Monday, July 12, 2010

Grades: do you want to know where you stand?

My second semester grades came out this past week. It makes for a difficult time for me and my classmates.

Practically, I don't care what grades I get. I don't want to get into the publishing business. I already have numerous credentials and years of experience in teaching. And of course, agents and publishers don't care what grades I get either; they just care how well I write.

Emotionally, it's hard not to get tied up in grades. Especially when people do better than you. Or you're one percentage shy of distinction. Or your grades don't improve. Or you don't do as well as you expected. Or a classmate whom you thought was a way worse writer than you gets the same grade. Or you get the same grade as a classmate you thought much better. All sorts of permutations, combinations, all anxiety-ridden.

Last semester my classmates and I discussed our grades ad nauseam, who got what, who deserved what. This semester we're being quite cagey. I think we've learned our lesson.

I find the whole process frustrating. My tutors and classmates have been critical, but always encouraging and supportive. To come from such a positive atmosphere to being assigned a single number, a perceived rank, is disheartening.

Of course, isn't that the way the writing world is? If all of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives writing as a hobby, grades or rank would never be necessary. But if we want to become published, that's different. The publishing world isn't about group hugs and hobby writing: it's a business, one which becomes more and more challenging to break into every year. A writer's daily life involves rejection, reviews, analysis: a thick skin seems a prerequisite for the job. That and good writing.

But would Twilight have made distinction at Bath Spa University?

Some books steal public interest and run with it. And for all the writing community's kvetching about adverbs or bland writing, readers gobble them up. Other books have thrilling plots, others beautiful description, others intriguing characters. It's rare, near impossible, that any book will succeed in all these areas. Are we expected to as students?

So maybe grades don't matter after all. Maybe the grading isn't entirely objective anyway. I love my tutor, but she is only one person (grades are double checked by an exam board, but I understand marks are rarely changed). Phil thinks Bath Spa grades quite harshly. Course, the UK grading system is weird anyway (but that's a whole other blog post!).

All of this is to say, if I could have it exactly how I want it, would I want to know my grades? I'm not sure. Would you want to know yours?


  1. Ugh, grades. For undergrad, I attended a college that didn't have grades. It was so liberating. I got detailed feedback on my progress, but it wasn't all boiled down into a grade. When I went to grad school, I had to get used to grades all over again. It was especially hard in writing classes. And now that I teach writing and am the one grading, I can tell you it's really difficult. I make sure to give my students lots of feedback, but ultimately it boils down to the grade. I say focus on the feedback - try to ignore the grade! :-)

  2. Interesting to hear the teacher perspective, Anna! Do your students receive grades throughout the course or only at the very end? I think part of my problem has been the shock of grades coming at the end of a semester, seemingly from out of the blue.

    When I was in college, one of my classmates requested not to receive any grades. The school didn't have a problem with it, and was very respectful in making sure he never knew what grades he received. I was always envious of that, and admit, I've been thinking about him again lately. The feedback from my tutor is marvelous, and incredibly useful, so I don't know that I NEED grades.

    What do I get from grades? A sense of improvement, if the grades are better. A sense of how well I'm doing compared to what's expected or average. But that could probably be conveyed in feedback too and be so much less alienating than a number.

  3. Anne, I do try to give the students a sense of how they're doing throughout the semester but it's very tricky. I meet with them halfway through the semester and talk about their progress and the things they need to work on. They also have graded assignments throughout the semester but these are more analytical (craft analysis) than creative. At the end of the semester they receive a separate workshop grade that reflects their writing progress and contribution to in-class workshops. Ultimately, I think they still often feel like they're not sure what their grade will be. What I look for is progress and effort - how hard are they pushing themselves to improve - but that's often something the students can't really see in themselves (if that makes sense).

  4. That does make sense, Anna, and very interesting. I'm inclined to agree, too. The only real sense I have of my effort is in comparison to others, and I think my improvement is something I may only begin to realize later.

    My course is (I believe) solely graded on output, not effort or even improvement. But that may be more the British system than anything else.

    It would be interesting to a do a comparison of different creative writing programs and how much they vary. Thanks for your comments on all of this!

  5. It's interesting how grades somehow became so important to me that I had to keep telling myself to let it go. Even when I was far enough into my career to know that some classes weren't going to make a speck of difference in my day to day work.

    Now I spend my time wondering if there's any way to impart just a teeny bit of that obsessing to some of my students who desperately need it. The ones who have no need to be concerned about their grades always are and ones who aren't concerned probably should be!

  6. Uff, Anne, I have to say I'm glad to be out of that ... Here in Colombia, people still remember what they got on their ICFES scores when they were in high school (like our SATs). REALLY IMPORTANT ... At the same time, writers are graded in a different way -- the $$ they get on an advance, sales, critiques (yikes) ... And nobody bothers to worry about positive feedback sometimes.
    Happy writing! That's what it's all about. Improving. Writing. Improving ... Eating loads of chocolate ...

  7. When I was in college, I secretly preferred the pass/fail classes, but the ones that issued grades affected my gpa. When I received an A I felt high as a kite; and when I didn't and listened to other people rhapsodize about their better grade, sometimes I didn't feel so good. Overall, I did well for myself. But college definitely didn't prepare me for the competitiveness in publishing. I'm glad for all the barriers though. Rejection made me yearn to improve my craft.

  8. Thanks for all the comments! Medeia, it's so true about that elusive A. I did better on my grades this semester, and I do find myself not minding the grades nearly so much when I do well. Hah! =)

    And then, Christina, there are the ones who ARE concerned but somehow still don't apply themselves. When I was teaching, those were always the students who drove me nuts. =)

    Medeia, Heidi, both of you are doing a bang-up job reminding me that the world of publishing may be worse, not better. Better go find some chocolate... =)

    Ultimately, though, it is the writing I love. I need to remember that. And you're right, Medeia, all the rejection over the years has improved my writing and my discipline. Happy writing to you all!


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