For eminently understandable reasons, arguments and proposals about undergraduate course selection, grading and other related issues tend to dominate this editorial page (e.g. Viewpoint: Abolish letter grading, 12/5/10; Viewpoint: Test our GSI’s before they test us, 12/12/10; Jeff Wojcik: Not enough course guidance, 1/4/11; Eric Szkarlat: Attendance (not) mandatory, 1/19/11; Jeff Wojcik: Test drive your class 1/17/11).

I can certainly see the value in wanting to improve and refine undergraduate instruction at the University. It’s an important topic now more than ever. The Chronicle of Higher Education cited a recent study that found only six of 10 American undergraduates will see their performance on a standardized skills test — the Collegiate Learning Assessment — improve over the course of a four-year bachelor’s degree. If there are recurring and unnecessary barriers to student achievement at the University, then we certainly ought to be addressing them.

That said, it’s difficult not to read a disingenuous subtext into — just to pick one example — Jeff Wojcik’s proposal for “the incorporation of Michigan Student Assembly’s Advice Online right into the course guide, so you can make informed choices about how helpful and difficult your professors might be.” The implication, presumably, is that simply knowing the course subject, its content and the various factors that will go into the grading process for a course aren’t enough to make a decision. That’s all covered by the syllabus you’re handed on the first day of class. The risk, if I understand this implication correctly, is getting stuck with a GSI or professor who will give you a lower grade — ignoring your work ethic and your aptitude — than someone else. And, of course, you’re here to get good grades, if not for your own sake, then for your parents’ or your future employers’.

Here’s where I should make a confession: I’ve written three different drafts of this column. The first time, I drew on my teaching experience at the University to write a column fitting a company man to the bitter end. I said that grades are assigned anonymously whenever possible, departments make every effort to ensure consistency across sections and between semesters, GSIs make every effort to address serious grade complaints or grievances, and so on and so on.

The second time through, I wrote it satirically: Since course evaluations are themselves a type of grade — a grade that you give to your professor or GSI, which will go into their “permanent record” and are typically requested when applying for academic positions — what recourse do they have? If you’re willing to believe that there are instructors who give their students unfair grades, don’t we have to also account for students who give their instructors unfair evaluations? I would love to know what particular kind of hell would be unleashed if instructors got to consult a similar rating scale and admit students to their courses and discussion section accordingly.

In the end, I settled on a different track and my point is this: Shopping for an instructor who you think is going to give you a better grade — for reasons that are completely distinct from your effort and talent — is self-defeating. Not because the set of assumptions you make in doing so are implausible on their face — even though they are — but because it ignores a basic fact of life: “Grades” don’t end with college. Someone is going to be evaluating you and your work, in some fashion or another, for the rest of your life, and you will rarely, if ever, get to pick who those people are. Thinking that the key to your academic record rests in picking the easy courses and instructors over the “hard” ones fosters an illusion of control over your life that is never going to stand up under any other conceivable set of circumstances after leaving the University.

You might leave Ann Arbor and end up working for a boss you don’t like. You might get an unwarranted negative performance review that leads to a missed promotion. You might open your own business, only to have a few unreasonable customers poison its reputation. Something will happen, inevitably, and there won’t be any opportunity to appeal: No department chair, no dean of students.

You might even go into teaching and get an unfair course evaluation. Wouldn’t that be something?

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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