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Inflating Grades For Social Justice

At a party over the weekend I was introduced to a college professor, and fell into conversation with him about teaching and Covid. Then I asked about how wokeness affects his teaching. I had no idea of the man’s politics, but I would bet the farm that he is a liberal, given that his academic field skews heavily to the left.

He told me that there is a lot of stress on professors at his university regarding grading students of color. He said everyone is afraid of being accused of racism if a black student doesn’t like his grade. The anxiety around this is deep, he said.

I tweeted out something about it, and received this e-mail today from a reader who asks to be anonymous. I slightly changed a couple of things to make it harder to identify her husband:

My husband teaches philosophy at an American university, and while he likes the work, he misses our original home, ([European country]).  We moved to the United States [deleted] years ago.
My husband and I both never saw ourselves as “left” or “right” until his university experience started. The level of political correctness here is just out of control: special rules for “trans students,” an expectation that someone’s deviant sexual practices be not only tolerated, but CELEBRATED. And as far as fairness goes, forget about it. Last semester, my husband gave one of his black students a B on a writing assignment. The student reported him to the Dean, claiming racism, saying that she was an A student and didn’t deserve a B. She didn’t even specify why her paper was so good! She just essentially said everyone else gave her A’s. The Dean called my husband in, and essentially bullied him into changing the grade, reminding him of the students’ “legacy of being oppressed.”
I’m sorry, but this is all too much. My husband felt humiliated. He’s wondering if he should look for another job. We feel trapped. Please feel free to publish, as we both get tired of people claiming to you that this kind of political correctness is “fake.”
I know a lot of academics read this blog. Please comment below or e-mail me (rod — at — amconmag — dot — com) to share your experiences with this phenomenon. Is it happening in your institution? Your department? How do you deal with it? Grade inflation has been a problem for a while, but it takes on a nasty, and potentially career-destroying dimension, when allegations of bigotry are brought into the mix.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

I read your post and call for others to report their experience in college grading. If you quote me, please do not use my name. I could be identified as “a professor in one of the natural sciences at a large public university in the west with a liberal reputation.” The student body is mostly white, with a growing contingent of Hispanics, a good many Asians, and a relatively small number of blacks.

In my department, we offer an “intro” course that is a “gateway” — some would say “weedout” — course mainly for students hoping to go on in some kind of health or biological sciences pathway. I’m one of the senior professors who steps up to teach this course — few people do it for pure pleasure — and I teach hundreds of these students at least one term per year. While grade inflation is always a concern, our median grade is generally C+/B- which is not so high given that the majority of the students need a C or better to continue in their program. We give plenty of D’s and F’s. It is not a fun course for most students, though some find it very interesting.

As for feeling pressure to give unmerited good grades to black or other minority students — I just have never experienced this. I certainly don’t give minority students any special breaks — though I’m always looking for a good reason to give any student a break if they manage to redeem themselves on the final exam.

I certainly try to encourage all students to do the things that will help them succeed, including coming to “office hours” for help, advice, inspiration, whatever.

I do kind of keep track of how various groups perform. I’ve found that the minority students who follow my advice generally do better than the class average. I’ve had classes where the black students did a little better than average, and classes where they did worse. I guarantee, if the black students always did what I recommend, they would come out ahead. The same goes for the other students. Hard work, interest, and discipline matter!

If my department head or dean ever pressured me to use different grading standards for the black students or any other group, I would refuse.

So, my experience is not like that of your correspondent. I hope this may be a helpful perspective.

Another professor writes:

One of your lefty profs here.

I teach at [deleted]. We serve 30,000 undergraduates (and I am writing on my institutional account so you can trust what follows). Most of our undergrads are first-generation college students (as am I). We have the highest percentage of minority students of any non-HBCU campus in [my state’s public university] system. I am also a rigorous grader.

I have been accused of racism after giving students the marks they earned, but over 30 years plus of working here, my Chairs and Deans have always had my back. Always. I am grateful for that. I should also add that I have won multiple teaching awards despite being well known as a tough grader.

My biggest concern about grades is the dismal performance of men in our classes (without regard for race and/or ethnicity). While young women of all backgrounds do well in our classes, the performance and engagement of males is abysmal. They have totally checked out and I have no idea how to reach and motivate them.

For every 25 women we induct into our discipline’s Honor Society, there my be one or no males in the cohort.

For all the obvious reasons, this troubles me greatly.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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