E-mail to a student

Replying to a student who asked – respectfully, she’s nice upon nice, but persistently – why she got an A- not an A for participation, and so an A- for the course. It was going to trash her 4.0.


Sorry for my delay responding; I’m just back from the AWP conference. It’s important to understand that an A is a rare and exceptional grade. Or it should be, if grades are to mean anything at all. In fact A’s have become common in our field, because grade inflation is rampant in the humanities.

That’s especially true in creative writing, maybe because grading in this field can’t be justified empirically or pedagogically. So we grade high, because of the warmth of the relationships we cultivate with our students, and our knowledge that they will in turn be grading us, in their evaluations of us. The latter factor is all the more pressing for adjuncts like myself who have to deal with chronic job insecurity.

Every time I give a low, or even a lowish grade, especially towards the end of the quarter, I think to myself, and I hate it that I do, “How’s this going to affect the evaluation this student gives me?” 

This is more context than you asked for. But my point is, the system is a crock. These grades are fictions. They have nothing to do with your worth and surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. 

If I can presume to advise you. Be in school for the intrinsic value of it. The people you meet, the values you have tested, the skills you pick up, the insights that come as you put X and Y and oranges together.

Also? A GPA of 4.0 will not be better for you than a GPA of, say, 3.9. No one should get a 4.0. Maybe in high school, where the college admission stakes are insane, but the game’s different now. With a GPA of 4.0 you risk looking to say an employer like you went to a fluff school or did a fluff major. An A- or two on your transcript will help it to look it more real. A touch of grit, if you like.

Anyway, grade inflation. It’s a big problem. And I’m committed to not worsening it. So I grade tougher than some creative writing teachers do. But I do put a lot of care into grading fairly.

All right. You asked why an A- and not an A for participation. I gave generally high grades for participation in this class because there was really good group cohesion and everyone contributed to that. I liked you guys a lot. An A went to the, I think 2 people who were conversation spurs – they ventured an idea or a perspective when they couldn’t be sure what I’d think, or whether it was even in the right ballpark. They brought new energy to the conversation, helping to move it forward. They fostered the inquiry.

We all did. That A- means you did, too, a lot. Maybe I went on so long up there about grade inflation because I’d love for a student to be delighted to receive an A- for their work in my class. I can’t say what an A- means in another class, but in mine it means you and your work have my respect and admiration.

Chris


I see a tension rereading it. I say grades have surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. And I say her A- has a definite meaning, that she and her work have my respect and admiration.

Maybe, in trying to soften the blow of an A-, I’ve bent over backwards, nice on nice, same as I said my student has. I do do that. Could be why I see it in her & want, though it’s not my place, to jolt her into being displeasing sometimes.

And yet I do feel both sides are true. It’s my expression of them that’s fallen short, making what seems a contradiction.