My Anti-Intellectual Rant

Over at Unofficial Manifesto, D-Train takes me to task over a conversation we had a few weeks ago concerning the role of the Spirit in academic progress in which I expressed my cynicism concerning academia and our educational system. His criticism is worth reading and I hope you will check it out.

As D-Train points out, we agree a great deal in our relative positions on the Spirit in intellectual matters. It may be that we are really saying the same thing, but that he is misunderstanding me, or I him.

D-Train says “…if one desires to receive revelation for one’s profession that will significantly move that profession forward, one has to be among the best at it. Quite simply, the Spirit cannot help us beyond our preparation…. unless you understand the state of the art, you can’t go beyond it, with or without divine assistance.

This may be true to a certain extent, but what I object to is the implication that we should wait to seek relevant revelation until we are confident that we are experts in the field already. The idea that the Spirit cannot help us go beyond our own preparation is true at a certain level, but implies that the preparation is something we are to do unaided by the Spirit. It is this “do it on your own†view that I stridently oppose.

D-Train emphasizes the importance of doing well in the world as a prerequisite to receiving revelation for the world. I think that the interrelationship between the two is far more complex. I see the role of the Spirit as continuous and non-linear. Throughout the process of education we should be leveraging our revelatory access to deity to gain additional insights about the material we are learning. Throughout the process, prayer and the Spirit should enhance our preparation so that we will be able to go beyond the state of the art. It is not a linear progression from personal preparation to revelation. It is a continuous, nonlinear feedback loop in which revelation through the Spirit influences our preparation which in turn influences our ability to receive more from the Spirit, and so on.

President John Taylor declared:

“You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters. You mark my words, and write them down, and see if they do not come to pass.”

I believe that such a state is only possible if we establish the kind of complex continual feedback system between Spirit and Learning that I describe above. If we wait until we are the top of our fields to start to seek further light in our realms of learning, it may very well be too late. The spirit can help us become the leaders in our fields.

Perhaps another difference in our views is that I maintain that the Spirit is operating in the world, even among those who are not members of the church, to produce the progress that we are making. He provides the nonlinear flashes of inspiration, the moments of insight that are so essential to the advancement of science. If men have genius it is because God gives it to them. They should be praised for their hard work and achievements, but the inspiration of the Spirit is an essential ingredient.

In the second part of his post, D-Train dubs me “Anti-Intellectual†and at least one of his readers considers me to be completely clueless in the matters at hand.

Anti-Intellectual is a loaded term. The term “intellectual” implies knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, and so to be called “anti-intellectual” is frequently perceived as connoting that one is against knowledge, wisdom, and intelligence, or at least suffers from a handicap in these areas and therefore feels a need to deemphasize them to compensate for his or her own lack of genius. I am certainly not against knowledge, wisdom, or intelligence, though I may very well be handicapped in them.

In the sense that I take academic elitism and pretensions with a grain of salt (and at times a whole salt-shaker full of salt) I certainly qualify as espousing a degree of anti-intellectualism. But I am not wholly anti-intellectual.

D-Train found my cynical statement about academia to be “uncharitable†and I suppose that it is. I do wonder, though, if the commandment to be charitable really extends beyond people to institutions, or systems of thought? One can be have charity for Marxists, or Laissez-faire capitalists, and still be a completely uncharitable cynic about Marxism or Laissez-faire Capitalism. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

D-Train assumes that because I criticize academia I must hate academics, and prefer people who do “useful” things like make widgets. D-Train is applying a convenient “anti-intellectual” caricature to me as a kind of straw-man/ad hominem that he can easily dismantle. I do not hate academics. Most of my closest friends are academics. I grew up with academics. My father has a Juris Doctor as well as a PhD in Social Psychology. He has practiced law for nearly thirty years. My mother graduated with a double major in English and International Relations and went on to get a Masters in Instructional Design and Technology. Most of my friends through high school, college, and currently are intellectuals and academics. I grew up in wards populated by BYU professors with whom I had close association. My cynicism is born not only of my own experience in academia, but from my long association with academics and intellectuals and their own criticisms of academia.

My cynicism does not lead me to reject all academics or even academia outright. As D-Train points out, of course there is diversity in academia; I might point out, however, that there is diversity in budgerigar populations too, but they are all still budgies. :-p

I described universities as “spawning tanks for counter-culture and socio-political radicalism.†In his response, D-Train, reading a great deal into my words, points out, correctly, that radicalism isn’t necessarily all bad, and that, in many relevant ways, Mormonism is counter-cultural and radical. I agree with him. My main point in describing universities in this way was neither to attack or defend counter-culture or radicalism per say, but to contrast that aspect of universities with the systematic emphasis on conformity. As a hobbyist who has spent considerable time spawning various species of living things in one of numerous tanks and aquariums in my home, my use of the phrase “spawning tanks†does not carry as much negative connotation as D-Train assumes. However, D-Train is right that inasmuch as counter-culture represents rampant promiscuity, sexual deviance, moral relativism, and the destabilization of the family, I am against it.

Concerning my description of the grading systems as “mostly smoke and mirrors, designed more to test conformity and to provide businesses with a convenient way of ranking potential employees, than to engender innovation,†D-Train displays a typical academic’s blind-faith in the academic system. He declares:

“Individual grades may well be flawed. But the population of students possessing a 4.0 at Institution A is going to be more intelligent and learned than the 3.0 kids. I agree that false precision is a problem with grades. 3.6 doesn’t mean a lot more than 3.59, or even 3.4….There might be students that are brilliant little Edisons that just can’t squeeze a B from their superliberal professor. But there aren’t many…. Individual mistakes in grading are clearly likely, as are mistakes in any large statistical sample. In the aggregate, they tend to be very accurate. â€

Many experts in instruction and assessment know that, in many, if not most, cases, grades have no real educational meaning or purpose. Grades are most often assigned for administrative purposes only–to rank, sort, advance, hold back, or punish students. They do not indicate anything about what learning goals have or have not been reached, let alone the intelligence of the student. They provide no guidance for instructional planning or self learning.

There is little to no scientific basis for the belief that the population of students possessing a 4.0 are more intelligent and learned than the population of students with a 3.0. Contrary to D-Train’s unproven assumptions, studies have shown that even in math and science classes, grades are wildly meaningless when it comes to educational assessment. In one study, different math teachers who were asked to grade the same math exam varied the grade assigned to the exam from a D grade to an A and everything in between.

Scientifically conducted experiments have also shown that grading can often involve a degree of self-fulfilling prophesy on the part of the teacher. When teachers were told that a certain, arbitrary subgroup of students had been evaluated with high IQ and learning potential compared to their peers in the same class, those students consistently were found to be the top students in the class, regardless of what their actual potential in relation to their peers was.

Even the applicability of the well-known Bell-curve grading practice is mostly based on folklore, and is designed to produce a statistical ranking system that represents little else than arbitrary ranks.

It is natural for academics to think that getting all As means something… after all, getting As is what they were good at themselves—that is how they became academics. This is what I referred to when I described academia as “largely a self-perpetuating, incestuous system designed primarily to produce more academia.â€

Before I finish, I might as well drag in a little history of the IQ, which is related. Grades and IQ are all about trying to rank people–a concept that seems to me, in some ways, to run contrary to the principles of the Gospel. The following history is adapted from this article.

A cousin of Charles Darwin named Francis Galton started us on the path toward IQ testing. He was apparently jealous of his famous cousin and wanted to produce some great new idea too. His idea was that intelligence was measurable and that it was hereditary and he busied himself mapping the number of geniuses and fools in families. Galton dreamed of selectively breeding people from families full of high achievers to develop a deserving elite to lead society.

Some time later, the French government approached a psychologist named Alfred Binet. They were concerned that their universal public education system was costing a lot of money but that it was not turning out well educated students. They wanted Binet to devise a way of identifying the students that would struggle before they even started school.

Observing that children are able to solve increasingly complex problems as they age, he tested a large sample of children to determine the average level of problem complexity for each age and called it “mental ageâ€. Then he compared individual children with the average he had found. Binet hypothesized that how individual children performed in relation to the average “mental age†could be used to predict how well a child would do in school. He never claimed to be measuring intelligence, just aptitude for school.

In 1916 Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman adapted Binet’s test for American children and adults. The test was called the Terman-Binet Intelligence Test and is still in use today. Borrowing an idea from German psychologist William Stern, Terman devised a way of representing intelligence with a single number. He divided Binet’s “mental age†by the chronological age and multiplied the quotient by 100. The result was the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). An 10-year-old with a mental age (so-called) of 10 would have an IQ of 100. An ten-year-old doing the work of a 15-year-old had an IQ of 100 times 1.5, or 150. After testing Mexican Native American Children, Terman declared that “their dullness appears to be racial.â€

The scheme was revised for adults and eventually a baseline “mental age†was determined for each age group and called 100. IQ baselines are reset every few years (because it really is only useful for ranking people in relation to one another). If we look at the change in baselines over the last 40 or so years it seems people in general have increased in IQ by about 30 points!

When the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army needed to build an instant army of more than a million soldiers. They needed a way to assign officers, technicians, soldiers, etc. in very little time. They didn’t want to waste their time trying to educate people who couldn’t be educated. They contacted a certain Robert Yerks to accomplish for the Army what Binet had been asked to do for French schools. Yerks produced two tests: one for Literate English Speakers and One for the Illitarate and Non-English Speakers. The Army tested and sorted 1.7 million people and filled their officer and soldier training camps based solely upon their scores. The tests were poorly administered, inaccurate, and largely unfair, but the Army’s wholesale adoption of IQ popularized the system.

An IQ expert named Henry Goddard was hired as a consultant on Ellis Island. After testing he declared that 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians, and 87% of Russians were “feebleminded†based on IQ testing. In 1924 a law was established that set immigration quotas based on country of origin based upon Goddard’s IQ testing.

IQ testing suffers from severe conceptual and practical problems. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court virtually banned the use of IQ tests as a hiring tool. Since th 80′s many school districts have banned IQ testing altogether. But it has, lamentably, remained a strong force in popular culture.

Grading suffers from many of the same problems, and is driven by many of the same motivations, as IQ measurement, and yet our culture has put so much emphasis on it. D-Train is wrong when he asserts that it is companies and not academia that artificially emphasized grades. Universities are companies–at least they run very much like companies and it is easy to see the emphasis in grades in university admissions around the nation and world. It isn’t merely office politics, the same as everywhere else. Grades are an institutional paradigm. Everything revolves around badges, even if those badges mean only that you are good at jumping through hoops and getting badges, or that you were lucky enough not to have calculus from Professor Blunderbuss.

There are many good, intelligent people in academia. But, to a great extent, they exist in spite of the system and not because of it. There are also many good, intelligent people who have been excluded from academia because they don’t play academic games.

As members of the church we walk a fine line. We must excel in the world without making worldly excellence our aim. We must strive to be excellent and give all the glory to the Father. We must work to produce the best the world has ever seen, and at the same time remain humble—rejoicing in the success of our neighbor as much as we would in our own; and rejoicing in our own success as much as we would had it been our neighbor’s.

As members we should not invest too much faith in the “arm of flesh” academic system and exlude the Spirit–or put off its influence until that time that is apt never to arrive without His help. We must be wary lest, having excelled on the entrance-exams, we enter into that great and spacious building, floating in the air.

We must always esteem our temple recommend more than the recommendation to the ivory tower we received while dressed in the robes of the apostate priesthood.

(Perhaps I will be eviscerated in the bloggernacle because of this rant…but that’s the fun of blogs isn’t it! :-) I hope it’s a fun conversation. After all, blog are, above everything else, entertainment.)

41 thoughts on “My Anti-Intellectual Rant

  1. I agree, Jonathan. I spent several years in graduate school- long enough to have a Ph.D. if that is what I had wanted. Two master’s degrees and one law degree later, I have decided that by and large, I intensely dislike and mistrust “the academy”. Especially when it comes to the humanities generally and German Studies in particular. People make stuff up all the time. Professors often see themselves as demi-gods. It’s ridiculous- you make some stupid stuff up about (fill in name of obscure German poet) being gay or whatever, and you think people actually give a crap about your “work” so you see yourself as a God. Ridiculous.

    Of course, there are some good people in the academy. It would be nice if they remembered to hold their temple recommend in as high esteem as their worthless piece of paper.

  2. Jordan, if a review I wrote (for an academic journal that twisted my arm to write it) ever gets published, I’ll have to send you a copy. It will warm your heart.

    JMW, this isn’t a rant. It’s a 2,662-word spat between you and some guy named “D-Train.” That’s over ten pages, double spaced. Long enough for a term paper. More than your allotted time, if it’s a 20-minute conference paper. It’s sprawling and unorganized, and that excursus at the end about the history of IQ is irrelevant. Rather than arguing your point concisely, you keep picking nits with something some obscure person said. At the end of the day, it’s still all about you and “D-Train.”

    I’d give it a C, but you know what they say about grade inflation.

  3. Jordan,

    The academy is totally full of people who think that they’re demi-gods. I hear that that Jim Faulconer character is a prime example. He throws (throws!) heavy books on Heidegger and Neitzsche at his students in mid-class, while cackling manically.

    Gordon Smith grades his students based solely on the amount of cheese they give him. How do you think that he has such a good cheese life? Italian parmagianno-regianno + dutch smoked, herbed gouda + a nice, runny Camambert = A+ for the course.

    And don’t even get me started on that Russell Fox character.

    The best part, however, is that I’m going to get to be a demi-god soon! I can’t wait to start throwing thunderbolts at my students! As for grading, I’m going to base it on who’s best at a game of limbo.

  4. Kaimi-

    Of course not all academics are as I described. I just had a bad experience, that’s all. My several year foray into German studies left a bad, bad taste in my mouth. And who can rule out another foray into academia, but in a different field like law- the one I now love?

    If I could research intellectual property issues that actually mean something to me and impact the daily way technology firms do business, then that would mean something.

    Jonathan Green- I have no doubt that you are not the sort of Germanist that really turned me off from pursuing that angle of study any further. I have heard only good things about you from people (in the field) who I trust.

    I will say that I have experienced people who hold their academic degrees higher than common sense or their temple recommend. But haven’t we all. Good thing there are some sensible academics out there.

    Kaimi- be merciful on your students…

  5. A “C”! Had this been a term paper, I would have given it an outright “F” myself, Brother Green.

    Hey guys, Professor Green is an easy grader! Green requires a lot of papers, but he only requires that they be 3 pages long. You can pull an “A” out of Green for the same work that Blunderbuss would give a “C”. Plus, Green is funny and in Green’s class you get to watch movies and play video games, even though he speaks only in German. You should take it from him to avoid Professor Blunderbuss, who requires harder work and grades harder.

    And even though the students who come out of the class from Professor Blunderbuss with a “B” may have produced better work than the “A” students who took Professor Green, they are clearly less intelligent and less educated because they weren’t smart enough to drop Blunderbuss and transfer into Green’s class after the first day. And at the end of the day it is the “C” student in Blunderbuss’s class who retains the most information from the course anyway. But he didn’t get into gradschool because of his mediocre grades. :-p

    Nothing personal, Jonathan. I’m sure that in reality you are a great teacher. But do you realy believe in the grades you assign?

  6. JMW,

    You get an “A” as far as I’m concerned. But inasmuch as I have no title or degree, my grading of your paper will probably be meaningless. Now is that telling, or what?

    I disagree with J. Green–that JMW’s post is merely a spat between he and one, D. Train. D.Train is merely an incarnation of the academic hubris to which JMW so vehemently objects. Therefore, JMW’s long excursion into the history of IQ testing is perfectly valid (imo).

    I wonder at what kinds scores Joseph Smith would receive from our educational institutions today? And I really think the problem is an institutional one! I agree with Kaimi that there are some great folks to be found in the world of academia. Heck we have lawyers among the brethren! ;>)

  7. JMW, was your experience at BYU really that bad?

    Although you’re making progress on your mastery of the “rant,” you need to work on having a clear thesis statement that guides the rest of the writing, also known as the “point.”

    Do I really believe in the grades I assign? Yes. I tell my students on the syllabus what will be required. I tell them what each quiz and test will ask for. If they learn the material, they get a better score on each assignment. At the end of the semester, I add up the totals and assign a grade according to pre-established criteria. If I didn’t do that, students would complain to my department head (more than they already do). How well students do depends on their natural talent and educational background, which are unfairly distributed, and on the work they do for the course. Some students work very hard and get low grades. Others can coast to an A. My job is not to distinguish between the two, but to determine who has learned the assigned material and reproduced it on the tests (and students who speak better German, turn in assignments on time, and attend regularly do get higher grades than students who don’t).

  8. But Jonathan- teaching was the FUN part of academia. What about all the pointless research? That’s what really irked me. Well, that and how I had to pretend to be interested in some goon’s theories of medieval homosexuality amongst North German monks. Or Kafkas “fin de siecle”.

  9. Although you’re making progress on your mastery of the “rant,” you need to work on having a clear thesis statement that guides the rest of the writing, also known as the “point.”

    Please, Jonathan, my area of study was English. You don’t need to patronize me with sarcastic explanations of how to write a paper.

    As for my BYU experience, I did not leave because of bad marks. It was family priorities that took precedence.

  10. JMW,

    You are guilty of being a discerning individual, and judging people based on criteria other than just intellectual achievement. How unelitist of you. You cannot possibly succeed in the wonderful world that exists in the centre of the intellectual elite with such a common sense approach.

  11. Jordan, teaching is a noble calling that has thrilling moments and unique rewards. It also makes me want to pull my hair out by the roots at times. I actually groove on pointless research, although not of the gay monk type you describe, which is really not my cup of tea at all.

    JMW, I’m not patronizing you. I’m mocking you. What else did you expect? It’s impossible to disagree coherently with your screed against academia, most of which consists of interpersonal disagreement between you and “D-Train.” I still don’t get why you’re so negative on academia. Whatever your experience of BYU was, it probably didn’t provide a representative picture of the American academic experience. My students’ ratings of me on seem to have put a bee in your bonnet as well, but I can’t figure out why.

  12. In other words JMW,

    If you’re going to disagree with academia you have to do it their way.

  13. No, Jack, It means you have to write something intelligible, whether or not you studied English.

  14. I’m not patronizing you. I’m mocking you. What else did you expect?

    You are going out of your way to mock me? I’m flattered that you actually deigned to respond to me at all.

    I apologize if my use of your ratings gave offense. I was only trying to give an example close to home, if only hypothetical. I guess it was too close to home because you never responded to the issue the hypothetical was meant to demonstrate: That the differences between the subjective grading bias among professors is significant in a way that makes grades virtually meaningless.

    As I explained in my “screed,” my views are not based upon my experience at BYU alone. They are the cumulation of my experiences with academics, including conversations with individuals who have excelled within academia who believe much like I do. I have also done some investigation into assessment and educational theory–a field that interests me—that has influenced my views.

    The confidence that professors, such as yourself, have in the validity of the grades they assign is unbelievable to me. Their overweening confidence in their own objectivity in the matter is absolutely astounding.

    Here is a little survey concerning grading for you, and any other professors/teachers, concerning grading:

    Rate the issues according to the following scale
    A – A Very Important Consideration in Grading
    B – Somewhat Important
    C – I have no strong feelings either way
    D – Should not be considered very heavily
    E – Should not be considered at all in grading

    1. Should the student’s IQ be considered in assigning grades?
    2. Should the final exam be considered in end of semester grades?
    3. Should effort play a role in determining the student’s grade?
    4. Should a large test be given at the end of each marking period?
    5. Should a student’s popularity with other students affect his or her grade?
    6. Should class participation be considered in determining the grades?
    7. Should attendance play a role in grading?
    8. Should late work influence the student’s grade?
    9. Should whether or not the student shows the process by which he or she arrived at the right answer influence the grade?
    10. Should partial credit be given for employing the right process, but arriving at the wrong answer through a minor mistake?
    11. Is the student’s social class a factor?
    12. Should the student’s ability to give you back exactly the same answers as you want be considered?
    13. Should extra credit be offered?
    14. Should the student’s willingness to publicly disagree with you be considered?
    15. Should a grading curve be employed to produce an equal number of students receiving low and high grades?

    This is hardly an exhaustive survey of how professors determine grades, yet I am sure that you will find that the results of this survey will vary greatly from professor to professor. Additionally, the perception of what professors say should be considered in grading, and what the students perceive as being considered is even more of a contrast.

    Here is a little quiz for professors about their grading methodology? Imagine that your job, or your tenure, or your salary was to be determined by your performance on this quiz:

    1. What is “standard deviation”?
    2. Explain what a “mean” is?
    3. Define “median”?
    4. What is a “normal distribution”?
    5. What role do these concepts play in your own grading methodology?
    6. What is a “reliable test”?
    7. What is “validity”?
    8. What is “objectivity”?
    9. List the measurements you routinely use to determine the reliability of one of your own tests?
    10. How do you know that the last quiz you gave was valid?

    It is a well know lamentation that professors, unless they happen to be professors of educational theory, are not well versed in good principles of pedagogy, nor are they experts in assessment. Most strive to be fair, and some have a natural gift for teaching, but the grades assigned by most of them are highly subjective and generally have no educational purpose or meaning.

    The work it takes to perform proper assessment is often so overwhelming that even teachers who do understand the issues that surround proper assessment don’t even try. In order to deal with the overwhelming task of rating students, professors often resort to “mickey mouse” assignments, pop-quizzes, tricky multiple choice questions, irrelevant essay questions, and such. They often set up a series of easily graded hurdles and mistake it for learning.

    Some teachers subconsciously grade the papers at the top of the pile easier than those at the end. Others grade harder at the beginning, and easier as fatigue sets in.

    Often teachers will dock points for late work. But grades influenced by a late-work policy have nothing to do with quality writing, content, or learning and everything to do with administration and control.

    Likewise, many teachers take attendance and classroom participation into consideration in determining grades. But neither attendance, nor participation is a valid indicator of learning. It is merely one of those easily perceived hurdles teacher employ to make grading easier.

    Look at the three things you say influence whether your students get higher grades:
    1. speak better German
    2. turn in assignments on time
    3. attend regularly

    #2 is clearly an issue of administrative control, probably designed to make your job easier. It has no relation to learning.

    #3 is a somewhat artificial measurement that is employed as a proxy for learning. Students who attend regularly, the reasoning goes, will probably understand the material better, and so we use attendance, which can easily be measured hurdle, in place of the nebulous and hard to measure concept of “learning.”

    #1 is you most objective measurement. How well a student speaks the language studied is more concrete and measurable than the material in many other subjects. Yet its apparent objectivity is deceiving. How exactly do you determine whether a student speaks “better” German?

    What if a student writes in German nearly perfectly, but his or her spoken German is terrible?
    What if he or she speaks very well, but can hardly write?
    What if the grammar is perfect, but the accent is so bad as to be incompressible?
    What if the student’s reading comprehension is superb, but listening comprehension is a travesty?
    The student speaks better German…but “better†than what: than she spoke upon entering the class? Than the other students in the class? Is “better†measured by comparison to a native speaker, or to another non-native speaker? Does comprehensibility to a native matter? Does the ability to comprehend the speech of a native matter? A native of Austria? Or Germany? Or a native of the Liège province of Belgium?

    What if the student is an English major who is taking the course to fulfill a department requirement that he be able to read literature in at least one language other than English and has no need or interest in being able to speak German the language well enough that he could be understood by a native? He gets a C in German than influences his overall GPA even though he fulfilled all of his department’s learning objectives.

    Even if you have an answer to all of these questions and a consistent scheme to determine whether or not a student “speaks better German,†your scheme unquestionably differs from other professors in your department, the professors who proceeded you by 10 years, or will succeed you in 10 years, and the professors in similar departments across the nation and globe.

    Grading is subjective.

    Power and control over students is a major factor in grading. Grades are used to enforce deadlines, coerce class attendance and participation, punish disrespect or disagreement, and to keep wise-guys and hecklers in check. Upon what grounds do professors claim the right to such power and to recklessly wield their subjective judgment in a way that can change the course of a student’s life?

    The intellectuals among the bloggernacle are fond of quoting D&C 121 where it declares that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, that as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion, and these same intellectuals quickly apply that declaration to the very authorities of the church. Yet how many are willing to apply that same principle to priests of the ivory tower of academia?

    The irony is that there are some in the bloggernacle who are willing to question objectivity of the Brethren of the church, and even question the ability of the prophet to objectively discern revelation (he gets revelation, but he often misinterprets it through his own subjective bias, they claim), but they unquestioningly trust themselves and others to “objectively†doll out grades and declare who is intelligent and who is not. While they busy themselves with critically assessing everything else, the system from which their degrees and power are derived is left alone; passed over by the deconstructing magnifying-glass, perhaps from fear that it might reveal their foundation to be an illusion.

    Had I written similar sprawling and unorganized post, lacking a clear thesis to guide the rest of my writing, about power structures and unrighteous dominion within the Church hierarchy and system instead of within the academic hierarchy and system, perhaps I would have been praised instead of mocked…

  15. I was a little harsh in 14, but your 15 is an improvement. I wonder whether, especially in some of the “elite” schools, many professors have not lost confidence in their ability to grade, such that the grade inflation obscures the difference between the outstanding students, the merely competent, and the poseurs and frauds.

    Jordan, when I was a graduate student, I spent a lot more time worrying about finding something I could get sufficiently excited about, than worrying about whether I was interested in what other people were doing. My inability ultimately to do the former was the reason I didn’t continue. With regard to the latter, I never felt any pressure to pretend, although I imagine that if I had become interested in gay monks (while) at BYU it would not have been looked upon favorably. Luckily, there are enough things in heaven and earth that we can always turn our attention elsewhere.

  16. It looks like #13 was correct and #14 wasn’t.
    Your assessment certainly defines the observations and experiences myself and many others had, both in school and in university.
    As a practical application of your comments, when I studied a macro economics course in my 2nd year of university, the professor would often try to explain a concept to the class. Then he would ask if anyone understood it and no hands went up. I would put up my hand and try to explain the concept a little differently, and he would say that that was exactly what he was trying to say. he would then ask the class how many understood the concept and most, if not all hands went up.
    I did not write his exams well, and ended up flunking the course. I could explain the material when I heard what he was asking, but I could not understand his questions when he wrote them.
    I ended up dropping out of university as a result of that class (and a mandatory French class) and never went back. I was studing history and political science as majors, but felt I wasn’t smart enough to make it in academia. This, in spite of a minor in philosophy, where 2 of my profs tried to encourage me to go to Yale or Princeton to study philosophy.
    I recognize the element of pride that was involved in my decision, but I also remember the deep anxiety and sense of failure that prompted my decision. I did not, and would not today, write exams well; but if you wanted to engage me in a discussion on the subject at that time, I would have passed.
    Under different rules he might have recognized me as a bright student who wrote exams poorly; we’ll never know. I do remember the look on his face when I went to pick up my final exam and his comment that I couldn’t possibly have written that exam. That, I will always remember as priceless.
    As a side note, I should also point out, that I had been assessed over the course of 3 days, 8 hours a day, 2 years previously, that I was in the top 11/2 to 1/2% of the population in intelligence. I was told I could be anything in the world I wanted to be, only never pick up a hammer.
    Prior to my mission I had scored 96% on the SAT’s despite having a 60% average in high school.
    So it looks like the variables are as JMW describes them, at least as they related to me.

  17. ” While they busy themselves with critically assessing everything else, the system from which their degrees and power are derived is left alone; passed over by the deconstructing magnifying-glass, perhaps from fear that it might reveal their foundation to be an illusion.”

    Spoken like someone who has never sat in on a faculty meeting, read any academic websites, or had lunch with a bunch of graduate students!

    JMW, there are people with degrees in academic assessment, and even as a lowly teaching assistant, I had to take a semester course in which we studied the problems of testing and grading–you’re not breaking new ground here.

  18. Sigh…I just wait for the threads that don’t use too many words or big words, or topics about which I have no clue. I am just awed before all this intellect.

    Sometimes it’s a long wait, too.

  19. annegb, I just wait for your comments, which are rapidly becoming my very favorite thing in the bloggernacle.

  20. annegb (#19): Can I tell you that you’re one of my favorite commentators?

    JMW, I agree with about half of what you say and half of what D-Train says. I think, perhaps, that D was overstating the importance of intelligence in grading systems. I think you’re right in comment #15 of the three things that influence grades. If I may paraphrase and broaden:

    1. learn the information
    2. administrative (on time, attend regularly, using correct styles, etc.)

    In fact, I would argue (and I think, based on some of your comments that you’d agree with me) that grades tell us more about how hard a person worked than by what they actually know/learned. I great student could, perhaps, do an assignment in 1 hour, while a mediocre student could do it in 5 hours, and they would get the same grade. The mark itself doesn’t tell us how smart each student is, just that the mediocre student worked harder.

    Contrary to what (I think) you’re saying, though, I’m okay with that. For it seems to me that there should be some sort of ranking, precisely because our social networks are so large that personal interactions are not feasible. Grading, as far as I see it, is a necessary evil; the current system may be bad, but until a better and more practical system is offered, I’ll use it.

    I think part of the disagreement lies in different frames of references. It seems to me that your focusing on micro-level academia–the individual class, the individual professor, while D seems to be talking about macro-level academia–the student’s academic career. If I’m misreading you or D, I apologize. If I am right, though, then I think both of you have valid points. It’s like in baseball: even the best hitter will get out 2/3 of the time. The difference between a .260 hitter and a .300 hitter is nominal in an individual game, but after 160 games and 600+ at-bats, it becomes significant. Likewise, in academics, a student may get a “B” in one class–it could be because of the prof, because of poorly worded tests, because the hot girl two seats over was really distracting, but if the student gets B’s in all classes, that’s a pattern of significances.

    I also don’t see the rampant abuse of privileges by professors that you (seem to) imply. But since we can only speak to our own experiences, I don’t feel much like arguing this point. If this is, in fact, the source of disagreement, then there’s nothing I can say.

    Jack (#7): “D. Train is merely an incarnation of the academic hubris.”

    It may not be intended as such, but the word choices in there sound suspiciously like a personal attack on D’s character. If it is not intentional, please just take this note as information that it does sound like one.

  21. JMW, the reason I didn’t respond was because I couldn’t figure out what you were talking about. But now we’re making progress. You’re still a little long on extraneous detail, but at least you’ve narrowed the issue down to something manageable–you don’t like how grades are assigned. I don’t mind at all discussing my own students, ratings, and grading, but you really should check my actual grading policies. My syllabuses are all online.

    Your biggest mistake is confusing grading with learning. I care about how much my students learn, and I give them grades because it’s an institutional requirement, but they’re two completely separate things. Grades can be a handy motivating tool, and a way to get students to do the work they need to be doing–call it coercion, if you want–but all they reflect is whether or not a student has jumped through the proper hoops, no more, no less. One of those hoops in my German 101 classes is learning the definite article in the nominative and accusative cases. If students don’t do that, I don’t feel bad about grading them lower.

    I love getting late work. That way students have to learn the material, but I can still give them a low grade. They learn, so I’m happy. The average grade for the class isn’t too high, so the administration is happy with me. If I don’t return a student’s work for weeks or lose it altogether, it’s his fault for turning it in late. What’s not to like?

    In the last few semesters, I haven’t graded students down for not attending. Students who don’t attend regularly get lower grades because they aren’t as well prepared for the tests as those who do. Students who skip class have more time to spend on their top priorities, and I have more time to spend with the students who are motivated to learn. Everybody wins.

    There are lots of criteria for determining how well a student of a given level speaks German. The expectations for each aspect of language learning are on the syllabus of every class. If a student does well on some but not on others–if they can speak but not write, if they read well but have terrible listening comprehension–their grade goes down. It’s one way of telling them what areas they need to work on.

    If an English major takes my German class to fulfill a requirement, concentrating only on reading while ignoring speaking and listening, then complains at the end of the semester that he shouldn’t get a C, I would tell him to stop wasting my time. He got the syllabus on the first day, and if he didn’t like it, he should have dropped the class then. If he thought there should be a German reading class open to undergraduates, he should have taken it up with the department head, who makes those kinds of decisions. Then again, the C isn’t figured into his major GPA, only his overall GPA, so why is he complaining?

    Yes, grading has subjective elements. This is news? Grades can’t be reliably compared between decades or institutions or disciplines. Why should they? Those kinds of things are the province of national and international standardized testing.

    Who gave me all this power to impose a grade on students? Why, you did, and people just like you. You don’t like my grading policies? Don’t take my course. You don’t like how grades are assigned at your college? It’s a free country, and you’re the customer. Go spend your educational money elsewhere. Really, if you’re not getting what you want out of your education, do something else. There are lots of options out there, and life is too short. I’m not saying that American academia or its grading system is perfect, but the source of my power to give students grades is exactly their willingness to pay for the privilege of being graded by me.

  22. “My syllabuses are all online”

    See, if he were really an academic snob, he would have said “syllabi”


  23. Pris,

    No, I was trying to convey the idea that JMW was criticizing an ideology rather than a person.

    J. Green,

    Have you ever taken a moment to consider the absolute authority that pre-college testing wields in our society in determining who is or who is not fit for the academic grind? Children are literally segregated according to their “riches and their chances for learning”. On the positive side, I would say that the university, as it is, is the best we’ve been able to come up with as a society and therefore ought to be taken advantage of by the same in spite it’s weaknesses. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that there’s some academic “cake” out there that will nourish those who are less fit for the grind.

  24. Kristine, no, it’s that I’m so extremely snobbish that I refuse to use Latin plurals for English words. It helps me feel superior to people who say ‘syllabi.’

    Jack, yes, I agree, the SAT’s a racket, and too much of what passes for meritocracy is merely rewarding the privileges of birth.

  25. Jonathan,

    What kind of a response is that? We were supposed to get into a nasty argument…

  26. Kristine:
    Oh come on! The “your just ignorant” gist of your “never sat in on a faculty meeting, read any academic websites, or had lunch with a bunch of graduate students” comment is a pretty lame, predictable response. Where are those debating skills your family so carefully cultivated at the dinner table year after year?! ;)

    I will admit, however, that I am employing a degree of hyperbole in order to draw out conversation (and I succeeded in the nearly impossible task of getting you, Kristine, to comment on the M*! ).

    I have never claimed to be “breaking new ground.” (The plenitude of posts throughout the bloggnacle that rehash tired, old “Extensions of Power” arguments aren’t often dismissed because they aren’t breaking new ground!) I’ve readily repeated that my views were influenced by the criticism of academics with whom I have association and investigations into education and assessment. Some of my criticisms were brought up by educational studies as early as the 1920′s! And yet here we are in 2005 using the same-old, bogus system.

    Of course many professors and teaching assistants have at least a cursory awareness of problems with the grading system, yet, as I pointed out, the task of proper assessment is so overwhelming that it is often not even attempted. Sure, faculty members and graduate students chat about these issues in private among themselves…and professors of education have been arguing assessment issues for years…but how many professors have open and honest discussions and debates about these issues with their students on a regular basis?

    Did your teaching assistant course in the problems with grading and testing prick the liberal sensitivities of your heart and inspire you to nobly reveal the sham to the students you were assigned to grade? Did you try to empower them against the oppressive power structures of the system? Or did you simply do your duty, prop up the system, and maintain the power the smoke and mirrors supply?

    What I would really like to see is frequent, open and honest discussion between professors and students about the reality of grading.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. D-Train and I are not in complete disagreement. We have merely argued opposite extremes. I can see the merit in some of his arguments as well. (Incidentally, Pris, we share a common friend! Your friend Jonathan–I think you know who I mean–is a good friend of mine. We went to high school and BYU together.)

    J. Green:
    (Too many Jonathans in this thread!)
    Thanks for your kind reply. I’m sorry that I rubbed you the wrong way. As I stated earlier, and sincerely, I’m sure you are a good teacher. I am sure you have a sincere interest in teaching your students.

    It’s funny that you say that my mistake is confusing grading with learning, for that is exactly my contention against academia! And to say that my cynicism about academia boils down to the fact that “I don’t like how grades are assigned,” I think is overly simplistic.

    You say “Grades can’t be reliably compared between decades or institutions or disciplines. Why should they?” Or between professors, or between classes by the same professor I would add. This is one of my points! That grades are virtually meaningless. If they have no meaning outside of the professor’s administrative needs over an individual class, why do we assign them at all?

    You are required by the department to assign grades. That is exactly what I was referring to when, in my original post I stated “Grades are most often assigned for administrative purposes only–to rank, sort, advance, hold back, or punish students. They do not indicate anything about what learning goals have or have not been reached, let alone the intelligence of the student. They provide no guidance for instructional planning or self learning.

    The whole academic system revolves around a measurement that you acknowledge yourself can’t be reliably compared between decades or institutions or disciplines and which I assert cannot even be compared between professors or the different classes of the same professor.

    As I stated above, what I would really like to see is frequent, open and honest discussion between professors and students about the reality of grading. Even if the grading system remains, as Pris called it, a “necessary evil,” an honest dialog would be a first step.

    I should add, J. Green, that perhaps kindly seeking clarification is a better response to misunderstanding than mockery…

  27. Sorry that I’m a late-comer on this one. A bit ironic, no? I’ll try to answer what JMW presents here in a way that clarifies what I have to say:

    I agree with JMW that we should seek revelation for our professions or studies whether we’re the best or not. My hockey example on the original post illustrates this point clearly. My point was simply that these revelations won’t be of any consequence to the profession as a whole since they will only direct you toward a personal understanding of ground that has already been explored. Maybe the Spirit can help me understand an introductory calculus course. But those SPECIFIC revelations are of no consequence to someone that has already understood that (possibly with the assistance of God, possibly not). They don’t matter to the field at all.

    As Pris points out in my defense, I defend grading as a reasonable aggregate and not in specific instances. Indeed, in my original post on the matter, I note that I’ve felt cheated by the grading system in the past. I also just received an A that I did not deserve. Consistent success in a phenomenon that you consider random and bogus deserves closer inquiry than a quick dismissal with some unrelated evidence concerning IQ testing thrown into the bargain. You use IQ testing from nearly one hundred years ago as “evidence” of why grading is stupid. But you do illuminate the key point: that these tests are only useful in any sense when applied to comparisons between people in similar circumstances (same degree program, for example). Remember the point that I made: interpretation of these data is the problem. Saying that a 3.5 is miles better than a 3.45 is ludicrous. Saying that a 3.0 is significantly worse than a 4.0 is not. For example, in the average degree program here at OU, a student will take about 45 classes in order to graduate. The 4.0 made an A every time, while the 3.0 performed worse than the 4.0 in at least fifteen courses (since Fs don’t get you credit hours) and likely more (since kids with 3.0s that finish a degree didn’t typically make fifteen Ds). This is more than a little difference. This is significant. If academic systems were generally whimsical in grading, you would see a huge clump of students gravitating toward the middle of the grading scale (probably about a 2.7-2.9 here) and progressively fewer exemptions heading out toward 1.5 and 4.0. That doesn’t happen. The distribution looks more like a somewhat flattened bell curve than a somewhat exaggerated curve. Of course, there will be outliers in any population. But my explanation gives a better account of the empirical data that we see, while yours predicts something false. I do concede that I understated the academic system’s reliance on grades. This, however, is not the fault of grading, but a failure to interpret the data properly. Most academic institutions correct somewhat for this by adjusting by university and degree program.

    Are students rewarded for conformity? In some sense, clearly. Nevertheless, neither JMW nor the critic on my blog can answer the critical question: what’s the alternative? People are rewarded for pointless conformity (white shirts, etc.) in the Church and much, much more in the workplace and in non-academic society. Why are we surprised that this happens in academia too? Why is this even an issue?

    Well, it’s an issue because we academics think we’re different. And we need to work on that. Nevertheless, there is simply no alternative to grading that can work across the academic system. As I noted with regard to peer/mentoring systems, alternative approaches require many, many more faculty members and simply transfer a much greater power over an academic career to one professor, either creating a disaster in which one professor tanks a career or an even worse scenario in which evaluation is only done by a self-selected group.

    As I stated on UoM, I think the hostility to grading is a hostility to evaluation more than a problem with the present system. I don’t look at grading with a blind faith, but with an understanding that its imperfections are still much better than the crap that is advocated as an alternative.

  28. Oh, yeah. In my haste to go buy books at the university (actually not kidding), I forgot to explain why the IQ evidence was so inapplicable. IQ testing and the Army derivatives are designed to measure inherent attributes and tabula rasa intelligence. They do these things poorly, but this is the intent of their measurement. This is one reason why so many racist conclusions were drawn. The conventional wisdom (which is basically the only alternative to academia that I see operating anywhere) was that blacks, Italians, etc. were inherently inferior. Through a combination of non-specific intellectual evaluations and the advantages conferred to those testing with higher levels of education at home and at school, these conclusions were confirmed.

    Academic grading is meant to measure the exact opposite: mastery of a specific set of course material that has been presented to the student well in advance.

    Whether either of these things actually measures anything well is a matter for debate, but this is why the only evidence presented in JMW’s rebuttal doesn’t apply to the topic at hand. You wouldn’t compare 36 degrees Fahrenheit to 2900 millibars of air pressure or assert that thermometers can’t work because barometers don’t. Therefore, linking flaws in IQ testing to flaws in grading just doesn’t hack it in my book.

  29. What I would really like to see is frequent, open and honest discussion between professors and students about the reality of grading.

    JMW, I’m a grad teaching assistant at a Big 10 university and I am constantly required to attend pedagogy seminars. Many of these are focussed on grading in an effort to do it better. And there are memos at least once a semester on the importance of grading as objectively as possible, on making grades worth something.

    After that paragraph, it’s redundant to say that at least from my perspective within the academy, there is a great deal of concern about the grading system and its many and various inadequacies.

    What are we going to do about it?

  30. JMW, if I had wanted to say “your just ignorant,” I would have (except I would have said “you’re,” gnat-strainer that I am). All I meant was that if you spend any time with academics, you’ll discover that they’re at least as critical of the foundations of their profession as practitioners of any other profession. I daresay they’re more self-critical than most. I don’t think most of them view grades in the totalized way you seem to be bucking against–grades are a limited tool, with flaws that are widely acknowledged.

    I don’t think my personal grading practice is particularly relevant, but I went out of my way to be fair and accomodate people who for one reason or another had trouble meeting the requirements set out by the syllabus (I tutored a student with severe chronic asthma for hours over the phone when she couldn’t come to class, picked up assignments and exams from a student on bedrest during a difficult pregnancy, etc., was liberal with extensions and office hours, etc.). I tried hard to build ways to give credit for attendance and effort into grades. I was very honest with them about which memorization tasks were necessary, and tried to keep rote work to a minimum (tough in introductory language classes). I tried hard to let them know exactly what would be on the tests, so that they wouldn’t waste time trying to guess or studying material that was peripheral.

    But what I sense in your post & comments is resentment that people who do less well in school or who have fewer degrees (or none) are regarded as less intelligent, less worthy than those who have gotten good grades or prestigious degrees. And I completely agree with you that it is silly to believe such a thing. Good grades and advanced degrees measure a particular, extremely limited set of skills, and it’s dumb to extrapolate a great deal from mastery of those skills. For what it’s worth, my personal, anecdotal perception is that academics are *less* likely to equate success as a student with brilliance than members of the general population (that is, my professors at Harvard all knew I was no great shakes, whereas people in my ward tend to presume that I’m brilliant when they discover I have a degree from Harvard.)

  31. FWIW, I had trouble coming up witha fair way to grade my religion class last summer. Here’s what I came up with.

  32. Kristine and Pris, very nice, thank you, and very surprising. I so enjoy the bloggernacle and worry about offending, even more so after I’ve lost my temper. So it’s nice to know I haven’t pissed off the whole blogging world.

    I am constantly amused, amazed, and refreshed by the wit and intellect I find here. I think it’s helping to fend off my impending senility. You guys could consider it service hours.

  33. Sorry JMW, but I think Green sounds like a good professor.

    I had a lot of excellent professors at BYU, spread throughout the German, History, and Spanish departments. Some of them weren’t exactly publishing much, but they were genuinely good teachers of their subject matter. Others published plenty, or at least enough, and were still great influences, both intellectually and personally. I really like Jamie Lyon, for example. The best professor I’ve ever had was Paul E. Kerry when he was at BYU (he’s now at Cambridge). He focused entirely on the substance of your thought and put the effort in to help you first understand some concept (his field was intellectual history) and then incorporate it in your own writing/theories. I had never published until I had a few classes from him under my belt and could better see the “Force”–or the lines that connect everything together (you might be able to tell that he wasn’t much of a post-modernist). His tutelage helped me realize my own potential that was there the whole time but was untapped because of intellectual shortcuts and formalities (such as turning in a paper on time!) that had become habits that inhibited substantive thought. He also put a lot of effort into helping students make post-graduate arrangements, such as grad school applications, considerations of academic direction and projects, etc. He is also genuinely friendly and concerned as an individual. He is a rare catch as far as professors go. BYU will be losing a lot if he does not return from Cambridge.

  34. Considering Paul Kerry, I can’t think of any professor at BYU who influenced me as much as he did. Definitely an academic with his head in the clouds but his feet firmly planted both in reality and in good gospel sod. I’ve never seen such good mentoring and such care for individual students and helping them reach their full potential. But we are getting side-tracked here.

  35. Jordan, I like the sidetrack. I only had Anna Grotans for a year at BYU before she decamped for Ohio State, but that was enough to set the course for the next ten years of my life. Good advice is a precious commodity.

  36. JMW (#27): Small world, isn’t it? He is one of the main reasons why I take the Church seriously instead of just dismissing it. I can assure you, though, (and I can say this because I’ve never heard him speak ill of anyone), that everything he may have told you about me is a lie. But now my paranoia is acting up again and I need to go delete my temporary internet files and such…

    Ben (#32): Out of curiosity, how did the “15% notes” work out? I’ve had to do similar things (reaction papers) but never had to turn in notes (and never heard of anyone doing that). Was it effective? Students like it?

  37. Pris: Mixed, I’d say. It definitely let me see into the reading/thinking/response process of the students, and made them get their thoughts down on paper. And frankly, they came up with a few things I hadn’t thought of before. It let me know when a majority had misunderstood something, which happened several times.

    On the other hand, it took way too long for me to read and grade. Some of them would turn in 4-5 pages, and they happened to be the interesting ones to read, so every Friday I’d spend about 5 hours reading notes.

    Just for time constraints, I don’t think I’d do it quite that way again.

    I can’t remember specific student feedback about turning notes in.

  38. Jordan and John Fowles,

    Paul Kerry and I were in a BYU freshman ward together. I hadn’t seen him or even thought of him since then, but looking at the picture from your link, that’s him. I didn’t know him well, yet your descriptions of him as a professor match what he was like as a freshman. Minor interactions were unusually personal, in a good way. He cared about everyone. This is a wonderful quality for all of us to develop, but it seems especially valuable for a teacher.

Comments are closed.