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More On Harvard Grade Inflation

The demoralizing effect on teachers of being told by the institution to fake it

Hey everybody, I’ve been traveling all day, and am just now in San Diego trying to get caught up. I received the following e-mail from a reader, a professor I know. He’s responding to this post about grade inflation at Harvard. I thought it worth a post of its own. He has given me permission to post it:

I was a graduate student for several years in the very department featured in Sarah Ruden’s article. For the most part, I was happy there, and I maintain a very high degree of respect for the faculty, who are world-class scholars and generally wonderful human beings. In my judgment, which is based on close observation, they fully deserve their reputation for excellence in teaching and research. It would be a shame if people got the idea from Ruden’s article that one can’t receive a superb education in Classics there. Nevertheless:

I had several experiences like Ruden’s. Some of the cases involved grades that displeased entitled students. Once an unhappy student emailed me after a mediocre performance and said, after receiving a B-, “I always get A’s. This is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. What’s your problem?” Some cases involved outright plagiarism that I had caught, documented, and passed along to the professor who was officially “head of the course” (though as at other elite institutions, much of the teaching, especially at the introductory level, is done by grad students). Some cases even involved serial plagiarism. I was never told directly by a professor that these problems were my fault, though once or twice I thought it might have been subtly implied. I was told explicitly, in one case, that one of the offending plagiarizers was a member of a very important and very wealthy family in a foreign country (I had had no idea). The supervising professor did not link this fact to the student’s treatment and mentioned it incidentally, and I trusted the faculty member’s integrity, but I did wonder about the connection afterwards. The student in that case ultimately received a slap on the wrist, despite evidence that he had committed the same offence in other classes. The case was never brought before the administration, as I had urged; the reason that ought to be done (and the reason Harvard’s own policies recommend it) is that individual professors (or departments) are not equipped to assess a student’s larger pattern of behavior. The administration, however, can start a file and keep track of such things; they can impose an appropriate penalty on someone who persistently undermines the university’s commitment to rigor and academic integrity.

The grade inflation is insidious and horribly demoralizing for the grad students who grade. I was told on more than one occasion to “adjust” a student’s grade upward for reasons which seemed to me insufficiently grounded in a discussion of the actual work submitted. As I gained experience, I came to realize that this wasn’t so much an official policy of inflation as a widespread reluctance to “single out” bad work from the general herd. There was strong but unspoken pressure to assign a grade lower than a B- only for the most atrocious cases; and even then, grad students had to be ready strenuously to defend and document their decisions. When you are a young, insecure junior colleague in such an environment, learning how to teach for the first time, you feel the effect keenly: grading carefully and honestly is as likely to result in conflict and damage to your reputation as in approval from your senior mentors. When healthy incentives to that kind of grading have been removed, all that’s left is the individual grader’s personal conviction. I learned that if I wanted truly to improve my students’ work, I had to rely far more heavily on the only reliable routes available to me: written feedback and classroom discussions about common problems. Grades meant little.

After years of this—and I should confirm here what others have said, that this is not a one-department problem, but a general institutional disease—I had a hard time carrying on cheerfully with my work as a teacher. The classroom experience was wonderful, and the material never failed to stimulate. But the continual reminders that my judgment would be questioned at every turn if I tried to introduce a modicum of rigor into the grade scheme wore me down. In my final years I was compelled (by evidence I could not overlook) to raise more plagiarism cases. In one case the appropriate actions were taken on the admin level, and one professor in particular did stand by my judgment despite pretty transparent attempts at manipulation from the offending student. But by that point it was difficult not to be cynical about the larger picture, or the overall health of the institution. One case handled correctly did little to redress the memory of others that had gone in a different direction. I recall telling someone after one particularly frustrating day, “I can’t stand teaching here now. I’m under constant pressure to tell pleasing little lies, and I find it increasingly hard to rally my heart against it. If I stay here much longer, I soon won’t recognize myself as a teacher.”

I am now happily employed at an institution that takes plagiarism and mediocrity seriously and recognizes that once the rot sets in, it is incredibly difficult to restrain. The moral standard for academic work is enforced—not without mercy, but in the context of clear procedures and boundaries that aren’t just paper tigers. I tell my students in clear terms that if they plagiarize, they are not simply trying to game the system; they are lying to me. And that disposition of the heart runs completely contrary to everything the institution is trying to achieve. But I am convinced that that kind of unified institutional focus and faithfulness is only possible at a place where the faculty have some sense that they are all pulling together for a clear and transcendent common purpose—in my institution’s case, one that is rooted in the gospel of Christ and in the best of the Western tradition, and dedicated to the shaping of character (not merely the accumulation of knowledge and skill). Harvard’s Classics department is committed to clear and noble goals, too, but the larger institutional culture does it no favors. Recently, when Harvard’s president tried to articulate Harvard’s mission, it didn’t amount to much more than “diversity”. That’s not a mission. It’s a buzz word with the historical life-span and staying power of a gnat. Institutions worth the name stand on granite and don’t feel the wind.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

I teach at a well regarded private secondary school. This is not a problem exclusive to the college level.

There are simply no downward pressures on grades in any system that treats students as paying customers. The unspoken implicit understanding between administrators and educators that there is a standard in assessment and grading, a standard that holds sway on a moral ground, has simply eroded.

Let’s give a recent example that I endured this week: an AP student bombed her test so thoroughly that I had no evidence that she had any knowledge of the class material. She received an F on the test, bringing her overall score to a D.

In response, I had to respond to a constant chain of emails with the parents, attend a conference, meet with administration to discuss the grade, and ultimately cede an opportunity for a retake. This placed me in the crosshairs of my bosses and used hours of my desparately needed planning time.

At no point in all of this did anyone say, “well, yeah. Look at the test. She bombed it. Them’s the ropes.” All it took was for the parents to quote the price of their yearly tuition and I got yanked around by the collar.

This is the system, and it works for the paying customer. I still love my job, I still teach my ass off, and I think I’m doing well by my students. But anyone who thinks that the grades on a transcript, at any level, mean anything is living in a bygone past.



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