Marks of invidious distinction

August 1, 2013

In my department I can give one of only three grades to my students: G, VG and U. I like to think of them as Good, Very Good and Un-good. But what the initials actually stand for is Godkänd, Väl Godkänd and Underkänd: pass, pass with distinction, and fail.

I come to this grading system after seven years at Lancaster University in England, where we used to grade on a scale from 0 to 80 and had drawn-out quarrels in our double-marking sessions over whether a particular essay ought to get 64 or 67. Sometimes we had to call in an external examiner. I also come to this Swedish system having spent a number of years handing out grades at US universities, where scores could range from F to D− and then up the rest of the letters of the alphabet to A+. I remember assigning a lot of A−, B− and C− grades. Most of my colleagues did likewise.

But for what purpose am I making these distinctions in grade? I am a humanist, and I am happy to reward a student for having exhibited a satisfactory amount of objective knowledge: for example, knowing that A Tale of Two Cities is not a comedy, and not about Cardiff and Bristol. But most of the grade is qualitative. And what is the qualitative difference between a 64 and a 67, or a B and a B+, or even a C and a B, and why does it matter?

I was taught, by a savvy British sociologist, that one of the prime functions of a university is to give credentials. Giving credentials is a serious business; it is one of the main things we are required to do and receive our funding for. Without reliable academic certification, there could be no professional lawyers, doctors, engineers or even English teachers; there would be only amateurs, doing what they wanted. But still, we have professional lawyers, doctors and the like in Sweden too, and we frequently rely on G, VG and U.

It is liberating to have a choice of only three grades to assign. I still have to give my students detailed feedback. I have to explain to the student why I chose the grade I did, and how much the student has achieved within the parameters of G, VG or U. I have to give advice about the way forward. But I am not compelled to worry about the difference between a 64 and a 67. I simply assign what is usually a pretty obvious grade and address my student person to person.

Grades are incentives to excellence as well as certifications, of course. So yes, here is your G or your VG along with my careful remarks. But at what point does assigning grades turn into a journey in invidious distinctions? At what point are such marks counterproductive? At what point do they serve merely to promote a culture of surveillance, the illusion of the universal quantifiability of human outcomes, or an ideology of inequality?

These are questions that the Swedes keep asking themselves, and for now the answer they commonly give is “all too soon”. But you have to trust yourselves as a society to eschew surveillance and the illusion of universal quantifiability, and to be rightly suspicious of invidious distinctions, you have to believe in equality, too.

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