The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"But there are advantages to being elected President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret." ....Ronald Reagan.
Commentary of the Day - September 5, 2012: The Gentleman's A-. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
I was a college freshman in 1959, a time that might best be described as "between two worlds." The 1950s were largely over, despite the fact that I was made to wear a "dink" (a silly hat reserved for me and my freshman classmates), and I attended a very traditional, all-male college. The l960s would arrive and, slowly, very slowly, exert its cultural force, but I was a child of the '50s for much longer than I usually like to admit.
My first college semester was, as they say, an "education." I learned, for example, that some students were "more equal" than others, and that there were some fraternities whose national charters forbad them from accepting Jews, Blacks, or other "unacceptable" minorities. I was an "unacceptable" Jew.
I also learned that if your name was followed by the Roman numerals for "three," you could be one of Charlotte Ford's honorary escorts at her elaborate coming out party, find yourself in a spread done by Life magazine, and not have to worry a whit about missing classes.
As my second semester began, I learned about the Gentleman's C, the grade reserved for those who cut class from time to time, who didn't especially bother to take notes or join in class discussions, and who knew enough (most of them had gone to second-tier prep schools) to write passable papers and blue book essays. The fellow who danced with Charlotte Ford was also the chap who got a C in our freshman English class. Not only didn't he feel dejected (as I certainly would have felt) but he was downright giddy because this was a Gentleman's C. Let the other guys worry about their grades. They were, in the put-down phrase of the day, "curve busters." They were largely the same guys who could not join his fraternity, nor would he ever cross paths with them after graduation. He had a position in daddy's company nailed down and waiting for him.
When I ruminate about those days, I remember how much I wanted, yea, craved, a robin's egg blue Triumph convertible. Everybody in the snooty fraternity, the one with the snooty guys who had two first names, seemed to have one.
It took me a long time to realize that Gentlemen's Cs came with that territory and that I wasn't part of that landscape. Later when I was finishing grad school, a drinking buddy of mine pointed out that a good college had hired me as an assistant professor of English and that I was making enough money to buy a Triumph convertible if that was really my heart's desire.
Better yet, he had a friend who owned one and who would probably let me take it out for a spin. And that's precisely what we did -- that is, until I discovered a painful truth: I was too large to fit inside, or as I prefer to think about it, the car was way too small. In any event, I got over my Triumph obsession and, thinking back on it, was mighty glad that my Cs in math-related subjects were never counted as "Gentleman's Cs."
Flash forward to the present, a time when one can argue that certain college classrooms have as many "gentlemen" as always but very few, if any, have the grade C. I am, of course, talking about "grade inflation," a subject that increasingly resembles discussions about the weather. As the old saw would have it, "Everybody talks about the weather -- or about inflated grades -- but nobody does anything about it. The reason, at least the reason for inflated grades, is that most professors want to avoid an office confrontation with a disappointed grade recipient. The Gentleman's (or Lady's) C will no longer suffice, not with the mounting pressure on students to produce a much-better-than average GPA.
During the bulk of my teaching career, a B- seemed to do the trick. It was, after all, a B (albeit, on the lower end) and it usually was good enough to dampen down potential outbursts.
Iíve been told that many professors reserved the grade C for failing performances and the B- for anything remotely "satisfactory." That's how grade inflation works -- one simply redefines the standards.
At the college where I formerly taught a wag (not me) once suggested that the college could save money by printing a Dean's List of those who did not qualify for the Dean's List. Lest any student be unnecessarily humiliated, the idea was scraped. Instead, the widespread B- became the omnipresent A- and, I am told, everybody is happy: parents, students, and most of all, the professors who never again have to square off with an angry student.
The only thing that could put a kibosh on this happy state of affairs would be really good students who demand that their achievement be recognized by an A+ and then by an A++. By the time inflation creates a grade of A+++ I can imagine certain students whining that they only got A+s for a papers that they had worked really, really hard on.
© 2012, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.
The Irascible Professor comments: The IP started his university career even earlier than Sandy Pinsker, but at a much different kind of institution -- the very large, very public, very co-ed University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley then (1957) was a much more egalitarian institution than the private men's colleges found further east. To be sure, we had our share of frat boys and sorority girls, and the Greek houses on campus were just as discriminatory as elsewhere. But as a kid from a poor family, who was working his way through college and living in the Co-op dorms that was a whole world apart.
The Gentleman's C was not unheard of at Berkeley in those days, but percentagewise it probably was much rarer. Since, in those days, the taxpayers were covering much of the cost, administrators expected faculty members to cull from the student ranks those who could not cut it so-to-speak, and to do it sooner rather than later. In addition, the IP was majoring in physics and mathematics -- subjects where the competition was particularly keen. Gentlemen's Cs, if they were awarded, were awarded in those less quantitative subjects like philosophy and some other liberal arts disciplines. Though even there, certain departments like English and History were notorious for their high standards.
Things changed during the 1960s and 1970s with the war in Viet Nam. This was a war that largely was opposed both by students and by faculty members. College deferments for male students required acceptable grades, and faculty members began to redefine the standards to ensure that there students could keep their deferments from the Draft. Unfortunately, once that genie was out of the bottle there was no way of putting it back in, and average grades slowly crept upwards, more slowly in the quantitative disciplines perhaps, but even there the inflation was present. Fast forwarding to the 1990s when college costs began to skyrocket and college administrations began to view students as customers to be satisfied rather than students to be educated, we find increased pressure on faculty members not only from students but also from their parents and from the administrators to make sure that students are "satisfied."
These days about half the undergraduate classes are taught by itinerant, part-time faculty members without tenure. Their jobs depend on their students being "satisfied." These days faculty members are evaluated, in large part, through student evaluations. Students who are receiving low grades in a course generally are not happy campers, and even though they might have difficulty cobbling together a coherent sentence they still can bubble in those low ratings on the student evaluation forms, or check them off on the computer. Hence, the Gentleman's and Lady's A- grade in far too many courses.
The Irascible Professor invites your .