The Paradox of Grades

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Recently, I had a little mutiny in an acting class I was teaching.

“Look, the only reason a bunch of us took this class is that it had a reputation as an easy A.” the frat boy said. I had invited feedback about the class, and I was getting it. “But you expect us all to become professional actors!” he complained. Then another chimed in:

“I mean it was nice that you were trying to teach us something, but it really wasn’t what we were expecting.” He got an A for honesty. He got a C+ for the class.

During my trying-to-remain-calm response, I trotted out the obvious: they had a syllabus handed to them on the first day which explicitly laid out what the class would entail, the assignments, my expectations and my grading policy. They had a drop/add period. I relentlessly repeated my expectations in class and invited questions. Then I returned honesty with honesty.

“Look,” I said, “if it was up to me, all acting classes – all classes in any creative process – would be graded pass/fail. But I have an obligation to my employer, which expects me to evaluate you in this way. And so I am doing my best.”

Part of why this all happened is that I used an on-line grading program, which allowed my students to log in and see the grades they were receiving assignment to assignment. Towards the end of the semester, some of them realized that the class was not going to be an easy A. Some of them came to me in genuine distress in April, and I felt sorry for them. These were earnest pre-med or business students for the most part, who were taking the class to fulfill a requirement, and were slightly panicked about a B bringing down their GPA. But they were also not the most able, conscientious, creative or brave students in my class, and so there was no way I was going to give them an A for med school. “You need to take bigger risks,” I would tell them, “and show me something new the next time you bring the scene in. Show me evidence in performance of the work you’ve done.”

“And that will get my grade up?” they would ask.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “we’ll see what your work is like the next time you bring it in to class.” And there were other more specific aspects to their assignments, too detailed to get into here. Suffice to say each student had a balance of the application of ideas learned in class, with the more mysterious ones, having to do with that decidedly un-academic territory called creativity.

Some kids (like me) are not naturally gifted at math, but we had to struggle through it in school, and receive average (or worse) grades while we envied our classmates who seemed to be able to work out calculus equations in their sleep. The same is true in my classes. Some students reveal themselves to be natural actors the way others reveal themselves as natural scientists, or mathematicians, or language scholars. Most often, it’s the premeds and other scientifically inclined students who have the most trouble in my classes, where I say straightaway that there isn’t a “right” and there isn’t a “wrong”, the way there is in other kinds of education. In doing so, I am trying to remove any expectation they have that they will be able to use their analytical or intellectual skills to any great advantage in my class. I talk a lot about the diminished dominance of “the frontal lobe” of the brain in my class, and invite them to mine the backs of their brains, where the dreams come from. Acting relies on what I have come to call “virtues”: courage, empathy, creativity and faith. It relies on “emotional intelligence” – actually, emotional suppleness might be more accurate. It is a constant wake-up call for me to see how foreign this territory is to our young people. Many of them find one of my opening exercises, which involves standing in front of another person and looking at them, nearly impossible.

All this convinces me of the dire need for acting classes in higher education, but we are left with the issue of grading. It is an alarming fact that many students take acting classes for the “easy A”. But this is not a reflection on the ease of accomplishment in acting classes. Rather, it is a reflection of a dereliction of duty on the parts of acting teachers, or at least a surrender to the difficulty of the grading process in classes on creativity. The difficulty is that it is inherently subjective. I am honest about that with my students. To a large extent, I tell them, my grade of your work reflects my opinion of your work. Then I try to be as explicit as possible about what I am looking for in my evaluation of them, which is why I had little sympathy for the frat boys. The paradox of grading, I tell them, is that the students who are unconcerned with the grade they get in my class tend to get the best grades.

But we live in a culture in which education has become a commodity (like almost everything else, including the human body). Students, and many times their parents, feel that they are paying a fee (tuition) for an expected outcome (good grades). They expect their education to be a series of quantifiable problems to be solved, and, with a little thinking, a test can be aced and an A is purchased. Unfortunately, this is anathema to an acting class, in which a little thinking can be have dreadful results, and it is the process of exploring which is rewarded, not the aced exam. I tell my students that “exploring without knowing” is an essential feature for any student of acting. This is alarming to my business and premed students, for whom knowing before exploring is the whole point. Some my students reacted angrily when it dawned on them that the frontal lobe abilities they relied on in the rest of their classes could only take them 25% of the way in mine. The rest is vocabulary, preparation, performance and the virtues.

And so I long for an acting class in which grades, and the subjective distinctions we are obligated to make between an A-scene and a B+ scene, are put away in favor of pass/fail. Then , the accomplishment of the student is true to theatre: it is fleeting, personal, present tense and subjective. It rests in the moments enacted and witnessed in the classroom, never to be repeated. And “failure” is an official term reserved only for gross misconduct or unexcused absence. In a pass/fail class, the teacher is moved into a more fluid relationship to the students, unbound by the need to create and acknowledge a hierarchy of accomplishment. The only drawback for me as a teacher would be the lack of the occasional usefulness of grades as a threatening device, in order to shock a student into focus. But even that feels cheap to me when I (rarely) do it. It’s like spanking – it feels Victorian, quaint and ultimately oppressive. Far better, it seems to me, to ask a student what accomplishment means to her, or to have an involved examination of a student’s work habits, or a discussion about the purpose of an education. But the real problem with the pass/fail acting class I fear, is that students wouldn’t take it. Why bother, if there’s not a chance of getting that A, that letter of the Holy Grail at the end of all education?

What’s the point of a class with no grades? Hmmmm . . . I think I feel a lecture coming on . . . . The Paradox of Grades Monday, June 2, 2008