Pursuing grades and chasing after wind

David Miller | Mar 31, 2011

It's no secret that most academics' least favorite task is grading assignments. That's not to say we blow off the job, grading essays by throwing them down the stairs and marking where they land. I tell my students that learning how to think clearly and to express themselves well is one of the most important things they can learn, and I endeavour to provide constructive feedback along the way. Much more onerous is the task of actually assigning a grade, but I do my best to be fair here as well. (I typically assign all my students a preliminary mark and then review the bunch to check for consistency. After all, I tend to be more cheerful after supper than before it...and, who knows, my mood may affect my judgement.)

My complaint, though, is not with the urgent pile of marking on my desk, but with the whole system of marking, and the orientation it encourages. The problem is that competition for marks misses the main thing. Though top marks might help a student get into grad school, in all likelihood once they have a job, nobody will care. Pursue learning, strive to do your personal best, and the marks will follow. Pursue marks, and you run the risk of missing an education.

The spirit of competition that a misguided focus on grades can foster is the dark side of the force. It may lead to better results on your transcripts, but it does so by feeding on your soul. (If I seem unusually passionate about this it is because I struggle with the same problem, and need to be reminded periodically that the life of an academic--in any Christian sense--is not about status, publishing the most books or articles, or being--egad!--popular.) Christians are called to outdo one another in showing honour and to leave no debt outstanding except the continued debt to love one another.

The only positive kind of competition, then, is with yourself. Back in December I listened to an interview with Richard Carnegie (scroll down to page 8 in this pdf), a double bass player whose Youtube video won him a trip to play in the 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Toward the end of the interview, Carnegie was asked what he thought of his chances of winning. He replied by saying something like, "I don't really know. All I'm really concerned about is improving my own performance, not ranking myself in comparison with others."

I can't find the interview online, but here is Richard's winning audition video: http://youtu.be/j-XvDYhhfKY