Grade Me Grade Me Grade Me

On the first day of class, whether it be Logic, Ethics, or Modern Philosophy, I inform my students that it is possible for every one of them to receive a grade of A. A 90% or above for the class guarantees a grade in the A range. The phenomenon of every student earning an A as a final grade has never transpired in any of my hundreds of classes over the years, and probably never will. Though it’s been close on a couple of occasions, it’s not like I teach Italian conversation! In principle, however, it’s possible. (I sincerely hope it happens, though I won’t water down the requirements of the class in order to facilitate this outcome.) Let me defend this grading policy against detractors.

Grading Muddy Waters
There are teachers who apply a “bell curve” using “normal distribution”; they believe that assigning grades ought to be principally a function of how a student’s performance compares to others in the same class. Grading on a bell curve entails that that the mean grade is a C, and there are as many Fs as As, and as many Ds as Bs, no matter how well the class performed overall. Why do professors use the bell curve? I think the usual justification falls along these following lines: “No way are all, or even most, of my students worthy of an A. This college admits mostly ‘C’ students, so I will ensure that the average for my class is also a C.” At St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, where I taught for 3 years, this was the explicit and expressed approach of the Dean of Students. If any teacher had a class with a higher average grade than that of a C, that teacher would have to justify it in writing to the Dean. I have two objections to bell curving grades as a pedagogical practice. First, it’s cruel. Second, it’s logically suspect. 

Bell Curves are Cruel

Here’s a true story, too often repeated in college classes across this country. The teacher uses a straight bell curve. Student x gets a B on the first exam. She is happy. Students who received the lowest 10% of scores received Fs. All students who received an F subsequently drop. Time for the second exam. Student x performs just as well in relation to other students as she did on the first exam, but because a bell curve is used, she receives a C. She is a little concerned. Again, the students who received Fs drop. Now, there’s a third grading assignment. Student x performs equally well in relation to the others but receives a D. Now, however, it’s too late to drop without receiving a F for the course! That’s just cruel on the part of the professor.

Bell Curves are Logically Suspect

Consider RUNNING. Suppose that you are the fastest runner on the planet. Even Usain Bolt is left in the dust kicked up by your spikes. Now imagine that overnight an ethereal substance from space enters the Earth’s atmosphere. It has an interesting and unique property: it causes one to become very fast. Say every human on the planet breathes in this ether, except for poor you. The following day, as a consequence, everyone is faster than you. Your overweight, chain-smoking, neighbor with bad knees is now faster than you. Are you now a slow runner? Most definitely, even though you haven’t lost a step.

Now consider KISSING. Say you meet someone for a romantic dinner. It goes extremely well; you fancy each other. You two kiss. It is undeniably pleasurable; both of you enjoy it immensely. Your kissing partner exclaims afterwards, “My oh my, you’re a good kisser!” You go to sleep happy. Now, suppose that strange fumes arise from deep volcanic activity in the Earth. These fumes have a distinctive and intriguing characteristic: those who inhale become good kissers. Really good kissers. However, you happen to be sleeping someplace where the fumes didn’t reach. But everyone else is lucky enough to inhale these fumes. And so, as a result, everyone becomes a better kisser than you. Would that mean that you are no longer a good kisser? That overnight, due to no fault of your own, you became a shitty kisser? (If you care, in the technical language of philosophy, that is called a Cambridge change.) No, it would simply mean that you’re worse than all the others! You’re still good though—bad kissers aren’t required to exist for there to exist good kissers. You just now live in a world where everyone happens to be a good kisser. (The intention here is not to illuminate what it means to be a good kisser. I’m trying to set it up such that whatever it takes to be a good kisser is now “granted” to the inhaler of the kissing fumes. This may include the ability to affect the perception and experience of the other party! Now kissing is sounding creepy, but hopefully you get the idea. I should also add that if the kissing analogy doesn’t grab you, there are other analogies that can be used in its stead.)


GRADING is more like kissing than it is like running—in my book at least. I imagine that it’s possible for everyone in the world to be good kissers. Was it pleasurable? Did your partner enjoy the kiss? That’s what counts. Just like in my class where everyone can get an A. Did the student learn the material? Did the student achieve over 90% for the course? If so, give that student a grade in the A range, even if it turns out that everyone else in the class is a bit more excellent.

In conclusion, kissing shouldn’t be graded on a bell curve; nor should performance in a college class.


Thinking Objectively; Or, How Not To Turn Your Students Into Tools

“How can one teach college students to think objectively on their own without professors infecting them with their bias and prejudice?”

To the above question, this is my initial or “knee-jerk” reaction: This worry about students turning into clones of their intellectually corrupt professors is often expressed, but it is overblown. Many college students already do think relatively objectively on their own. (More on this perhaps startling statement in a later post.) All that’s needed for such students is honing and practice. Now, such students aren’t likely to start thinking less objectively because they encounter a biased professor, even one they must endure for a full semester. As a teacher who hears many stories about other teachers, for the most part, I hear students complaining about teachers who wear their bias and prejudice on their sleeves. If there is undue influence from teacher to student, it tends to be much more subtle. I venture to say that transference of bias or prejudice will typically happen only when the student is unaware that the professor is biased or prejudiced. Give students at least that much credit! Suppose that I’m prejudiced against homosexuals and believe that any homosexual act is sinful. And suppose further that I don’t take seriously any argument that purports to defend the morality of homosexual behavior, simply because that argument reaches a conclusion contrary to my own. Most students will see through me like a searchlight through a cheap tent. I think that in some cases students are more aware of a bias in a teacher than the teacher himself or herself. (This is one reason I take student evaluations seriously. More on this in a later post.) A non-biased teacher, on the other hand, will take seriously arguments for and against positions that he or she personally, even passionately, holds. (Obviously, there are limits to this. No teacher worth having will debate the shape of the earth or the morality of interracial dating.) And for those students who don’t think objectively—they come to class clothed in their own bias and prejudice—what’s the chance of them abandoning these garments? It’s not very high. If you doubt this answer, ask any political science professor.

Socrates Bill and Ted

Thinking Objectively

I like my knee-jerk reaction, but here’s another response that is a bit more thoughtful. Thinking objectively is to think in a non-biased, non-prejudicial, even-handed, fair manner. As such, the claims, methods, and conclusions of objective inquiry should not be influenced by personal interests, particular perspectives, or community bias, among other relevant considerations. Objectivity is usually taken as an ideal for inquiry, and as an essential characteristic of knowledge-seeking across many disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, sociology, psychology, and, of course, philosophy. It is crucial, however, that we do not include in the definition of objectivity that it avoid all interests and value commitments, since holding objectivity as an ideal in knowledge-seeking is itself a value commitment! (Let’s call interest-free and value-free objectivity “absolute objectivity.”) Also, in recent times, absolute objectivity as an ideal in knowledge-seeking has been challenged in terms of both its value and its achievability. Let me explain.

Consider first of the value of absolute objectivity. Objectivity as such requires knowledge-seekers to make no value judgments whatsoever. But imagine, for instance, a scientist making no value judgments. This is—for all intents and purposes, absurd. A scientist needs to make “methodological value judgments—about appropriate sample size, models, reliable data, and so on—even to do their work. Obviously, scientists ought not remain neutral about issues such as whether the earth is flat, whether anthropogenic climate change exists, or whether they should allow biomedical ethics codes in their experiments. No good researchers are neutral about poor research and poor ethics” (Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science, 215). Some, most notably feminist philosophers of science, have also argued that the goal of absolute objectivity may itself be a cultural artifact, albeit a pervasive, institutionalized one. Regarding the achievability of absolute objectivity, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “the prospects for [inquiry] providing a non-perspectival ‘view from nowhere’ or for proceeding in a way uninformed by human goals and values are fairly slim.”

It should now be clear that I am no fan of absolute objectivity. However, I do consider objectivity (of a less strict variety) to be an ideal for inquiry. The above description of scientists making methodological value judgments is compatible with objective inquiry. Now, I noted above that many students already do think relatively objectively on their own. What do I do for the others?

My philosophy professors were also not defenders of absolute objectivity. To a man—and most were men—they carefully followed certain standards, standards which they believed were better than other standards. They rejected relativism, especially scientific and ethical relativism. Certain methodological, ethical, and logical standards governed their inquiry. As students, we were taught to learn and implement them in our own philosophical inquiries. Even while my professors considered competing arguments with gusto, they also ranked these arguments with equal gusto. But even while undoubtedly committed to the view that some arguments are objectively better than others, they would rarely offer their own considered position or suggest that the matter was closed to further inquiry. The model exemplar of this approach is probably Socrates. (Check out this video demonstrating Socrates at his “best.” It is based off of Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.)


The Non-Committal Approach

My philosophical training took place primarily at three institutions: University of Arizona, King’s College London, and University of Washington. As mentioned above, my professors rarely, if ever, articulated their own personal views on any matter of philosophical significance. For instance, if a professor discussed the issue of abortion, he or she would never to express his or her personal opinion on the matter. Never. Of course, arguments were articulated, evaluated, and ranked. But since the debate is not closed—there are relatively powerful arguments both for and against abortion—one argument being ranked relatively better than the other doesn’t automatically settle the debate. Perhaps there are better arguments that haven’t yet been offered. As a student in these departments, you could never be sure what the professor believed. In some cases, you’d get the sense that perhaps the professor had no opinion on the matter.

Let’s call this the Non-Committal Approach. Justification for the Non-Committal Approach is simple and straightforward: a good way to ensure that one’s students approach a controversial topic in a non-biased fashion and argue objectively about that topic is for them to have no clue as to the personal beliefs of the person whose authority they respect or whom they look up to, or simply the person who grades or evaluates them. If a student knows the personal views of his or her professor, her own views risks being colored as a consequence. The student will be tempted to mimic or parrot the professor, or at minimum be unduly influenced. The Non-Committal Approach remains the most common approach taken by those who teach in philosophy departments. For all intents and purposes, Socrates has won.

When I was a fledgling teacher, I was fully committed to the Non-Committal Approach, and I acted on it. I would articulate and defend the competing sides of a controversial topic as ably and fairly as I could. And I would leave it at that. Consequently, I’ve had students who swore I was a Catholic (peruse my Rate My Professor comments), others who believed that I was a Stoic, a dualist, a determinist. (You didn’t hear it here, but the truth is that I’m none of these.)

I now believe that the Non-Committal Approach is too simplistic, even naive. And it has a serious drawback. Let me explain. Students often come away from a Non-Committal philosophy professor with the view that what all philosophers do is to question, and not provide answers to these questions. For every answer offered in class is promptly questioned, or as it may appear, attacked. This understandably leads students to the conclusion that philosophers are naysayers and even destroyers of ideas, not those with positive positions, that is, builders. Some philosophers are of course principally destructive thinkers (which I think is really the “easy” way to do philosophy), but most are constructive in their outlook. Or, philosophers can easily be seen to be wishy-washy or  “philosofickle,” a term coined by my brother; in other words, changeable, even unpredictable, in their views. If you adopt the Non-Committal Approach, well, then, don’t be surprised when you’re seen by your students to have no commitments. Why is this a serious drawback? Philosophy, or in whatever discipline you wish to adopt the Non-Committal Approach, will be perceived by students as having nothing to add to knowledge, much less anything to add to the improvement of human existence. It will be seen instead as a destructive discipline, or at best, a discipline where all you do is to learn how to “critically think.” That simply doesn’t cut it.

My Approach

So what is my own approach? Usually I don’t state my own views upfront, for doing so tends to stifle discussion. Typically, I begin by addressing all competing sides to a controversial topic–to exhaust the logical space, as it were. I field student questions. I let students address each other’s arguments. At this point, what I do looks like the Non-Committal Approach in action. However, after initial discussion and student input, then often I will offer my own view on the matter. In other words, my own opinion typically emerges only when adjudicating between the different sides. Sometimes, albeit rarely, I “give away” my view right from the start. For instance, I’ve been known to tell my students of my proclivity toward vegetarianism before discussing the morality of eating animals. On such occasions, I deliberately avoid suspense in terms of where I’m going, similar to how a good argumentative essay proceeds. An argumentative essay that does not inform the reader right away of its thesis (the position to be defended) can be incredibly annoying and even confusing to read. If suspense is desired, there will still be some suspense in terms of how the thesis will be defended. There are topics on which I haven’t made up my mind, for instance, on the morality of reproductive cloning. But I think it’s important to make to clear to my students that my stance has not yet been formed, that I’m still working through the intricacies of the debate. Or to point out that I need more information. Students need to see their philosophy professor at work too, struggling with the same issues they are. Again, though, it’s just as important to state on which topics I do have views–that I, as a philosopher, have actually made some progress on some important issues. Philosophy, and other disciplines, need to be seen as making some progress. And, let’s be honest, haven’t they?