Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Our grade-inflated world makes college that much more worthless!

I semi-seriously note in my classes that neither the students, nor my colleagues, nor the world outside ever listens to what I have to say.  I refer to this as the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome, but the reality is that hundreds of thousands of people paid to hear what Dangerfield had to say!

Take, for instance, the issue of higher education, about which I have blogged a lot. I mean, a lot!  I have also authored op-eds in newspapers, like this most recent one.  But, I bet people pay a lot more attention when, say, a Robert Samuelson says the same thing, even though I beat him to these arguments by quite a few years :)

Thus, here I am blogging more about higher education, and about grade inflation, even though this merely adds to my collection:
A University of Minnesota chemistry professor has thrust the U into a national debate about grade inflation and the rigor of college, pushing his colleagues to stop pretending that average students are excellent and start making clear to employers which students are earning their A's.
"I would like to state my own alarm and dismay at the degree to which grade compression ... has infected some of our colleges," said Christopher Cramer, chairman of the Faculty Consultative Committee. "I think we are at serious risk, through the abandonment of our own commitment of rigorous academic standards, of having outside standards imposed upon us."
Well, in this age of every kid getting a standing ovation for merely doing the routine work, grade inflation ought not to surprise us at all anymore.  Yet, I am, every time I read yet another report on this. 
University of Minnesota anthropology professor Karen-Sue Taussig suspects that today's "grade-inflated world" can be traced to the growing cost of a college degree, i.e. today's "tuition-inflated world." As Taussig told the Star Tribune, "They're paying for it, and they worked really hard, and they put in time, and therefore they think they should get a good grade."
Makes sense to me--the more we operate in a business-like world, the more we are tempted to tell customers what they want to hear.  And what they want to hear is that they are all above-average.

We also devise elaborate shenanigans so that students can even begin to feel awesome about their routine work.  I need not go outside my own academic walls for that--we have an Academic Excellence Showcase coming up in a couple of days. 
The entire day will be dedicated to the presentation of student scholarly activities, including original research papers, projects, artwork, performances, and upper-division course projects, presentations, and papers. 
Such a description might convey a notion that there would be presentations galore that resulted from "original research."  Except, it is not.  Here, the term "research" is used in the meaning that students and I use when we deal with assignments.  Like, when I tell them, "do your research on this topic before you write the three-page paper."  "Research" is nothing but, well, do your homework.

It turns out that the celebration of "academic excellence" is often nothing more than standing ovations for routine coursework.  And lost in this circus is real accomplishment when that happens.  Like a former student, "A," who presented a philosophy paper at a regional conference as a true freshman.  Yes, a true freshman.  Now, when the excellent work like hers is granted the same ranking that a routine coursework gets, you now get an idea of the Lake Wobegon traits in colleges.

Full disclosure: when the idea of undergraduate research was kicked around on campus, I was one of the very few involved in that original effort.  But, I got severely disillusioned when the discussions quickly morphed into how to make students feel great, and how faculty ought to get workload compensation.  I stopped my involvement right there.  Because, remember, nobody listens to what I say, which was the story at those meetings, too :(

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