Like many schools, the law school is debating how to change our grading system as we move to an online curriculum during this outbreak. Various proposals have been advanced in different schools from a blanket pass/fair system to an option for students to take a grade or opt for a credit. Columbia Professor Jenny Davidson, however, has a curious solution: give everyone As regardless of the course, their work, or their performance before the outbreak. Of course, putting everyone in the top one percent leaves no one in the top one percent. Responding to a viral contagion with grade inflation is a rather dubious concept. She is not alone. Students at Harvard have called for grading scale that runs only from A to A-. I thought that was a pretty loony idea until I read Professor Davidson’s column. It now seems like the model of restraint and reason.
In her op-ed for The Washington Post, Davidson called on faculty to “Just give every college student an automatic A.” This would allow the schools to “Strip down work expectations to the bare minimum” and use “A grades as a default.”
She never really offers a concrete reason why granting As is a logical conclusion. The point of the column is that there are “inequities” in the online shift and “It’s time to abandon our preconceived ideas about what needs to happen in a college class for a student to get credit for it.”
I can see the basis for the debate between a blanket pass/fail and the optional grade approach. However, granting everyone an A is as artificial as it is insulting. Simply because of this health crisis, students did not earn an A. Grades are not supposed to be handed out for their therapeutic or symbolic value. Grades measure performance and constitute a key foundational element in our academic exercise. Davidson’s proposal magnifies the view of many that grades are being constantly manipulated and dismissed by universities through constantly raising the require mean on grading curves.
Harvard recently became embroiled in this controversy when it reversed a decision to allow for the option approach where students can elect to take a grade or receive a pass/fail. Some students objected that, if they opt for a pass/fail, employers will assume that they had a poor grade. Harvard immediately caved and took away the option — requiring all students to simply take a pass/fail grade.
I tend to favor an option allowing students the choice of receiving a grade, but I have heard from many students favoring a mandatory pass/fail system. There are a myriad of reasons why students would take a pass/fail grade other than performance, including difficult travel or family circumstances in this pandemic. Yet, many students want to continue to work on these courses and want to receive recognition for their work over the term.
Nevertheless, I can see the appeal of a general pass/fail approach both administratively and culturally for universities. What I cannot see is the logic behind giving everyone an A when such a grade would not be based on any measure of performance or distinction.
This is precisely why I never liked Higglytown Heroes as a series. I would watch with my kids as the characters said that everyone is a hero. Everyone. Yet, if everyone is a hero, what does being a hero really mean? I am not a hero because I teach law classes. A hero is the Italian priest giving up his ventilator to save a young man. If we are all heroes, what to do we call him?
The same question was presented in the Incredibles by the character Syndrome who seems to have Davidson’s idea when he revealed his evil plan: “Everyone can be Super! And when everyone’s Super… no one will be.”
The same is true for being given top grades under the Davidson plan. When everyone’s an A student, no one is an A student.