Cathy Davidson occupies a unique place in the history of Duke’s response to the lacrosse case. Widely perceived as among the more moderate of the Group of 88, Davidson humiliated herself by penning the first apologia for the Group’s action. In her January 2007 op-ed, the Duke English professor invented a past that never existed, claiming that in the first two weeks after the case broke—a time when both local and national coverage was overwhelmingly slanted against the lacrosse players—the media was in fact “rampant” with “racist and sexist remarks,” with those intent on “defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann . . . reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.”
Davidson, in short, revealed herself to be either a shameless fabricator or (much more likely) someone so steeped in the groupthink atmosphere that dominates Duke’s humanities departments that she actually believed that the early media coverage was favorable to the lacrosse players. When reality clashed with her own words, the Group of 88’er retreated to fulminations against those she labeled “hooligans.”
Davidson was back in the news this week, courtesy of a column by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. The topic? The former administrator’s . . . unusual . . . approach upon her return to the classroom. Asserted Davidson, “I loved returning to teaching last year after several years in administration . . . except for the grading.”
Most faculty members don’t particularly like grading. And the issue of how to link grading to measuring a student’s overall performance isn’t an easy one. In my undergraduate classes, I normally use a mixture of exams, papers, reading-based quizzes, group assignments, and participation.
How did the 88’er respond to the problem of coming back to the classroom but not much wanting to grade students’ work? “I'm trying out a new point system. Do all the work, you get an A. Don't need an A? Don't have time to do all the work? No problem. You can aim for and earn a B. There will be a chart. You do the assignment satisfactorily, you get the points.”
And how to evaluate whether a student has done the work? “Since I already have structured my seminar (it worked brilliantly last year) so that two students lead us in every class, they can now also read all the class blogs (as they used to) and pass judgment on whether they are satisfactory.”
Those concerned with the issue of grade inflation would doubtless raise eyebrows at this clause from Davidson’s grading policy: “Revision and resubmission results in full points. Everyone who chooses to do the work to the satisfaction of his or her collaborative peers in the course will receive an A.” What about the course exam? “In lieu of a final exam, students will write an evaluation of the class.”
A cynical person might wonder if Davidson’s scheme is nothing more than an attempt by a professor who earns a six-figure salary and teaches no more than four courses annually to get out of grading, a task that she admittedly deems unpleasant.
But Davidson denies a claim of laziness, and instead posits that her approach represents cutting-edge pedagogy—a strategy necessary for “21st century” education, as opposed to a “Machine Age” approach. “I can't think,” writes she, “of a more meaningless, superficial, cynical way to evaluate learning than by assigning a grade. It turns learning (which should be a deep pleasure, setting up for a lifetime of curiosity) into a crass competition.” (Competition, it’s worth noting, is something strongly frowned upon by politically correct pedagogues in the contemporary academy.) Moreover, the 88’er adds, “every study [emphasis added] of peer review among students shows that students perform at a higher level, and with more care, when they know they are being evaluated by their peers than when they know only the teacher and the TA will be grading.” Davidson doesn’t cite any studies in her syllabus, nor does she explain how she has consulted every study on this topic.
Davidson’s pedagogical colleagues rave about her approach—and also offer a glimpse of the race/class/gender agenda behind the Group of 88’er’s scheme.
NYU professor Lisa Duggan (whose website describes her first research interest as “queer and feminist theory”) tells Davidson that she has “done something like this with my big undergrad class, Intersections: Race, Gender & Sexuality [of course] in US History, for years now. [Students] do all the work, at a ‘good faith’ level of quality (earning a check [!!] from their TA), show up on time to all classes and participate in discussion sections—they get an A. Grades scale down from there. The greatest thing about it is that many students without previous educational privilege *love* it and often do extremely well when not being judged in the usual way—reading a book a week, writing response papers every week, and ultimately participating at grad student level. Entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style do not like it at all... :>). “
In other words, the Davidson/Duggan scheme improves the grades of “students without previous educational privilege” and disadvantages students who write well. What happens if those “students without previous educational privilege” might expect to leave college having received instruction on how to write at a high level? Well, apparently, they’re out of luck.
Riché Richardson, one of Davidson’s former graduate students who now teaches in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University (where she is a colleague of none other than Grant Farred), pays fealty to Davidson’s “brilliant pedagogical vision” and her “courage.” Indeed, for Richardson, “knowing [Davidson] has been a blessing.”
Having been thus blessed, Richardson apparently doesn’t see the need to explain why Davidson’s “professor-doesn’t-grade” scheme is a good idea. Richardson did, however, find the time to inform IHE readers that she was “tenured (with unanimous votes in my departments) in both the University of California and the Ivy League.”
One IHE commenter pointed out the obvious: “If students need to take upper level courses which require they understand facts, this method likely fails.”
But facts, in Cathy Davidson’s world, are malleable things. After all, this is the same professor who told us all it was a fact that media coverage in the first two weeks of the lacrosse case was “rampant” with “racist and sexist remarks,” with those intent on “defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann . . . reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.”
[Hat tip: C.G., L.H.]