Bible Translation: October 2007 Archives

A colleague of mine where I teach is sort of a stickler for assigning grades according to the traditional but now completely obsolete approach whereby a C is average. He seeks to have the median student in the class earning grades in the C range, with an equal number of people in the D range as in the B range and as many failing as earning an A. His argument is that this is what these grades have always meant, and grade inflation is a violation of the meaning of the grades.

It struck me today that this argument is very similar to the argument language conservatives give against gender-inclusive language. The English language has changed since the time the ordinary English speaker could hear a sentence like "Surely every moral man must be appalled at the judicial execution of the innocent or at the punishment, torture, and killing of the innocent" and not wonder what the author thinks about moral women and children. (The sentence is from Kai Nielsen's "Against Moral Conservatism" from Ethics 82 (1972), which my students had to read this week.) Gone are the days when a sentence like that could make it into publication in a top philosophy journal.

So too have the standards changed when it comes to what letter grades mean. A grade of a C just doesn't indicate merely satisfactory anymore. Students know this. Most faculty know this. You can pound your fists and complain about this sorry state of affairs, and maybe you're right that it's regrettable (although I see no reason why we should have to stick with any particular arbitrary assignment of letters to standards). What I don't think will ultimately pass muster is sticking to your guns and giving people grades in a way that's wholly inconsistent with what the standards in fact are by basing it on some system of giving grades that hardly anyone follows anymore. Doing so means you're not giving people the grades you think you're giving them. This is why I can't in good conscience follow my colleague's policy.

This is not to say that college students today are as competent as in the past, which may well not be the case. It doesn't mean the work that now counts as satisfactory is what should count as satisfactory. Those are completely separate issues. All I'm saying is that the meaning of the letter grades has changed in a way that those who hold onto the traditianal system of assigning grades have been resisting to the point where the grades they assign are dishonest, even if not deliberately so. Grade inflation may be a problem in other ways, but one element of grade inflation is simply a fact, and resisting it in the way my colleague does seems to me to count as academic dishonesty.

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