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.
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.