I read this series of posts from The Atlantic and I decided to express my thoughts on the subject.
It started with a very short post from The Atlantic commenting on a piece of philosophical technicalities from a certain college newspaper. Basically, the most common grade at Harvard is A. Yes, more students at Harvard get A’s than any other grade, as was reported by the Harvard Crimson, that cool paper mentioned once or twice in that film The Social Network (fantastic film by the way). Some of the faculty, and those in charge, at Harvard suggested that fact was a problem, that they violated their own grading policy, and that they failed their own students. Then a tweet came to defend Harvard. Creative writing professor from Princeton, of all places, and renowned novelist Joyce Carol Oates, famous for… well, having written a ton of books (she’s the Stephen King of literary fiction), weighed in to say:
Oates sends out a few more tweets to expand her thoughts. Essentially, Oates is saying that students work very hard and deserve to get the grades they get. Students taking advanced courses at advanced schools are much more likely to get such good grades because they’re, well, advanced. The Atlantic contributor Eleanor Barkhorn partially agrees with Oates, except for, apparently the “working hard” hard.
Barkhorn went to Princeton, where Oates teaches, and she graduated about eight years ago. Barkhorn believes that stricter grading policies set in place sparked a necessary fear in her that required her to work harder in order to earn those grades. She said:
A lot of us had pushed ourselves hard in high school to get in to a great school and saw our time at Princeton as a reward, not an opportunity to push ourselves again, even harder. The university’s relatively lax grading policies only encouraged that mentality.
Midway through my time at Princeton, though, the school adopted new grading standards. Starting my junior fall, professors could give out only a limited number of A-range grades. The change prompted lots of anxiety and indignation from the student body—and now, nine years later, it may be rolled back. But for me, “grade deflation” was a much-needed kick in the pants. I started reading more carefully, taking more diligent notes, developing relationships with my professors and their teaching assistants. I ended up learning a lot more and enjoying my classes in a much deeper way.
In response to Barkhorn, I have to say, that’s very cute.
In this particular case, I find myself agreeing with Oates. I’m sure Barkhorn worked very hard, i’m willing to bet she was a bit of a book nerd anyway.
I went to University of Washington. I certainly wasn’t the best student there, nor do I necessarily think they had the strictest grading policies, but the University, as well as the students, set their standards very high. I frequently came across students who demanded such high marks of themselves that to receive any grade less than a 4.0 was absolutely unacceptable. I’ve seen students take a paper from their professors hand with a 3.8 marked on the top, and they’d immediately fall into a pit of discouragement that they actually go to the professor to confront them about the horribly low grade. The school is swarming with overachievers, training themselves at such a young age to get to UW and receive high marks.
So yes, Joyce Carol Oates is correct in defending Harvard for giving out A’s in advanced classes at Harvard University for students who, I would believe safe to be assumed, are working very hard to get these grades because I thoroughly believe students at Harvard are just as obsessively overachieving, if not more so, than some, but certainly not all, students at University of Washington, or Princeton, or wherever else. Also, the students today are different from the students eight years ago, at a completely different school, which Barkhorn was a part of. Especially at Harvard, only one of the top schools in the country (world?).
Of course, there’s a lot more to college than just getting grades. Extracurricular activities, internships, volunteering, independent projects, work experience, there’s so much more that a student should be judged on during their time that grades from any given class should only be a small factor.
I also think the faculty and Staff should be careful with how they handle that grading fact at Harvard. “Grade inflation,” as they call it, certainly shouldn’t be considered a violation of their grading policy, nor should it be considered failing the students of academic standards. It may warrant an investigation, sure, but judging from they Crimson article, it seems they may be overreacting a bit, and that’s not good. Universities are supposed to be places for enlightenment and critical thought. The last thing we need is to change academia into standardized testing.
Read the Barkhorn piece here.