecture for 2 hours per week and teaching assistants do the majority of work in the course: the one on one office hours, answering emails, the marking, the ACTUAL teaching. however, the professor remains completely in control of the final grades and feels entitled to harass and intimidate their teaching assistants in order to maintain a "normal" profile at all costs.

universities, professors, and teaching assistants who engage in this kind of normative grading for no reason except that its "just the way it is", i have a great idea:

let's just get rid of teaching assistants all together and from now on robots can mark papers and teach students. this way you can have your cookie cutter approach and result as well as make your exorbitant salary without the messy hassle of having to deal with "people" and their crazy ideas about marking and teaching.

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