Banning the D

| August 9, 2010

The New York Times is going to have to start a whole new section just for coverage of stories on all things Grade related. Perhaps if we consolidated them we could reach a critical mass of absurdity.

Previously, you will recall, we had the Law School Shuffle.

Now it’s the High School Two Step: Mount Olive Schools Ban the D – It’s C or Flunk – NYTimes.com.

But already we have many more than two dances. In each article the variations on grading proliferate like… well, like A’s in grad school. One could see all these variations as problematic, threatening to undermine a recognizable standard, even as they claim to enforce it. That is, they run the risk of making a mockery.

But what if we understand this proliferation to be the very truth of grading, it’s variable, strategic core. It must at times appear to be timeless, and at others be on the move. And every move must be postulated as a recalibration.

What is troubling is thus not the proliferation of conflicting strategies, but the dead seriousness of the affair—the oblivious self-satisfaction. But maybe this too is essential. One must not be too aware.

If so, this latest article unwittingly articulates something of the logic at work. According to the science teacher, Mr. Fiedorczyk:

“I have kids who walk the borderline. They know it. They admit it. They calculate what they need to get the D.”

At which, another teacher joked: “Then they’ll turn around and say they can’t do math.”

Isn’t this what grading is all about? But it is not just the students, but the whole apparatus that walks the line, calculating what is needed. Except that we should understand that the line is precisely the thing being calculated, requiring the illusion that no math is required. To not do math, or rather to appear not to be doing math, would be the essential skill.

Skepticism is, apparently the law. In neither article does anyone try to argue that grades represent a real state of affairs. This would be absurd. It is, as it were, the elephant NOT in the room. But what is preferred is that everyone pretend that it is still there, while not being so absurd as to actually speak of it. We can imagine that against appearances, the outrage is not that Fr. Fiedorczyk’s students are jaded, but that they believe too much in grades, force us to look too closely. Our skepticism masks our true belief and the true nature of grading, which is that it must be freed up in order to be put to work. In other words, we believe strongly not in grades, but only that grades should work. Never mind looking too closely. Ignorance is a line to be walked.

This is the deadlock of grading. Unable to find intrinsic motivations we elaborate an abstract system tied vaguely to future rewards and punishments. Lacking desire, we are to desire the sign of lack itself. But in using this system as an external motivator, it must constantly remind us of our failure of desire. The more we must desire the more we must acknowledge the failure of desire. The challenge of education is in maintaining one’s ignorance.

What if we were to imagine that the absurd way in which the students choose to believe in grades, choosing to orient precisely to the weak link, the D, amounts to a parody? According to Mr. Fiedorczyk these students not only know that they are walking the line, but they also admit it. This is the nature of the line, to be on either side as needed, on neither side, or both simultaneously.  The students repeat back the discourse of grades, expertly mimicking the calculation, showing it to operate quite well without the intended motivation, substituting their own narratives. In other words, playing at teacher.

Perhaps these borderline students make teachers uncomfortable because they erase the difference between students and teachers, showing the teachers their own game. Border crossings.

We must, therefore, imagine the corollary to the above quote:

Here it would be the teachers walking the borderline, knowing it, and admitting it: “we are calculating what we need the grades to be. And this time around, because you insist on taking them too seriously, there are no more D’s.”

To which the student must joke, “and then they’ll turn around and claim that there is no calculation involved, that grades are real.”