Friday, May 24, 2013

Is ace-ing a course, getting an A, about real excellence?

1. I just got a call from a student who said more or less, "My goal is to have a 4.0 average in my graduate work. I've always received A's. Why did I get a B+?" He wanted to know what he had needed to do to get an A, and told me he had done everything I had recommended on his draft. What was missing that he did not get an A?

{I have been going through the page proofs of the book drawn from my blog: The Scholar's Survival Manual. What is striking is the recurrence of certain problems. So my description here is much like my earlier description in that book. I think of a blog as a diary, and hence I do not worry much about repetitions in entries. Of course, once you set it up as a book, you try to cut repetition.

{My other discovery was that when I ask colleagues' and staff for advice about the university rules, they look knowingly at me, as if they too have encountered this situation. Now Pride Goeth Before The Fall. But I would rather think of this as a matter of not getting driving tickets and so keeping your insurance rates as low as possible. It's unlikely that your not getting a ticket over a multi-year period is a matter of your flawless driving and scrupulous traffic officers, although I am sure there are such people. You just finally get caught, for something minor, perhaps. Similar issues come up in criminology, where perpetrators get caught because they keep taking risks rather than just stopping. This stopping problem is a nice exercise in probability theory.}

I try to help students get stronger and do better work.  A's are for excellent work, and I take that to mean that I am proud to show the work to my colleagues. B's are for good work. My goal is to make it possible for all students to get at least a B, and when I fail at least a B-.  Only if they are negligent do they earn lower grades.

I have no problem changing a grade if I am incorrect in my assessment of the work, having reread it at the behest of the student. I try not to give a lower grade if the work is worse than I originally thought.

2. As to what is missing: If you choose a topic that won't allow you to excel, it's hard to do A work. If you have a mechanical notion of school work, it is unlikely that you will do well. Put differently, if you do not have a critical sense, you are unlikely to do a excellent work. For example, if you give an account of the history of participation in urban planning, and treat it as a story of progress and positive "evolution," you miss just what's interesting, including backtracking, and you mistake the notion of evolution for the notion of gradual change. Evolution does not go anywhere, it just goes--at least if we are Darwinians.

3. As in life: Talent matters. Inventiveness matters. Thoughtfulness matters. But you can learn to be a critical thinker. It's just what you don't learn when you do well in high school and often in undergraduate school (this is terrible, but it seems true).

4. By the way, I can't figure out what grades have to do with anything in doctoral work. People want to see your thesis work, and figure out how you can help them. Grades are the last thing on their minds. For master's candidates, who want to enter a doctoral program, or enter a professional school, I can see how they might be concerned about their grades. Most crucially, they should be concerned about the letters of reference that will be written by their teachers, and one might go:

     "Mr. Potter did B+ work in my class, but I was impressed by his inventiveness and industry, the quality of his thinking, and his knowledge. I would choose him over most of the A students because what is needed in our discipline is that inventiveness, industry, and thinking."


      "Mr. Malfoy did A work in my class. He writes well. However, I would be reluctant to have him join my research group, his formal excellence does not extend to independent research work. I am sure he will graduate with a 4.0 average. I am sure that he will thrive in the right doctoral program. But I doubt that he would thrive in ours given its demands for independence and inventiveness."

5. I have been thinking back to my college life, 1960-1964 at Columbia. I was a klutz, and in effect I half sleepwalked through my education. There was no way I would get a 4.0 average: I did not know how to use Cliff's Notes and their equivalents, I took courses that I thought were important and knew that it was quite unlikely I would get an A, and some of the time I really did not know how to study (surely in the humanities, but sometimes in science and mathematics).  The legal scholar Richard Epstein was in one of my classes and he was sophisticated and smart and interesting. And one of my classmates who did not stand out in physics, as far as I knew, went on to a very distinguished career as an experimental physicist. So I had a sense of where I stood, and it was good but nowhere at the top. Of course, everyone knew that "the top" predicted nothing about your future, at least when compared to slightly below the top.

I had some idea that I wanted a liberal education, so study of political theory, social theory, great books, literature, etc, all seemed appropriate. I had to figure out what I would major in (mathematics, philosophy, physics), and I studied physics because it was something I could do well, and liked--one learned how the world worked!, while mathematics was "too hard" and seemed to require a gift I did not have. (In retrospect, my teachers could have given me the training so that I could have had more of that gift, but it was sink or swim. It was a matter of election.)

I am sure some students had 4.0's. We were allowed to get A+, so it was possible to be imperfect yet have a 4.0. I have no idea if they turned out to have great futures as professionals or whatever. I had this crazy idea that I wanted an education.