I had a student come into my office (where I was a visiting mathematics professor) shaking with emotion. This was a day or two before the final exam. I couldn’t remember her name, because I had only seen her intermittently in class during the semester. She never came to the office before.
Her story was sad and long. She needed a B, she explained, to save some kind of scholarship or status about which I retain no memory. Had to do with money, anyway.
“Let’s look,” I said, and pulled up Blackboard (an awful piece of software; but that is a rant for another day). “Well, you missed a few quizzes,” I said (or words to that effect). “Plus your scores on the exams weren’t so good. Depends how you do tomorrow, but probably around a C-.”
That’s when the tears started. Not sadness. Rage. She was furious. “I never had a math professor give me anything other than an A before,” she warned me.
I wanted to say, “You have one now,” but I chickened out. I went instead for a change of subject. “What classes were those?” Meaning I was curious about their level and content.
“Math classes,” she said.
She then launched into a lecture telling me of all the grades she got in high school and other college classes. All As. I was then informed my classes were too hard and that nobody could do well in them.
My big mistake came in suggesting that she might have worked harder and that now was a little late in the game to try to make things up. She left saying she was going to complain about me. To whom I don’t know.
I’m sure she got at least partial revenge on her teacher evaluation form, rating me low, low.
Now these are frightening things to a professor. We must, the general contention says, keep our “customers” happy. And what better way than to give them the grades they desire? But really, as the semesters wend their laconic way, most of us don’t really think much about these. We all know you can’t make everybody happy.
Allison Schrager, author of “Confession of an Ivy League teaching assistant: Here’s why I inflated grades“, agrees. Teaching evaluations are only a minor annoyance.
The reason she inflated grades? “I just didn’t want to deal with all the complaining.”
Anything less than an A- would result in endless emails, crying during office hours, or calls from parents. One student once cornered me and said: “I hope you’re happy you’ve destroyed my chance at Goldman and ruined my life.”
Typical. Professors battle grade grubbing like Chinese buffets fight off cockroaches. An endless annoyance, increasing in intensity as time goes on. I recall half-joking with a colleague of my plan to offer the students of one troublesome course a C if they promised to not come to class, or they could stay and receive whatever grade they earned. I thought this brilliant, but I was talked out of it.
Schrager recalls to us the work of Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy who tracked grades at a bunch of colleges from 1903 to 2006. Here’s their picture:
The colored lines are smoothers (averages), which can be ignored. The general trend is clear: over the schools they sampled, grades marched ever upwards. A bump in the late 1940s after the war (ask your freshman if they know which one) and the enormous rise corresponding to the beginning of the decline in earnest of the West in the 1960s. And the final surge to the pinnacle which, at least at some institutions, is now occupied by nearly all students.
I have some sympathy with Schrager’s position. If you’re concerned about your academic career, better to spend one’s time writing grants and papers then in falling into the black hole of time sinks arguing with some overly earnest student why he received an 88 instead of an 89.
But sympathy is not agreement. The biggest reason for grade inflation is not students: it’s professors. They are interested in careerism as Schrager says and not in teaching. Not everywhere, no. But certainly at places like Harvard. Teaching undergraduates at “research” universities is something to be avoided: professors boast of course “relief.”
The attitude creates the vicious cycle where one professor is tempted to “go high” because they others at his institution do. And why be bothered when the grant submission is due—and they are always due.