Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Middlebury Heterodoxy

For as long as I can remember*, I have nurtured a romantic fantasy about teaching at a small liberal arts college. While the image is beginning to fade, this discussion among Jonathan Haidt, Frank Bruni and Dan Senor (filling in for Charlie Rose) about the significance of the Middlebury protests against Charles Murray gives me a little hope.

While I realize that I'm merely looking for nails that the hammer I happen to have in my hand is good for pounding, I have two simple suggestions. First, make prose composition a foundational part of a liberal arts education; second, grade all students on a curve. Students should learn to compose themselves in series of coherent paragraphs. Getting a C at college should be an utterly normal experience. At college, students should discover their uniqueness against a backdrop of prosaic normalcy.

*This is obviously hyperbole. Let's say this fantasy is as old as my desire to be an academic.


Phaedrus said...


A query: How would one grade a composition class that has 15 students in it "on a curve"? At a large university especially, it's very likely that an instructor would have a high percentage of excellent students in one class and a similar percentage of mediocre students in another; that was my experience, in any case. This unevenness from class to class would appear less often in huge introductory classes in chemistry or economics, where grading on a curve might make more sense.

Oh and BTW, I love your blog!


Thomas said...

Thanks, Phaedrus! You are right, curved grading works best in large required classes. Freshman composition should be (and often is) as required a subject as introductory statistics.

I can easily design an 11-paragraph 4-hour written exam that can be given to an entire college cohort, graded by properly trained teaching assistants, working 15 minutes per essay, giving each paragraph a certain amount of points. Obviously, the paragraphs are not going to be great works of literature or scholarship. But the best grades will in fact go to those who can write (and have read the assigned reading). That is, it will provide an incentive for students to learn how to compose themselves, a reason to train their prose form.

In the smaller classes, I haven't thought it through. But it would be interesting to have all instructors draw their grade from a common pool of available As, Bs, Cs, etc. That is, treat each grade as a scarce resource that the graders have to negotiate for. Then let them square off over particular assignments (or perhaps whole students). Most of the grades wouldn't cause a problem. But the "easy A" would disappear since instructors might at anytime be asked to defend an A they gave against the performance of another instructor's student. That is, an easy A for the student would be a difficult A for the instructor (who would have a hard time defending it).

Thanks for getting me to think about this. That's actually a new idea I just came up with.