What do you have to do to get an A around here?Becker, H., Geer, B., and Hughes, E. (1968). Making the Grade. New York: Wiley & Sons.
I didn't exactly read this book, but I liked its message and it's especially relevant to me because I've just finished my first full semester in an American classroom with a large (~40) group of bright American students, fully focused on their grade, who learned whatever they had to but mostly cared about the distinction between B- and A+, and what it took to get across that line.
In retrospect, the term went well, as I made sure they had to read the book or at least be very familiar with it, in order to get those grades, and they did, and were. At one point I tried to get them to do a linguistic experiment involving counting emoticons in their phone, and they wouldn't; one, however, asked if he could get extra credit for it. I often think of that as a difference between American egocentrism vs. international group-orientation (my international students would have done it in a minute, just for fun, or just on the power of my suggestion); thus, we were robbed of a source of data, or an opportunity to learn. Aside from that I had no regrets about the class; it was less interactive than I would have liked, but that was my own fault.
The book makes several points. One is that what students are doing here is collective behavior; they are all playing the same game and trading notes to some degree. Two, there is a significant amount of cheating associated with this process and the teachers are complicit not only in making classes cheatable (forgive me), but also putting significant energy into gearing up the war machine to prevent it. Finally, the whole system is a detriment to their real learning, since it is so geared to results and quantification.
Around the time the book was written student riots were at their peak (the book mentions Columbia and Berkeley) and in fact several schools abolished grades as a response, most significantly Antioch and UC-Santa Cruz (which has since reestablished them). Actually my knowledge of these no-grade systems is limited; I'd like to know how people at these institutions actually view this situation (Do students learn more? Are they happier? Has another system of good-eval-hunting come to replace grades?). I can say, however, that the effect is far greater at other institutions that have to deal with their students. One Antioch graduate had a hard time getting a scholarship (which he richly deserved) because his transcript was essentially held up by the fact that it didn't have grades on it. It's like not having a phone; it's fine for you, but it's an enormous hassle for people who you deal with.
Things have not changed that much since 1968, except for a few details. At SIUC, the distinction between B*, B and B- was lost, and virtually nobody in graduate classes or even in the upper level undergraduate ones got C or lower, so it was essentially a 2-grade system for much of academic life. People talk about there actually being 5 grades, but if, in essence, people don't give the bottom three, that's not saying much. And if B is the lowest grade, it becomes generally undesirable, a stain or a blot on one's record. In my time, B was still "better than average", so I fight my impulse to tell people, you should be proud of this; it means you did your work and learned a lot. I maintain the idea that "A" is "exceptional" and not just "better than average" or "did everything I asked him/her to". What I'm saying is that to some degree there are competing impressions of these grades as symbols, and some of the older impressions, somewhat anachronistic, may guide professors' minds, or even the students' minds, while the world to some degree has changed. I was happy, here, to have more choices; it seemed that I could make a statement with "A-" or "C+" that I couldn't make without the finer gradation; yet I also felt that we, collectively, were forced into a glass-bowl situation, in which the world would use these letters as their best interpretation of what students did and why they were there.
So what are the alternatives? I thought of one thing, but I'm still mulling over how it would work. That would be, to make all academia entrance-test oriented, so that what is learned in class would be implicitly directed toward certain entrance tests, but not directly. Thus, in my linguistics class I would be free to teach whatever I wanted, with the implicit understanding that what I taught might appear on an entrance test of some linguistics or anthropology graduate program, but would not otherwise be useful in any other way, since my own grade would be pass/fail, or no grade at all. Several questions would arise from this: 1) Doesn't the competitive drive to be better than one's peers actually motivate some learning; in other words, wouldn't students learn less in this situation? 2) The echoes of graduate entrance exams would quickly and thoroughly saturate the system; I don't believe that's happening now with the GRE's, but my guess is that if that were all there were things would be better, not worse; 3) it is not clear to me that an overhaul of the whole system has any political support whatsoever; Antioch has not succeeded in changing anyone, and therefore any innovation would be like a shout in the dark, and face problems that Antioch has in setting itself against the grain of American culture.
By that last part I am saying that basically, graduate schools, employers, and everyone else looks at those numbers (GPA, etc.) and says, here's a person who can compete with his/her mind, who gets up in the morning and does his/her job, who shows evidence of some learning and achievement. All of these assumptions are questionable to some degree, in any given particular case, given the cheating that occurs and other intangible factors, but it's the collective momentum of valuing these symbols that we're up against here, that any alternative system would have to be able to replace. These grades have functions in modern society, and students, rebels that they are, may not like this system, but are maintaining it collectively anyway. I'm not sure that riots like those at Columbia or Berkeley would change anything at this point, and that's why I'm sure they are just gliding down the river of life, taking it as it comes, as unable to change the system as I am.
It makes one wonder: What other alternatives have been proposed?