At the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year, I noted the pedagogical . . . innovations . . . of Group of 88 member Cathy Davidson. Suffering from the travails of a tenured Duke professor—“I loved returning to teaching last year after several years in administration . . . except for the grading”—Davidson developed a scheme to collect her paycheck without doing the work normally expected of a college professor. Students in her classes would “pass judgment” on the work of their peers (the system worked “brilliantly,” she humbly noted), and students would “lead” the class discussion as well. The professor’s job, it seems, is limited to making sure no one’s feelings get hurt.
Other than the obvious (laziness), what was the rationale for Davidson’s scheme? A supporter of the effort, NYU professor Lisa Duggan, explained. Duggan had employed the tactic in her “Race, Gender & Sexuality in US History” course, where, she claimed, it benefited “students without previous educational privilege,” since they didn’t have to be “judged in the usual way” (i.e., writing research papers, taking exams) while turning off “entitled students who try to skate by on a good prose style.” Evidently, college professors shouldn’t be encouraging “good prose style.”
In any event, Davidson’s year of hard work has come to a conclusion, and what was the result? Fifteen of the sixteen students in the class received grades of A. What did the 16th student do wrong—challenge the ideological preconceptions of his or her peers, rather than following along with the groupthink atmosphere?
Davidson isn’t troubled by the grade inflation. In a bizarre analogy, she mused, “If I were training a basketball team to win the NCAA [tournament], let’s say, my bar would be winning that championship. It would not be creating a bell curve of my best and worst players.” Quite true. But, presumably, part of that effort would be distinguishing between the best and worst players, so that the coach made sure to play the best players. In Davidson’s Group of 88 world, everyone is equally “excellent,” and we need not worry about troublesome things like whether students have “good prose style” or study hard enough to do well on tests.
The Chronicle interviewed two students in the class; both had positive things to say. (They got an easy A, after all.) But such “instruction” hardly serves the long-term interests of the students—or the financial interests of their parents, who are paying $50,000 or so for a student-run class in which students grade themselves.
Put yourself in the position of a graduate school admissions committee, or a prospective employer, reading a letter of recommendation from Davidson for a student in the course:
I strongly recommend Student X, who received an A grade in my 2009-2010 class, “Your Brain on the Internet.” The course featured students running discussions and grading themselves, because, as I have noted elsewhere, “grading and assessment were late 19th- and early 20th-century conventions designed to be as efficient as the assembly line.” While it’s true that you might be a little reluctant to recognize the performance of someone graded not by their professor, but by college students, in a course run not by the professor, but by college students; and while you might be inclined to dismiss the evaluation standard of a course where 93.75 percent of the students received the best grade,“It is important for someone like me, at a superb school like Duke and with my experience as a traditional academic, to push the boundaries of education so we can develop a much better system. Right now, we’re training students for our past, not for their future.”
Davidson told the Chronicle that “I heard positive comments from lots of people in engineering” about her grading schemes. She didn’t reveal any of these colleagues’ names, presumably to spare them from embarrassment among their peers.