Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grading Off the Curve

As a land grant institution financed mainly by legislative appropriations, the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s was committed to enrolling just about anyone who applied on time after graduating from a high school within the State. The faculty often seemed equally committed to flunking out all who failed to meet rigorous standards.

“Standards” were very much in the mind of the applier in those days in Madison. There were great differences between requirements for passing some “snap” courses and successfully negotiating many tough required courses.

Freshman English was a requirement. It was taught by grad students in small, workshop-like classes with emphasis on creative writing and all sorts of demerits for grammatical and format errors in the compositions. The mere thought of freshman English frightened some wannabe engineers, who could be great number crunchers but woefully inadequate wordsmiths.

English 1a and 1b were pretty easy going for me. In 1a, the presiding grad student bestowed an A on every one of my papers and test results. But when my final grade arrived, it was a B!

I sought an audience. “I don’t understand your complaint,” the instructor said. “You should be proud. I only gave three B’s in my three sections. You would have to master English to get an A. No college freshmen ever could be on that level. I’ve never given an A for the course.”

No wonder some of the engineers were terrified.

Elsewhere, “standards” apparently could be negotiable. History was among my loves, but the lecturer for one course on Americana was totally boring and so was the textbook. I took to cutting the classes and leaving the book on a shelf a bit too much--so much that the big point counter on an essay question exam called for a description of a phase of history totally unfamiliar to me. Desperately, I filled most of the blue book with a contrived answer to the question, hoping good penmanship would count for something.

The blue book came back with a passing grade and a note beside the contrived answer: “Obviously, you skipped two lectures about this and didn’t bother to read Chapter 10. But I was intrigued by how you dreamed up a totally fictional part of American history. So I gave you a B for creativity on this one.”

And then there was the long-running student joke that surfaced every semester at registration time. “Don’t take basket weaving. I heard four Navajos signed up. They’ll raise the curve out of sight.”

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