Here’s a video of me giving a seminar at the 2009 celebration of Charles Darwin’s 150th birthday at Stony Brook University.
The Washington Post has a new article on the “haves” and “have nots” in the insane college admissions race. Elite colleges-I work at one-keep this game alive. For example, US News reports that Dartmouth admitted 11% of applicants to this upcoming class of 2018 admissions. Colleges use these statistics to make them selves look “in demand”, but this is all a cynical game that I cannot believe people actually play.
Two editorials (see here and here) in today’s The Dartmouth, our student-run newspaper, take great exception with the proposal that the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading Practices and Grade Inflation made to address the problems causing grade inflation. Both editorials show that students do recognize these problems are severe, but both argue that nothing should be done to correct these problems.
In fact, their explicit arguments are (1) extracurricular activities are more important than coursework to their education, and (2) students should receive grades they do not deserve.
Let me quote extensively from the editorials so that I am not taking anything out of context.
I’ve been a university professor since 1991. Being a university professor is a very weird job, because your performance is frequently measured in ways that don’t necessarily quantify whether you’re doing your job well. This job essentially had three responsibilities: (1) teach effective classes in your discipline, (2) do world-class research that contributes new knowledge and insights to your discipline, and (3) help run the institution at which you are employed and help run the professional components of your scholarly discipline. When I was being considered for promotions and every year when the size of my merit raise is being determined, my performances in these three areas (teaching, research, service) was supposedly what determined my success.
At most universities, only research output is valued. Dartmouth is different and quite possibly unique: I’ve written before about what it takes to get tenure at Dartmouth, where research and teaching are weighted equally in that evaluation, and your research is held to the standards of the best research universities, and your teaching is held to the standards of the best undergraduate teaching colleges. However, the way my teaching effectiveness is evaluated is one of the primary causes of grade inflation. In this post, I will explore how we might change the incentives of faculty to reduce the causes and consequences of grade inflation and thereby provide better educations to our students.
The rationale presented here summarizes the conclusions made by the committee I was on that considered the causes, consequences and solutions to grade inflation. You can see a description of our proposal at dartblog.com (click here for the pdf of our full proposal).
Here’s a cool fly-by video that Bob Robertson made of the building I had a hand in building and now work in at Dartmouth.
Also check out Bob’s other cool videos over at his YouTube channel. He’s especially adept at robots doing classic music videos!
Over the last month, the committee I’m on that developed a proposal to address the causes and consequences of grade inflation talked with many students. In these conversa—tions, many Dartmouth students reported to us that they committed 35-40 hours per week to their extracurricular activities–the equivalent of full-time jobs. They are essentially people who have full-time jobs and go to school part-time!
Moreover, many of them described these extracurricular activities as being much more important to them than their coursework. The current student Editorial Board of The Dartmouth student newspaper seems to agree with this sentiment.
To the professor who criticized my not giving the median grades for the Art History and Spanish departments during my talk to the full faculty last week, and who said that I was “disingenuous” in saying that they were the only two Dartmouth departments with A- modes, I actually told you all the information you need to know exactly what their medians are. I just didn’t say it out loud. Can’t a guy structure points in a talk for effect?
Here’s the problem for you: I said that only four departments at Dartmouth had a median of B+ [Chemistry, Economics, Biological Sciences, Mathematics] last year, and all others had a median of A or A-. I also said that Art History and Spanish are the only two departments with a mode of A- and every other department is higher, as you rightly characterized to Mr. Asch. So what are their median grades?
Hint: if their medians were A, what would their modes have to be?
Perhaps we need that quantitative distributive requirement for faculty as well.
Given the press (see here and here for starters) about the work of our committee on how to fix the problems causing grade inflation, I have been hearing a lot from faculty at Dartmouth and at other universities and from Dartmouth alumni (hopefully, the Dartmouth administration will post our full analysis and proposal to the web soon). They’re running about 95% strongly supportive, in my estimation. Obviously, not everyone agrees, and some question particular points of our analysis (and see here). All of this is natural and an important part of the process of probing, questioning and making sure we get this absolutely right.
I advise incoming freshmen at Dartmouth each year, and one of the first things I ask them is whether they are now children or adults. Typically, half answer adults, and half answer children. I tell them that every faculty member at Dartmouth now considers you an adult, so you’d better start acting like one in everything you do.
Too bad many of their parents don’t do the same! Every Dartmouth faculty member could recount for you numerous incidents of parents calling them to complain about Johnny’s grade in their class, or Susie’s need to have outlandish accommodations for her work. Let me recount for you just two interactions with these types of parents that I’ve had.
In Academic Year 2013-14 the grades given in the Arts & Humanities Division at Dartmouth were on average 0.29 points higher than in the Science Division on a 4-point grading scale, and in 1977 the difference was 0.25 (you can see the data here). The Social Sciences Division has always been sandwiched between the two, with grades about 0.05 points higher than the Sciences on average over the years. Finally, grades in our Interdisciplinary Programs show more variability over time, but are more similar to the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences and Social Sciences (again, see the data here).
Discussions about grade inflation typically devolve into a shouting match between the Sciences and Humanities, which is completely wrong. Grades in all Divisions and in all departments within them over the past 50 years have risen at nearly identical rates (again, see the data here). Let me say that again: grades in every Science department at Dartmouth are increasing at the same rate as grades in every Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities department and in every Interdisciplinary Program over the past 50 years.
Our committee believes that these differences in grade distributions among academic disciplines are natural. Our effort is decidedly not to equalize grades across Departments or Divisions at all. I think very good educational reasons exist why grades in the Arts & Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs are higher than in the Sciences and many areas of the Social Sciences. Let me outline some of them here, but in so doing challenge everyone in every discipline to return to more rigorous grading standards. If we do, our students will be better and accomplish more.