I find both of the poles in the current cross-blog discussion of grading policies a bit weird. There’s the people who say that a C is the average, and thus that should be reflected in the distribution of grades, with an A being one end of the bell curve. And then there’s people (most especially including students) who say that if they do everything asked of them, they should get an A.
The default state of grading at most institutions accords individual faculty a lot of philosophical latitude in the grades they give out, so this kind of fundamental disagreement about how to grade is not that surprising. I think most students are well-aware that different faculty have different approaches to grading: it’s a necessary part of the student’s art, to know what you’re getting into when you sign up for a particular course. You’ll sometimes hear faculty known as tough graders complain that their approach has a negative impact on their evaluations, or that students refuse to take courses with them. (Often this goes along with a somewhat cattier suggestion that faculty with many students are popular entirely because of their grading policies.)
I’m sure that some students do avoid a notoriously difficult professor. But quite a few such faculty end up with some very devoted cadres of their own. I think this is a case of a problem that solves itself in a curricular marketplace: the students craving a challenge, or knowing they need a strong taskmaster, find their way to a faculty who approaches evaluation in that spirit. I don’t think there’s any need to have that be the default, or to enforce this style of evaluation, however.
My personal sensibility shifts a bit from year to year. I’m not terribly consistent in my internal understanding of what I’m doing when I grade. In general, I tend to imagine the B as the default grade, and an A as a grade that says, “You did something considerably better than ordinary”. The C means, “This is really not as good as ordinary work”. Failures are either, “This is dramatically worse than the norm” or “You blew this off, and I can see that you did”.
I freely confess that I tend to have a slightly different understanding of how this scaling works out based on my understanding of what a student is capable of. The more I’ve graded a student, the more I form an expectation about what they can do. A student who has done consistently excellent, original work for me is likely to draw a much more negative reaction from me for doing ordinary work than a student who has done fine, decent but undistinguished work consistently. If I graded blind, I suspect I’d still have some pretty good guesses over time about the identity of writers, but maybe that would help shake up some of my assumptions. I’m weighing trying to do that next year for the first time.
Every assignment is different, too. Sometimes I get back papers and see such a common repetition of a problem or issue that I realize that there was something screwy about the assignment or that I didn’t explain something very well in class. So that tends to mitigate my grades. Sometimes I get back papers and everybody nails the essays so very well that I hand out A’s very liberally. I don’t believe that I have to produce the same distribution of grades every single time: I’ve had classes with a lot of B’s and classes with almost all A minuses. I really do think that sometimes you get a stellar mix of people or that there’s some kind of convergence in the class or that you’ve succeeded in getting the material across in some special way. Why not recognize that when it happens?
I also find that when you compare notes with other faculty about a particular student, even if their grades vary somewhat, you tend to find that they have a very similar appraisal of that student’s capabilities and commitment, the kind of information that isn’t expressed well by grades themselves. That’s an argument for some kind of written evaluations to go along with grades, of the kind we write for first-semester students at Swarthmore. Though what faculty say to each other is often much blunter or matter-of-fact than what we’d put into writing to a student. Which is again perfectly fine, it seems to me, because grading isn’t just an absolute mark of excellence against some objective benchmark: it’s also a communication to a student, one that encourages them to improve or compliments them for achievement or reprimands them for inattentiveness–in short, part of the art of teaching, which necessarily varies from person to person.