Putting Grading and Grades in Perspective

The quickening of life due to technology is a blessing I depend on daily. But it is also a curse at times, especially at the end of the semester when it comes to grades. I submitted my fall grades today at 11:45am (they were due at noon!). By 4pm the first grade complaint had arrived in my email. No more waiting a week for the printed report card to show up in the mail or having weeks before the start of the next semester for the student to cool off before being in touch!

Exceptional RatingI never worry about “getting in trouble” for the grades I give. My syllabus is usually a dozen pages long, reading like the legal document that it has become, spelling everything out in meticulous detail. I also use grading rubrics handed out in advance so students know the grading criteria for individual assignments.

I don’t even get frustrated by the grade complaints. What I mostly get is sad. I feel badly that they are under so much pressure to get certain grades, whether the pressure if from their parents or themselves.

I feel especially badly for students who invest so much of their sense of self in their grades that they see an “A-” and they do not experience happiness. They only see what is not there.

Or, worse, they have a sense that if they do their best, that it must be worth an “A.” They do not understand a world in which THEIR best does not equal THE best.

Case in point, a very good student I had in class this semester saw an “A-” only for what was not there, rather than what was there. S/he wrote to me:

I’ve never had a professor say that an A is a 95 or above which is why I’m concerned about this because I worked incredibly hard in this class and feel like I deserve an A and to any other professor I have ever had at wake a 94 would be an A.

So if you could provide me with clarity on why you choose to grade this way and why it isn’t standardized across classes that would be helpful because I am concerned about this.

My response:

I am happy to clarify, though I doubt given your state of mind about this that this is going to make you feel any better. But hopefully I can give you both some information and some perspective (my view at least) on the grading in general and your grade in particular.

The syllabus, which I reviewed at length at the beginning of class, specified the following grades according to points earned:

“The scale for grades based on the number of points earned over the course of the semester is as follows:
A         96‑100
A‑        92‑95
B+        89‑91
B          86‑88
B‑         82‑85
C+       79‑81
C         76‑78
C‑        72‑75
D+       69-71
D         66-68
F          Less than 65”

So, in fact, 96 and above is an A in this course (and all of my courses).

The bulletin of Wake Forest College (p. 33) specifies only that A represents exceptionally high achievement, A-, B+, and B represent superior achievement, B-, C+, and C represent satisfactory achievement, C-, D+, D, and D- represent passing but unsatisfactory performance, and F is failure. There are no instructions nor is there any standardization in grading within or between departments beyond these broad frameworks.

So, although you may have never had a professor say that a 95 (or a 96) represents an “A”, it is certainly the case that professors grade very differently. In some cases most students get A’s and in other cases few students do. In some classes (accounting, biology, math) many students fail, and in some (com, soc, religion) none do. So, grading varies enormously from class to class, such that what a 94 means in one class — and what it take to earn a 94 — is not the same in another class.

I am very sorry that you do not feel that being at the high end of “superior” is adequate. I wish that you would look at an A- and think, “Awesome, I performed at a superior level.”

I am also sorry that you feel if you work incredibly hard that you “deserve” an A. It is absolutely possible for people — myself included — to work incredibly hard an not attain “exceptionally high achievement,” a grade that is reserved — in my class, at least — for truly exceptional (rare, unprecedented, extraordinary, remarkable, phenomenal — some synonyms) work. Your work was at the high end of superior, and in the case of your class participation, it was exceptional — hence your getting 100% of that component.

You have probably already figured this out, but for the record let me put this in some perspective for you. If you take 120 credits to graduate from Wake Forest, you will have the opportunity to earn 480 grade points. For this 3 credit course, the difference between an A (4.00) and an A- (3.667) is 0.999 grade points (p. 33 of bulletin). Or, in the context of your college career, 0.2% of your total grade points.

As I said at the outset, I am sure that nothing short of “ooops, I made a mistake, you get an A” will put a smile on your face and give you a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. But that is my hope for you.

Religion on the PGA Tour

Although I am not a sociologist of sport, I have enjoyed those times when my work in the sociology of religion comes into dialogue with the world of sport.

Here is some material I am working up for the 6th edition of my sociology of religion textbook:

When Webb Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open – one of professional golf’s four major championships – he joined an illustrious group of golfers who played collegiately at Wake Forest University. But unlike his fellow Wake Forest alumns and U.S. Open Champions, Arnold Palmer and Curtis Strange, Simpson (born in 1985) is a “digital native.” So it is not surprising that he maintains a regular presence on social media, including posting from his Twitter account @webbsimpson1.

What may be surprising to some is that Simpson (a religion major in college) is well-known for his Twitter posts of Bible verses, quotes from religious thinkers, and other faith-related content. A quick sampling of his Tweets reveals statements such as: “Where sin runs deep, Grace is more.” “#Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important” (C.S. Lewis). “Hebrews 4:14-16 is more than comforting to the Christian.”

In a November 2012 story in Golf Digest magazine, “The Soul of Pro Golf,” writer Max Adler observes that Simpson is not alone in making his Christian faith very public. Although the story begins with Simpson telling interviewer Bob Costas how much he prayed during the final holes of the 2012 U.S. Open, Adler goes on to discuss a dozen other professional golfers for whom faith is central to their identity.

As sociologist of religion Mark Chaves notes in the story, the visible religion in golf, as in American sport generally, is distinctively evangelical Protestant. Through their fellowship with one another and a strong theology rooted in “Muscular Christianity,” evangelical Protestant golfers maintain a strong plausibility structure which supports them in their public expression of their faith.

Thus, Christianity on the various professional golf tours is not free-floating. It is supported by formal sport-based ministries like FCA Golf – run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (fcagolf.org) on the minor league Web.com Tour – the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour Christian Fellowship, and the PGA Tour Players’ Bible Study, led for over 30 years by “tour chaplain” Larry Moody. Attendance at Moody’s Wednesday night traveling fellowship can range from a dozen to over 100, depending on the size and location of the tournament, but the largest and most consistent attendance is at the Champions (Senior) Tour fellowship, which was led by Tom Randall of World Harvest Ministries from 2000-2013.

Perhaps because it comes from a particular religious point of view, the public sharing of that faith is not embraced by all. A Golf Digest survey asking people their “reaction when you hear a tour pro in an interview thanking God after winning a tournament” found:

  • 8% Completely fine with it. Tells me who this player really is.
  • 4% OK, but move on.
  • 1% It’s a little awkward.
  • 7% I’m offended by it. Doesn’t belong in a sports contest.

Although not a scientific survey, these results show the very different perspectives people have on the issue of religion in sports. [If anyone knows anything about this survey, please let me know. Max Adler won’t Tweet back at me!]

Golfers like Bubba Watson, who thanked his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” after winning the prestigious Masters Tournament, are sometimes ridiculed for thinking that God has nothing better to do than to get involved in a mere sporting event. But the theology that animates many athletes, including professional golfers, is more subtle than that. “The Lord couldn’t care less whether I win or lose,” Adler quotes Watson as saying. “What matters to Him is how I play the game.”

SOURCE: Adler, Max. 2012. The soul of pro golf. Golf Digest (November), 102-108.

Microsociology of Death of Eric Garner: Choking for 27 Seconds by Jooyoung Lee

University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee has written a very interesting blog post analyzing the video of the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

It is a miscrosociology of the event that is also informed by Lee’s practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

He blogs on Blogspot rather than WordPress platform so I cannot simply reblog his post, but here is the link: http://gunsrapcrime.blogspot.ca/2014/12/choking-for-27-seconds.html

Photo courtesy of time.com

Photo courtesy of time.com

H/T to Jennifer Carlson

What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism, Post-Ferguson Reflections on the Need for Basic Distinctions

Discussions of race, more often than not in my experience, generate more heat than light. I learned this early on in my own education when I was doing the research for my book, Student Movements for Multiculturalism: Challenging the Curricular Color Line in Higher Education.

Anger, frustration, hurt, misunderstanding, and other emotions were abundant on both sides of the debates over racism in the Ivory Tower. It is not surprising to me, then, that these same feelings are even more abundant in the wake of the refusal of a grand jury in Missouri to indict (now former) Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown while in the line of duty.

racial-tensionRacism is difficult to talk about under any circumstance. But talking about it over the dead body of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice seems impossible, even if it is all the more necessary.

As a sociologist, I teach about race and racism in my introductory class every semester. My goal is to show students that racism does exist, and also to give them a conceptual language within which to understand it more dispassionately. Light over heat.

Following the eminent 20th century sociologist Robert K. Merton, the first point I make is the need to distinguish between two dimensions of racism: racial prejudice and racial discrimination.

Racial prejudice relates to rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of a racial group. Discrimination refers to the unfair treatment of individuals based on some social characteristic such as race, sex, or ethnicity.

In an essay first published in 1949, Merton shows how making this basic distinction allows us to see the ways in which racism works in a more subtle way. Consider the four categories created by combining prejudice and discrimination:

Merton FrameworkWhen thinking about racism, we typically think about the person who holds racially prejudiced attitudes or beliefs and engages in racial discrimination on that basis. This can range from race supremacists who go out and kill people to real estate agents who don’t want “those kinds” of people in their neighborhoods. We can also appreciate the opposite individual, the non-prejudiced, non-discriminator – what Merton called the “all-weather liberal.”

These are the easy categories, though, because they recognize those times when prejudice and discrimination go together. If prejudice and discrimination went together all the time, however, it would be a distinction without a difference.

Distinguishing between prejudice and discrimination allows us to see situations in which the relationship between the two varies.

In the first place, we can see instances in which there is racial prejudice but no discrimination. Merton called these individuals “timid bigots,” because they were afraid to act on their prejudiced beliefs. I add the term “powerless” to this category, because whether or not one discriminates has a lot to do with whether they have the power to discriminate. To be able to treat people unequally requires that a person be in a position to do so, especially in ways that matter.

Considering the issue of power in relation to racial prejudice and discrimination helps us to put claims of “reverse racism” in context. To be sure racial minorities can harbor rigid and unfavorable attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about members of the racial majority, but because they have less power, they are often unable to act on those feelings in discriminatory ways. Which is not to say it never happens – that racial minorities never engage in old school racism – but it does suggest why it is less common than racial majorities doing the same. Reverse racism is difficult to accomplish in a racially unequal society.

This distinction also helps us to see instances in which there is racial discrimination but it is not based upon the racially prejudiced attitudes of individuals involved. This is typically known in sociology as “institutional racism” or “institutional discrimination” (as it also works against women, for example). Of late, people have picked up on an idea put forward by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called “racism without racists.” This is racial discrimination that is not dependent upon racial prejudice.

Sociologists define institutional racism something like the following: Laws, customs, and practices that systematically reflect and produce racial discrimination (inequalities) in a society, whether or not the individuals maintaining these laws, customs, and practices are racially prejudiced (have racist intentions).

Some examples of this are: “last hired, first fired” employment practices, the way the Educational Testing Service constructs the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and preferential admissions for legacies to elite colleges and universities.

Institutional racism also helps us to see and understand the way that historical old school racism can persist over time – even as individual’s racial attitudes become more liberal – when it is woven into the everyday practices of institutions and individuals.

For example, whether or not the Sheriff of Forsyth County, North Carolina and his staff are racially prejudiced, the fact that they are by law required to issue pistol permits – a very old school racist policy in its origins – makes them the enactors of this form of institutional racism (racism without racists). I am not a sociologist of crime and the criminal justice system, but I bet there are many more such examples.

So, when I look at situations like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or even back to Trayvon Martin, I don’t ask myself whether racism was involved or not. I try to approach the situations with a more complex conceptual framework that allows me to see the difference between prejudice and discrimination as well as their complex relationships to one another.

From the start I have said that it is possible BOTH for racial discrimination to be a problem in law enforcement AND for Darren Wilson not to be a racist. This is based on my understanding of Merton’s distinctions.

These distinctions in themselves do not cure the problem of heightened emotions in discussions of racism in American society, but perhaps for some they will be more of a conversation starter than a conversation stopper when it comes to talking about race and racism.