Making the Grade in IHUM

A/B/C/D/F = Awkward/Bad/Confusing/Dumb/Failure?
You’ve probably already heard [what I think of IHUM]( And [what Otis Reid thinks of IHUM]( And now, courtesy of the Stanford Daily, here’s [what columnist David Spencer Nelson ’14 thinks of IHUM]( I’m beginning to sense a trend. [SUES](, are you listening?

While Otis and I mostly took issue with the underlying structure of IHUM, David devotes considerable space in his column to a more practical topic: IHUM’s often-infuriating grading system.

The first thing most students notice when they sit down in section is that this class is not just about educating; it’s about handing you a slice of humble pie. Freshmen are told not to expect good grades, but aren’t told how to get better ones. The seemingly arbitrary nature of IHUM’s grading scales is alienating to students with a mild interest in the humanities

It often feels like the program is designed more to help you realize your limitations than to expand them. Students struggling to break the B-HUM curse are likely to become apathetic and stop trying to do much more than pass.

The idea of a “B-HUM curse,” of course, springs from the widespread- and fairly accurate- perception that it’s incredibly difficult to get anything but a B in IHUM. When you’re slogging through IHUM, no amount of hard work seems to bring you any closer to an A, and no amount of slacking seems sufficient to drop you down to a C. IHUM grading often seems inscrutable and arbitrary, and the huge amount of leeway afforded TFs in grading can lead to wild discrepancies in expectations and standards between sections. And, as David notes, there’s a real sense that the powers that be want everyone to eat “a slice of humble pie,” that freshmen are simply being shocked into realizing they’re not in high school anymore. There’s no doubt that grading plays a huge role in turning people off to IHUM. But what *should *IHUM grading look like? To answer that question, we need to delve into the deeper issue of grades themselves.

In my mind, the argument about grades isn’t really an argument about why we have grades. It’s fairly simple: grades are supposed to show how well a student has mastered the material at hand, be it organic chemistry or medieval poetry. It seems to me that there are two main issues which cause dissension and disagreement on grades. First, who are grades for? Second, what sort of grading system most accurately represents mastery? The first question is one of audience. Are grades primarily intended to be a form of feedback for individual students, to show them how well they’ve grasped the material? Or are they supposed to be a sort of “academic portfolio” which an outside observer (such as a grad school or an employer) can consult for a semi-objective assessment of a student’s skills and past performance? It’s easy to see how this dichotomy could generate disagreements about grading systems. In the first scenario, grading on a curve is somewhat ludicrous, since it removes the individual student from the center of focus and places an undue emphasis on the performance of others. If 75% of the students mastered the material at roughly an A- level, the argument goes, why should the professor have to give some of those students Bs in order to maintain a desired grade distribution? But in the second scenario, grading on a curve makes sense, since the “academic portfolio” is essentially a tool of competition (for grad school spots, for jobs, for grants, etc.), and curve-based grading is nothing if not a measure of competitiveness.

In some ways, the differences between undergrad and professional-school grading highlight the role of this issue in grading policy. Most undergraduate institutions use an A/B/C/D/Fail model of grading; highly gradated, intended to facilitate comparisons between students, and (especially for a bunch of over-achieving former valedictorians) very psychologically charged. Most schools of law and medicine, however, have adopted pure Pass/Fail or at least Honors/Pass/Fail grading: not very gradated, too bulky for comparative use, and relatively less stress-inducing. It seems to me that the difference springs mainly from the issue of audience I outlined above. Undergrads, upon graduation, will have to go forth and compete with others for jobs mainly on the basis of their GPAs. But doctors and lawyers are typically judged only on their alma mater, not their grades. (As the old joke goes: what do you call the person who graduates last in his class from med school? Doctor.) It stands to reason, then, that undergrad institutions use a grading system which is primarily useful for comparisons and competition, while professional schools utilize a system which is intended mainly to inform students whether or not they’ve mastered the material at hand.

The second question- what sort of grading system most accurately represents mastery- is a more difficult one, fraught with logistical difficulties and potential for abuse. It’s also not a question that can be answered once for all subjects: obviously, creative writing seminars will have wildly different definitions of “mastery” than will organic chemistry lectures. In a way, the sciences have it easy: it’s fairly simple to assign grades when your subject involves absolute right answers. The humanities, however, face the daunting task of attempting to define and represent “mastery” of a system of thought which is inherently subjective. What’s more, any humanities prof worth his salt is going to be basing most of his grades on essays, which (despite what the folks who administer the MCAT seem to think) can only be graded by people. People, of course, are notoriously biased, and prone to denigrating arguments and ideas that don’t match up with their own. Are you getting that C+ because you truly haven’t understood Dante, or because your professor just hates your writing style? Did you bomb that Psych final because you couldn’t muster a convincing argument in favor of cognitive-behavioral analysis, or because the TA is a devotee of psychoanalysis and can’t shake her biases long enough to see the merits of your essay? And don’t even get me started on creative writing or art.

So what does all of this mean for IHUM grading? First of all, I think we can all agree that no grad school or employer is going to be very interested in a required general-ed course, or even in a student’s freshman-year grades. And it makes no sense to expose freshmen to the kind of competitive mentality that the “academic portfolio” model tends to foster while they’re still struggling to adjust to Stanford life. Freshman year should be about developing new skills in a safe environment. So it seems quite reasonable to assume that IHUM grades should be intended primarily to provide individualized feedback to freshmen about their mastery of the IHUM material, and not to facilitate comparisons or competition between students. I’m thus quite skeptical that the traditional A/B/C/D/Fail system now in place is the best one. Besides, the “B-HUM” system seems to match up quite nicely with the Honors/Pass/Fail system often used by med schools: A = Honors, B = Pass, anything else = Fail. Why not make it official?

Second, we really do have to consider the nature of “mastery” in IHUM. What exactly are we trying to get students to learn? To quote from the IHUM website:

HUM also serves as a transition from secondary school into college level learning…. IHUM instruction focuses on the development of diverse analytical and critical skills for interpretation of primary texts carefully selected for their richness and variety.

“Analytical and critical skills;” that is, close reading, critical thought and theorizing, essay writing, and high-level discussion. (Not the historical minutiae of the Second Crusade, the artistic movements of the eighteenth century, or endless lists of schools of philosophy.) So how, exactly, are we supposed to measure “mastery” of these skills, and what sort of grades will reflect that mastery? That’s not an easy question to answer, and it seems clear that any attempt to answer it will run afoul of the biases inherent in subjective grading. But there are a few steps that could be taken to improve on the current situation. First, why should evaluation stop at a single letter or number? Perhaps TFs could be asked to write a short appraisal of each student’s skills at the end of the quarter. It could include some praise, some constructive criticism, and an explanation of why the student received the grade she did, and could be sent directly to the student to supplement her final grade. This would certainly help clear up some of the current concerns about “opaque” grading. In order to combat excessive subjectivity and personal biases, why not have more than one TF read and grade each essay? All of the major standardized tests which include writing sections have more than one reader evaluate the essay. Why don’t we do the same in IHUM? Finally, IHUM or its successor program should devote more time and energy to explaining what, exactly, constitutes “college level learning,” and to making students aware of the standards to which they will be held. Grades are much more useful, after all, when the people receiving them have some idea of what they mean.

So to David Spencer Nelson, and all of the other poor beleaguered members of the great class of 2014, hang in there, and try to see the true intent of IHUM through the layers of detritus. Focus on sharpening your critical and analytical skills. Enjoy your discussions, challenge your preconceptions, and pick up a few tips on essay writing. Don’t be too upset if you end up with a B. It doesn’t really matter. And hopefully, if we all speak out loudly enough, we can make the IHUM of 2016 a bit saner and more enjoyable.

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