Morcock, Melville House, school, boundaries and norms, the greatest NCY pictures you’ve ever seen, and more!

* “The Anti-Tolkien,” about Michael Moorcock, is quite good and worth reading but it does one thing that consistently annoys me: it doesn’t tell new readers where we should start. Any piece about a long-established and/or prolific artist should have a suggested starting point. Few if any artists are equally good across dozens of works. In the case of Elmore Leonard, for example, I’d suggest starting with Get Shorty and Out of Sight in that order.

* Melville House on publishing The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. You “should” read it, though you probably won’t.

NYC_Skyline* Don’t be a full-time adjunct and don’t go to grad school, which ought to be obvious.

* The Unappreciated Success Of Charter Schools.

* Dr. Ali: On sexual boundaries, exotic lovers and three ways I answer your dating questions

* It’s always been hard to make a living in art.

* Incredible NYC pictures taken from 7,500 feet.

* Heat Death: Venture Capital in the ’80s is unexpected and well-cited.

What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.

Same Performance, Better Grades: Academic achievement hasn’t improved much, so why are college-goers getting higher GPAs than ever before?” doesn’t cite Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, though it should. Both the article and the book observe that grade inflation is real and doesn’t reflect increased student knowledge. But neither book nor article bring up an obvious question: What incentive does an individual professor have to grade honestly (or, as students might call it, “harshly”)?

When an individual professor grades students harshly, the students give low evaluation scores (which the article does, to its credit, note), but more importantly they can create a lot of extra work in the form of emails to be answered and, to a lesser extent, office hour visits generated. Much of htat work is not rewarding, intellectually or remuneratively, although office hours can be. Professors are rewarded primarily by producing research and in some schools to a lesser extent for getting high student evaluations, and grading honestly is counterproductive for either of those goals; it’s like a professional athlete honing his knitting skills.

Helicopter parenting may also contribute to student expectations around grades, and administrator expectations that students’s input will be valued in terms of who to hire, fire, and promote. I haven’t experienced helicopter parenting first-hand, but I have heard the stories, and I have heard about grad students and adjuncts going to meetings based on low grades; the message gets disseminated even if it isn’t stated explicitly.

I’ve gotten lots of unhappy emails and, more rarely, calls from students. The perhaps most interesting ones come from students who plagiarized papers but thought I should excuse the plagiarism. In middle or high school perhaps that would be appropriate, but not college, and their efforts take time and mental energy to deal with. If even the plagiarizers want a hearing and elaborate negotiations and second chances, imagine the students who just wrote weak papers!

There’s no check on giving high grades, especially in squishy humanities courses like the ones I teach. The article says “Ultimately, grade inflation has severe consequences,” but then lists extremely un-severe consequences, like difficulty “for employers to vet the caliber of an applicant” (do employers actually do this?) or misleading students, “who often use their grades as benchmarks to help diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.” Some students do that but many don’t. The “severe consequences” paragraph feels like it was invented by a student for a paper.

Finally, the much-ballyhooed shift from tenured faculty to adjuncts means that even small or unjustified complaints can mean the difference between a given adjunct getting a course or not getting a course, if the opportunity is down to two, or a small number, of potential instructors. I’ve not heard of any adjunct, grad student, or instructor getting static for giving overly high grades. Give low grades or run a demanding class, though, and it can and does happen. Many adjunct decide to buckle up for safety’s sake, instead of going wild by not wearing that seatbelt.

Colleges mostly know that the students will pay tuition (or rather, their parents and their loan originators will) if they are happy with the educational product, and professors know they are more likely to keep getting paid if they have fewer student complaints rather than more. Colleges have set up programs that are designed to graduate students with limited skills but real tuition money. Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describes the consequences.

Want more serious grades? Provide the incentives to give them. Almost no one wants more serious grades.

See also “Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing” and “The validity of grades.” Moreover, the NBER paper “Why Have College Completion Rates Increased? An Analysis of Rising Grades” finds that “grade inflation can explain much of the change in graduation rates. We show that GPA is a strong predictor of graduation rates and that GPAs have been rising since the 1990s. We also find that in national survey data and rich administrative data from 9 large public universities increases in college GPAs cannot be explained by student demographics, preparation, and school factors.” The paper seems consistent with anecdotal impressions.

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