Grades

I. Your Education and Your Grades

The following comments are, for the most part, about grades and grading. That might seem obvious given the link you followed to get here, but it bears repeating. Why? Because grades have very little to do with education, and both your grades and your education will benefit if you can keep this distinction clear. As I see it, my vocation has to do with education. However, my job requires that I engage in grading, which, while of secondary importance, can and does serve a useful purpose when it is kept in the proper perspective and does not interfere with the primary goal of education. Ideally, these two goals (education and good grades) are not in conflict; one should be able to focus on one’s education and, in addition, maintain an excellent GPA. Practically speaking, however, these goals can often work at cross-purposes.

When I speak or write about your education, I am thinking of that term as it is used in the tradition of ‘liberal education’. As I note in How to Behave, and Succeed, at University:

The primary goal of a liberal education is not to help you to get a better job, or to earn more money, or to accumulate vast amounts of factual knowledge, or to train you to do a specific task very well. A liberal education is supposed to liberate you, that is, to free you. A liberal education frees you from yourself or, put another way, frees you to become yourself. It frees you from yourself in the sense that it helps you to overcome your own prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and parochialism. It frees you to become yourself because, in shedding your unreflective assumptions and prejudices, you are able to freely and consciously adopt new ideas and opinions, while preserving the old opinions that successfully pass through the crucible of critical inquiry. A liberal education helps you to become a full human being—someone who thinks for herself, someone who loves the good, the true, and the beautiful, even when she cannot (yet) be good, grasp truth, or appreciate beauty, and someone who is conscious of the world around her, her place in it, and her relation to it.

Grades, however, are another matter entirely. At their worst, grades can become a tedious burden for the professor, a source of great anxiety for the student, and, unfortunately, a distraction that can transform potentially rich student-teacher relationships into empty, quasi-economic exchange. Grades should not have this power. They are not intended to gauge your moral worth, to label you as an “average” person, or to puff up or deflate your ego. They are not a mark of your ultimate success in life, or a reliable indicator of your future happiness, or a pre-requisite for admission to Heaven. Grades are simply a means of distinguishing unacceptable academic work from average academic work and average academic work from excellent academic work.

Because grading student work is part of my job I feel obliged to grade well, that is justly. Justice in grading demands, among other things, fairly evaluating your work in the context of the work produced by other undergraduates at LMU. If a professor only gives marks of B+, A-, and A, this difference is obscured and the A earned by the gifted or diligent student is demeaned. If you are the sort of student who will not be satisfied with anything less than an A, I suggest that you prepare yourself to work hard for it in every aspect of our class. Of course, hard work will not guarantee that you receive an A—I am not grading you on your effort—but it most cases it is a necessary condition (and, in any case, diligent work is essential to your actual education).

II. Some General Remarks About Grades

I want to help you, first, to get the most out of your education and, second, to help you get the best grade you can get. Alas, not every student will wring every last bit of value out of his or her education, and not everyone will earn an A.

First, note that you start my class with a grade of F. Too many students feel that they begin the course with a grade of A—a perfect 100%—and that it is then the professors job to justify in exhausting detail any point deducted from that number. Au contraire. You start the class with an F, with zero points. When you fail to hand in an assignment, I do not deduct X number of points; rather, you fail to earn X number of points. Starting from zero, you earn merit in the course though your work: by writing well, by arguing persuasively, by clear and complete exegesis, by compelling and original examples, and so on.

Generally speaking, I do not “curve” students against each other. If an entire class performed at a truly excellent level, I would be more than happy to give the entire class A grades. Likewise, if the entire class performed at an unsatisfactory or failing level, I would be obliged, though disappointed, to give the whole class D or F grades.

However, while I do not curve students against each other competitively, student work is measured against my understanding of “average” or “satisfactory” undergraduate work at LMU—the quality of work an average student at LMU should be producing. Having been at LMU for quite awhile, I have a much better sense of this standard than you do; therefore, you will be measured against what I think of as satisfactory rather than what appears to you or your peers as satisfactory. You are not being evaluated on the same criteria that would be used for students at your high school, students at the local community college, my graduate students at LMU, or professional articles I vet for publication; but you are being measured against a certain standard of excellence.

Unfortunately, more and more students are coming to university unprepared to produce work sufficient to earn an A. Indeed, more and more students are arriving at university unprepared to produce work sufficient to earn a B or even a C. Wherever you fall on this scale of preparedness, you should get ready to step it up. If you were earning A marks in high school and find yourself earning B marks at LMU, the solution is not to whine, complain, or make excuses. The solution is to seek assistance—it is here for you—and to redouble your efforts. The vast majority of LMU students complaining about their grades are not even approaching the university’s suggestion of 12 hours of work each week for a 4-unit class, much less exceeding it. Indeed, based on self-reporting, there are many students who do not spend this much time studying for all their classes taken together. How can a person complain about a grade when he or she is not putting in the required work? This holds whether one earns a C and wants a B, or earns an A- and wants an A. We can’t whine our way ahead in life, though the prevalence of this tactic in our society may indicate why it is a popular strategy. Instead, try working harder.

III. Regarding Grades and Their Meaning

The 2001-2002 Undergraduate Bulletin described the grade scale at LMU as follows: A, Superior; A-, Outstanding; B+, Very Good; B, Good; B-, Better than Average; C+, Above Average; C, Average; C-, Below Average; D, Poor; F, Failure. Since 2003 the Bulletins have been essentially the same, although they have omitted the description of +/- grades and changed the description of  “C” to “satisfactory,” perhaps in a misguided attempt to make us all feel good about ourselves by convincing us that at LMU, as in Lake Wobegone, “all the children are above average.”

In our society, by the time a person reaches adulthood, he or she is very likely to have heard a lifetime’s worth of praise, at least some of which is surely hyperbolic. Many people seem convinced they are exceptionally talented and gifted, and destined for success in whatever endeavor, any endeavor, they might choose. They assume that they will receive excellent marks in their classes at that all their professors will immediately recognize they are exceptional. This, of course, is generally a distortion of reality. In any given field—academic, artistic, athletic, or otherwise—most people are, say it with me, average. That’s what average means. While I have been able to excel in some areas, I am average—actually worse than average—at most things. I’m reasonably well-accomplished as a philosopher and a climber, two things to which I have dedicated substantial time and effort; but I’d wager I would be terrible at golf and rhythmic gymnastics, neither of which I’ve ever tried, and must confess that I remain a pretty poor speaker of French, despite having dedicated time and effort to it over the years. That’s life. 

Surely it is obvious that not every painter is a Caravaggio, Cézanne, or Collins? That not every author is an Austen, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, or Ishiguro? That the Laocoön and Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy are exceptional? That Bach’s Cello Suites are fundamentally different than the homogeneous and forgettable pop music crafted by producers working with focus groups? This is not an excuse for any individual to accept anything less then her personal best, nor is it an indictment of any specific person’s human worth. It’s simply the recognition of a fact.

Once upon a time we could depend on other well-intentioned friends, family members, and mentors to criticize and correct us, and in so doing call us to become our better selves. However, much of that tradition has been lost in recent times due to the excesses of a culture that believes equality and fairness demand homogeneity and symmetry, views failure as deleterious to self-worth, praises mediocrity, and routinely dispenses hyperbolic accolades. Today we use the term “hero” to describe completely average people engaging in completely pedestrian acts of goodness, and “genius” to describe anyone with a clever idea. 

In the field of higher education, this culture of undeserved praise is evident in instances of low expectations on the part of faculty, and in instances of academic dishonesty and sub-standard effort on the part of students. Under the influence of the noxious phenomenon known as “grade inflation,” many students have come to think that if they receive a B, they must be doing substandard work. This is not the case. The grade of B is not the university equivalent of some elementary school “certificate of participation.” To earn a B, you should be doing work that clearly surpasses the average university student’s performance. If you earn a B+, you are doing work that is very good indeed. If you earn an A- or an A, your work is exceptional, demonstrating a grasp of and engagement with the material at a level above that of even very good undergraduate students. And remember that these descriptions refer to work at the university level. “Average” work at the university level is significantly different than “average” work at the high school level.

With this in mind, I should note how odd it is to meet with students who, having earned a B+ or an A-, sit down to office hours with a plaintive “what did I do wrong?” as if some mysterious catastrophe had befallen them, condemning them to a future of labor in the salt mines. What was wrong? Very little indeed if you earned an A-. It is entirely possible to earn an A- with a paper in which there is very little “wrong.” But an A is the mark of true excellence. Impress me.

Although philosophy does not generally lend itself to an objectively quantifiable grading scale in the manner of a mathematics class (“OK, you understood 72.09% of Plato, 87.37% of Descartes…”), the notions that there are “no right or wrong answers” or that philosophy is “just about your opinion” are false.

Your grade will be based on some combination (depending on the mode of assessment) of the following: (1) your grasp of the material (i.e., correct exegesis); (2) the extent to which you have engaged that material (e.g., insight into the text, creative appropriation of the text); and (3) the manner in which you demonstrate and present this grasp and engagement (e.g., quality of reasoning, grammar, style) in your paper or examination.

Note Well

  1. Your work is your responsibility. Turn in your work on time. “On-time” means “at the beginning of class on the due date,” unless an alternative time or location is given by the instructor. Unless you have made explicit, advance arrangements with me, your paper is considered to be turned in when it is in my possession, not slid under my door, emailed to my account, given to a friend, or strapped to a carrier pigeon. You should assume that any late work will earn a failing grade.
  2. Save your paper frequently. Keep an independent backup copy of your paper on a separate storage device, not just on your computer’s drive. Print your paper out the night before it is due. “My printer ran out of ink” and “my computer crashed” are pretty weak excuses in this day and age, and they do not warrant an extension. Every single student reading this document grew up in a digital world. These guidelines precautions should be second nature to you. If you neglect to save your paper regularly, or to back up your important documents on a separate disk or cloud (or, better, both), it might be good for you to get caught out. Perhaps you will learn a lesson and start behaving more responsibly. There are various ways to print on campus, including in the library. Your tuition funds these on-campus resources; use them if you need to.
  3. You are welcome to discuss your grade with me at any time; however, grades are not a matter of negotiation. The grade you find on your paper or exam is not my “first offer.” I spend a good deal of time and effort grading, and the grade you receive has not been given lightly.

IV. The Grade Scale: Descriptive Remarks, the Rubric, and Numerical Values

Achieving excellence in your academic work is not easy. The following three sections will help you to understand your grade.

(1) Descriptive Remarks

What follows is not exhaustive, but is intended to give you a general idea of what the letter grades mean.

A (Excellent): An A is the mark of excellence. Excellent work is much less common than you have been led to believe. Most high school “A students” are not university-level “A students.” Given that an A indicates excellence, you should not expect to receive an A in my class without significant effort on your part. Excellence is rarely, if ever, merely the product of innate skill or intelligence; true excellence requires effort.

Excellent papers contain clear and complete exegesis of relevant sources. They are free of errors in spelling, grammar, and usage. They are logically sound and argumentatively persuasive. They “flow”; they are easy to read and follow. And, in addition, they exceed these basic standards by their liveliness and brio, by the originality of their approach and conclusions, or by the meticulousness of their analysis. Beyond the written work, it should be pointed out that coming to class unprepared is not excellent. Failing to be an engaged participant in class discussion is not excellent. Rude or distracting behavior in class is not excellent. Superficial or cursory reading is not excellent. Rote memorization and regurgitation, even when complete and accurate, is not excellent. 

A- (Superior): An A- indicates superior work, which clearly surpasses the work of good undergraduate students, but which falls short of true excellence in some way.

B’s (B+, B, B-) (Good): A B is a mark that indicates good performance. Because of rampant grade inflation, many people who think they are producing A level work are really producing B level (or in some cases even C level) work. To earn a B you must be performing at a level that is clearly above that of an average LMU undergraduate; your work must be substantially better than your peers (not just better than those who happen to be your friends, or the crowd on the Thursday night party bus). In this range, a B+ indicates work that is very good, while a B- indicates work that, while above average, falls short of a “B” in some way.

C’s (C+, C, C-) (Satisfactory or Average): A C is a mark given for average or satisfactory performance and, by definition, most students are average. Read that again: a C is the mark of “average” or “satisfactory” work, and most students are average. It follows that many, indeed most, students should wind up with a grade of C. On exams, “good regurgitation” of information is often the mark of C work. The student can correctly reproduce factual information, or “use the right words,” but has not really digested the information to make it his or her own. The ability to “use the right words” or to “sound like you know what you are talking about” is not sufficient for a good (B) or excellent (A) grade. If you want one of these higher grades, you need to show me that you understand a given argument or concept, and that your understanding penetrates past the surface to grasp the essentials of the given issue as well as its implications. A C+ indicates work that is above average, while a C- indicates work that is close to average/satisfactory, but which falls short of satisfactory work in some way.

D (Unsatisfactory, but passing): A D is a mark that usually indicates passing but unsatisfactory work (although there are certain cases in which a D is in fact not a passing grade, these are intended to be general comments on grading). A mark of D indicates that the student has completed minimal requirements for the assignment in question, but has produced work that is not satisfactory. There are no marks of D+ or D-.

F (Failing): An F indicates failing work that does not meet minimal standards for acceptable university work. In addition, any work that fails to meet the requirements for an assignment—e.g., work turned in late, work turned in via email, plagiarized work, work that ignores the criteria of the prompt—will receive a failing grade.

(2) A Rubric for Papers (and an important word about its limitations)

I do have a rubric that I use for grading some papers. However, note that writing an “A” paper is about more then checking things off a list (e.g., running the spell check, properly formatting footnotes, answering the questions, raising and answering objections, and so forth). Your professors do not need to “justify” or “make an argument” at length for why your paper earned a B. If your paper earns you an B, it is a good paper, and pointing out the ways in which it is not excellent (that is, an A) may take only a few comments about style, logical coherence, originality, insight, or something similar. While students are often under the mistaken apprehension that writing an A paper can be accomplished by merely checking items off a list or rubric, the reality is that you might check everything off “the list”—and so there would not be a great deal of criticism to level—and still “only” have a good, solid, B-level paper. Writing an A paper is not, I repeat not, about simply following a list or applying a rubric. An excellent (A) paper requires style, insight, and originality that distinguish it from a merely good (B) paper which is complete, grammatically correct, logical, well-argued, and so forth. Not to worry, my papers will have plenty of comments to help you. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to disabuse you of this “checklist” mentality before providing you with the rubric, which may help you to understand some of what I am looking for in your paper, and should aid in proofreading and evaluating your first draft.

(3) Numerical Values of Grades

When a grade is assigned by a number or percentage, I will follow the standards set by the LMU Philosophy Department:

A: 100-95
A-: 94-90
B+: 89-86
B: 85-83
B-: 82-80
C+: 79-76
C: 75-73
C-: 72-70
D: 69-65
F: 64 and under