The difference between an A and an A-

This is from an exchange I once had with the chair of a University department. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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Dear Professor Chair,

I have found our small correspondence irritating – irritating beyond what might be reasonable for an exchange about a grade dispute. I have been trying to figure out why. This letter represents an honest expression of what I have discovered. I discerned that it’s not about you. I don’t know you. But it is about the institution you represent, and as chair of the department I used to work for (as I’m sure you are aware), you are the institution, at least as far as I’m concerned. And so this speaks to my out of proportion feelings about our brief exchange.

First to the issue in question. The student is complaining because on the class’s website his final grade is an A, but I entered an A- for his final grade. Leaving aside, for a moment, the more global issue of students complaining about the difference between an A and an A-, the fact is that I do not transfer the grades from the website to my final grades. As I make clear both in my syllabus (which I have attached) and in person, there is no objective measure available for evaluating creative processes. Since this is true, any grade issued in, for instance, an acting class represents the opinion of the instructor of the student’s work. While Larry’s work might have added up to an A using the dry and bloodless rubric of a computer program, he was not a leader in my class and, while he did well, there were others who did demonstrably better, and I reserved the best grade in my class for those students. Larry’s work as an actor lacked the risk-taking choices of an A student – choices which demand the class’s attention and fundamentally alter the character of the class. He raised his hand and commented often, but his comments weren’t of the type which an A student gives – comments which expertly use the ideas and vocabulary I am teaching in such a way that they not only demonstrate proficiency with those ideas, but elucidate them for the other students. That’s why I gave him an A-.

It depresses me that a student would complain about an A-. It speaks to the whole tendency in our culture to view education as a product to be purchased, and the desired commodity is the A. I tell my students that, paradoxically, those who do well in my classes – in every way – tend to forget they are being graded and allow themselves to sink into the transformative experience I am trying to design for them. Larry’s persistence about his grade clearly indicates he didn’t get that idea – another reason he deserves an A-.

I find the whole issue of assigning letter grades to acting classes to be a kind of educational dishonesty. Letter grades imply an objective standard, and in many curricula such standards exist. So Larry has walked in to a trap Geronimo University has set for him and he’s not the first. The symbol “A-” is an impoverishment of his experience in my class. It reduces something ineffable and mysterious to that grotesque educational commodity I object to. Larry’s work in my class is not represented by an ” A- “. It is represented by the relationship he had with me, with the playwrights he studied, and with the other students he touched and who touched him – an experience as unique and special as he is, and one which has no corollary or marker. Acting classes should recognize this by being graded “pass/fail” (as they are in many conservatory programs). But the dirty secret is that fewer students would sign up for them, and so the classes would be less economically valuable to the University. Here we see the grade as the economic commodity in its stark reality. Students want the A, the university dangles it in front of them – even when it is dishonest as it is in an acting class – and the students come.

Teachers of acting have made an awkward truce with this in a variety of ways. In the old school, acting teachers pretend there is an objective measure for acting, and they – the teacher – know what it is. Then the students spend the entire class trying to figure out what that measure is, and the smart ones leave disgusted when they realize it was simply the teacher’s opinion of them all along. I prefer being honest, and it’s one of the first things I tell my students, so that the ones who can’t conceive of an educational experience with out an objective measure of success can drop out without penalty.

But I think what really set me off was that you addressed me as “Professor Lloyd”. I am not a professor. If I was, I would still be working for Geronimo. Only full-time faculty have that title. I understand the budget issues the university faces. I know why I was let go. I know it wasn’t personal, and I received a perfunctory email thanking me for my work. Forgive me for the impassioned nature of this letter, but from my perspective I was the expendable employee who was laid off, and it was precisely because I am not a “professor” that it was so. To be summoned into a grade dispute at a University I no longer work for, a University which laid me off, over the difference between between an A and an A- . . . it has given me indigestion. So in the future, just let me be Ben.

I have many dear friends at Geronimo, and I wish you, them and the program well.