But elite law professors aren’t the only academics doling out high marks. In an essay that appeared in Guernica, Rachel Riederer described how adjuncts eager to have their teaching contracts renewed often give their students high grades in order to receive good performance evaluations. Slate’s Rebecca Schuman, who has taught on short-term contracts at various universities, admitted that she typically gave high grades in her humanities courses because she wanted to save herself from an endless barrage of outraged tweets, emails, and negative anonymous ratings.
Both Riederer and Schuman, however, seem to agree that if they were paid more and given lighter workloads, they would grade more aggressively and spend more time requiring their students to revise their work. Schuman, in fact, ultimately comes out in favor of a “real curve, where the average grade is really C” while acknowledging that parents paying top dollar for their students’ education would revolt at such a notion.
And you know what? I would revolt at such a notion, too. When I started out as a teaching assistant in graduate school, I watched as many of my peers engaged in one of the few pleasures available to them: ripping to shreds the work of the 80 or so undergraduates they supervised in their discussion sections. I frequently joined in, mocking the students’ ill-informed opinions and awkward turns of phrase. Together, we maintained a “wall of shame” designed to highlight these lowlights.
Now, as a third-year assistant professor, I regret having done any of that. I was never a hard grader, but I once derived a great deal of entertainment from the misfortunes and malapropisms of my students. Today, though, I’m allegedly part of the part of the “problem” of grade inflation, giving mostly As, Bs, and a smattering of Cs in my upper-level legal history classes—and I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
Based on our current in-state tuition rates, students pay approximately $50 per class to watch my lectures, and what they receive in return is my absolute best effort to capture and hold their attention. Although it saddens me that so much money is being exchanged for what is indisputably a public service, it’s in everyone’s best interest to maximize the value of these costly interactions. In other words, in an unfair system that requires students to bear the costs of their education, it makes no sense to impose harsh grading standards and other obstacles that prevent them from graduating. At a minimum, universities—which have had little success in reducing the cost of attendance—should do everything possible to encourage students to complete their degree programs.
During my last year as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, I read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and came away thinking that ours was a benighted and dissolute age. O tempora! O mores! What kind of academic world was this, that had so little love for the Great Books and so much tolerance of pop music and reality television? And why had I spent so such of my own time writing about such frivolous things? Surely the humanities needed to be saved from a future of serious papers about professional wrestling and classroom discussions about the gender politics of Internet pornography! And all these As I had gotten from kind-hearted academics who had come of age during the 1960s—how could I possibly live with myself?