Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Davidson Does Grading, Ctd.

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.


A Duke Dad said...

This is merely the inmates running the asylum.

How long will it be until students sit down in the computer lab, pay their $200K, and then print out their diplomas. No need for boring classes, exams or required papers.

We already have had a generation of grade inflation, conformity-based pedagogy and general lemmingology.

The mental masturbation of the 'ejerkators' who propose laziness as 'innovative learning experiences' has very scary implications for the quality of a US college education.

Anonymous said...

This is why for the past five years (and counting) law school admission committees have been discounting applicants presenting Duke degrees from any department even remotely near the Humanities or Social Sciences. Any Duke student who willingly submits him/herself to such an undergraduate "education," in my opinion (and, alas, the opinion of many others teaching in law schools), triggers a presumption (albeit rebuttable) *against* admission.

Chalk it up to secondary or tertiary collateral damage inflicted by Duke et al. Those who feel aggrieved should press their claims to Brodhead (and BOT Chair Steele) directly.

Anonymous said...

Is Davidson a Communist?

Anonymous said...

This is really an extremely petty post.

Anonymous said...

I see one **still small** bright spot in this otherwise horrifying pedagogical scenario. To wit: that crass and vulgar institution known as the Employment Market.

How long will it be before the real world administers its harsh discipline to these lazy "students" in the form of many rejection letters and no prospects of gainful employment?

Even if the layabouts would like nothing more than to major in one of these identity-studies "disciplines," how long will it take for their parents (who usually are paying most of the bills) to catch on that a graduate who majored in one of these fluffy, anti-intellectual concentrations is all but unemployable?

Already we are seeing many college graduates, and non-graduates, gravitating to the skilled trades and their decent remuneration instead of the underpaid mental grind in a white-collar cubicle.

And what will happen when (not if) enrollment in these touchy-feely, academic-standards-out-the-window courses and majors, tanks? What will "elite" (and expensive) universities do with all these identity-studies professorial drones, when too few students want to take their courses or enroll in their majors? They will then be superfluous, nothing but a drain on the institution's budget.

In the short run, some universities can REQUIRE undergraduates to take at least some of these "courses," and thus artificially pump up their enrollment. But what will they do when the inevitable revolt comes from the paying parents, the non-hiring employers, and the voting public?

And what about the information being put out by the likes of K.C. Johnson, rubbing the noses of university brass in the absurdity of this kind of pseudo-education? I suspect a few administrators and trustees are beginning to ask the hard questions about academic standards. I hope I'm not being too optimistic.

I see the day coming (as an eternal optimist) when "elite" universities realize they can no longer afford these feelings-trump-facts professors.

It will be a great day.

Gus W.

Anonymous said...

Why do I suspect that the 'positive comments' from 'people in engineering' were along the lines of: "*Snort!* Good one, Cathy. Hey, did ya hear the one about -- "

KC Johnson said...

To the 10.52:

Although it's not clear, it appears as if you find Davidson's grading policy admirable. I invite you to submit a defense of it, rather than to offer ad hominem attacks.

jim2 said...

One value of Davidson's approach may be that it provides her more time to write (sign petitions) and exercise (jump to conclusions).

skwilli said...

Back in the day, I received 3 "A's" in Independent Studies, working in a Research Lab. I always felt somewhat guilty as there weren't any tests given in the traditional sense. As the years have gone by, I have realized that the hours-on-end hard work I performed were indeed monitored closely by the professor and contributed to his research goals more than I knew. Hearing that now students just give each other A's (95% of the time anyway) in college classes, makes my A's finally guilt free! Thanks Ms. Davidson.

Pierce Harlan said...

"Petty post"? Kindly imagine, if it's even possible, what would happen if every class on campus were graded in this manner. A degree from that school would be worthless if 15/16th of the senior class graduated summa cum laude.

Jim in Greensboro said...

“Frankly, needing to fulfill my ‘A’ contract in the class never really crossed my mind again after our discussion in the first class."

LOL. I'll bet it didn't.

Gary Packwood said...

I think there is a bit more to Davidson's grading strategy that can be seen as emblematic of the behavior of faculty and staff members with an agenda.

Davidson et al. behave outrageously so as to intimidate fellow faculty and staff members from calling them out to answer for their actions.

The 'stun-gun' approach to avoid being held accountable.

Her strategy of grading for course performance rather than application of new knowledge across other areas of scholarly inquiry is an old problem studied by test and measurement scholars.

Avoiding any mention at all of test and measurement research is outrageous and thus ...The Stun Gun!

Duke has many scholars who would be more than willing to help Davidson cobble together a test and measurement research study if she was so inclined.

Clearly Davidson and her friends are not so inclined and have no interest in truth seeking but instead have an agenda to push at the expense of students who fall outside of their target audience.

And now that time is beginning to clear the fog surrounding the intimidation, Pres. Brodhead is coming into sharp focus as the person most easily intimidated by Davidson and her friends in the various Anger Studies departments.

But nothing since 2006 can 'best' the 'Castrate March' for sheer, outrageous, stunning, mean spirited and harmful intimidation.

Hopefully Duke alumni and the BOT will place an permanent image of that castrate 'flag' on Brodhead's retirement plaque.

Anonymous said...

When as a new university teacher in 1969 I found the book Freedom to Learn by Carl Rogers, with its chapter on using his ideas to run a college class, I was enthralled. Students contracted for a grade, submitted a portfolio of work to justify that grade at term's end, and so on.

Of course everyone got "A's". I was happy, the students were happy, but my colleagues began to see ill-prepared students, my students, in their classes.

The late 1960s were the time for Carl Rogers, hot tubs, Esalen, domed houses, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the freedom to be rid of social constraints, like civility rules.
Looking back on that several year experience, from the perspective of 40 years of teaching, with teaching awards and exceptional evaluations, I can only think "Boy, was I foolish back then." I think it's called growing up.

Anonymous said...

Well when it comes to evaluations you have to give it to the lead angry black studies department that knows when to backtrack from an embarrassment. Their faculty vote of no confidence that just took out their brand new been here a year Harvard recruited chair (and the irony of no confidence with this guy is one of those you can't make it up things) is at least an evaluation that makes more sense than Davisons we are excellent because we said so policy.

Fred C. Dobbs said...

I bet the 16th student was a lacrosse player.

Anonymous said...

To 10:52 PM on 6/15:

K.C.'s post is anything but petty. It goes to the heart of what is wrong with higher education today. What Prof. Cathy Davidson is doing hardly qualifies as education. It's more than high time that someone called her out -- along with all the other "educators" who "teach" in this way.

-- Gus W.

Anonymous said...

As an engineer I regularly took courses like this to get my GPA up some - while it "overloaded" my schedule the benefits were great. She is not the only prof who gives almost all A's for minimal work. If this were what one took to get an education it would be a waste/shame but as filler the unfortunate reality is that it has value.