In-class dialog, sometime earlier this week:
Prof: There is no curve in this class. Nothing would please me more than to give everyone an A in this class. It would feel like I was a great teacher.
Student: You couldn't do that.
Prof: Sure I could. I have tenure.
[very great laughter from all students]
Student: No. I meant you can't do that.
Prof: They couldn't stop me. But of course you'd have to earn it.
Student: I meant you aren't able to do that.
Prof: Oh. It was a psychological observation.
Do they know me that well already?
After the first semester most law students realize that the king has no clothes.
The tension from the student’s side exhibited in the discussion reminded me of discussion raised in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about the gradeless college:
“Phaedrus’s argument for the abolition of the degree-and-grading system produced a nonplussed or negative reaction in all but a few students at first, since it seemed, on first judgement, to destroy the whole university system. One student laid it wide open when she said with complete candour, “Of course you can’t eliminate the degree and grading system. After all, that’s what we’re here for.”
Granting everyone A’s would effectively undermine the grading system.
“[This experiment also revealed] a sinister aspect of grading that the withholding of grades exposed. Grades really cover up failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out their scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if the grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning. The questions, What’s being taught? What’s the goal? How do the lectures and assignments accomplish the goal? become ominous. The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum.”
I heard that all those really smart kids at Yale Law School don’t get graded at all.
Only in the first semester; after that there are four grades: Honors, Pass, Low Pass, Fail. The idea is that “pass” is the presumption and deviations from it require a reason.
I liked that system, but I know many people who hated it. Some hated it because they felt very insecure without the validation and positive reinforcement of grades and class rank. Others — more savvy in my view — hated it because it made your career prospects (and especially clerkship prospects) so very dependent on finding faculty who would write the right sort of letter for you.
One of the ways Yale gets so many students in to law teaching is by not having grades. And by letting everyone who wants to get on the Yale Law Journal. All the students are above average!
Actually there is an intellectually and morally correct way where it is possible to give everyone an A in a class. Unfortunately it requires a great deal of thought by the teacher as to what a student should know if he or she is to get and A, B or C. If everyone meets the expectations, hey, that works for me. It seldom happens, but it can in small advanced classes.
OTOH, this does away with the gatekeeping function that professional schools impose on the rest of us and is imposed on them by the law firms/hospitals, etc. The hell with them, let them take the blame for rejecting our outstanding students rather than trying to push it down on us.