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FIRST-PERSON: Making the grade

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Each semester, matriculants soon become focused on grades. So do their teachers, and with little pleasure. I’m reminded of a Wheaton College professor who once stood in faculty meeting to address the salary issue. With a smile of good will on his face, he explained to the president, “I teach for free, but you still don’t pay me enough to grade.” We all knew what he meant. For the most part, teaching is a joy, but grading is a chore.

The reasons are various. First, it’s not that much fun to read a stack of often uninspiring, frequently careless and stylistically challenged papers. (Just think of being forced to read a pile of my columns.) A lot of these papers are ground out simply to meet a requirement. Where research and fresh thought are in short supply, students become masters of repetition, obfuscation, circumlocution, wider margins and extended spacing.

Second, you have to race through these papers to meet the registrar’s deadline. It’s like trying to run in hip-deep water. You’d like to pause for reflection and the composition of thoughtful, extended comments, but you know you have to be done with each piece in 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of this class and your other classes.

Third, you’re not at all convinced that the students will study your comments for the sake of improvement. You feel obliged to mark run-on sentences, transposed letters, misuses of “it’s,” spelling errors and such, but you figure most will simply flip through to the grade and then toss it aside. (Some don’t even bother to use the computer spell checker. Some of those who do use it fail to give the paper a final reading of their own. So we get sentences like, “Two air is human,” with every word spelled correctly.)

Fourth, you hate to wound students, so you bend over backwards to word things delicately and give them the benefit of the doubt. You know they’ll be hurt by criticism. You may even crush career hopes, e.g., by giving a pre-med student a D in organic chemistry.

Fifth, you dread their wounding you. Again and again, you brace yourself for whining, appeals and protest. Largely for that reason, grade inflation is rampant. What used to be the “gentleman’s C” then became the “gentleman’s B,” and now that’s not enough to satisfy many ordinary students. Unless they get an A, you’re their enemy for life. This phenomenon has driven some teachers to treat grades like protection money –- I give you an A, and you leave me alone.

All that being said, the Christian teacher must never stop seeing grading as a ministry, an avenue for speaking the truth in love. He or she shouldn’t count on thanks for this ministry, but should cling to the conviction that important things get done through grading.

Similarly, I’d like to suggest that Christian students (indeed, all students) receive grading as a ministry. Many professors offer grades as such. In cases where they don’t, our sovereign God will bring good things to pass, even when the grade is disappointing or manifestly unfair.

In that spirit, I offer the following observations about the enterprise. Perhaps they will help Christian students in their walk along this often-frustrating path:

1. A bad grade is like loss in baseball. It’s a long season, and no single game will ruin or even hurt you — unless you think anything but valedictorian is acceptable (see concordance for “idolatry”). When serving on the faculty personnel committee at Wheaton, I took part in a hiring interview where the candidate had once received a D in the subject he was returning to Wheaton to teach. It was just one of those disconnects, and the great majority of his other grades were strong. He’d gone on to receive the Ph.D. in the discipline and was good to go for a fine career.

2. Teachers are like bosses. We all have our quirks and odd expectations. And when you try to figure out what a teacher wants on his tests, in his labs or for his papers, you are undergoing life training. Some teachers are unreasonable. So are some bosses. Welcome to the world, Bambi.

3. Grades are descriptions, not rewards. Chicken agony is not the criterion for a Grade A egg.

4. Unless you’ve read all your classmates’ papers, you’re not in good position to judge the worth of your own paper. The professor sees your work in context, indeed often in the context of many years of grading.

5. The burden of proof is crucial. Many students think that natural right gives them an A. If they receive less that that, the burden of proof is on the professor. He must demonstrate why this or that paper is not an A. But if the school’s average grade is closer to a B, it is more reasonable to say that the burden of proof is upon the student who presumes to deserve an A. He or she should demonstrate why his or her work stands out from the crowd. By this standard, you might say that the professor has the burden of proof in giving a C. That is, he needs to show why the student has stood out from the crowd in the other direction.

6. “I need to have an A in this class” is one of the most irritating things a student can say to a prof. It is an attempt to put bogus pressure on the teacher. He has no responsibility whatsoever to ensure the student will get an A. That’s the student’s business.

7. God uses grades to help students find His will for their lives. Encouragement and discouragement, open and closed doors, are all parts of His vocational economy.

8. Because of grade inflation and the difficulty in comparing grade points from school to school, GPA has shrunk in importance through the years. More than anything, degree completion is the thing. A diploma or degree means that the subject knows how to meet requirements, how to show up on time and honor deadlines, how to prioritize and sacrifice for a goal. Sure, graduate program admissions committees look at transcripts, but the big thing is steady, steady work through the curriculum. Standardized national tests (MCAT, LSAT, etc.) will fill out the picture, but most of all, they need to know if you can keep your shoulder to the wheel.

9. Yes, paper grading is subjective, but so is the evaluation of your presentations in life -– from comments at church business meeting, to job interviews, to business proposals. Your standing in the community, church and family is not generated by a computer.

10. You will be astonished how easy it is to track down cut-and-paste plagiarism from the Internet. And you will be astonished how it will destroy your witness with the professor and your grade in class. Christians give credit where credit it due.

Students aren’t slaves, but just as the Apostle Paul’s instructions to them apply to civil service and the business workplace, they apply to the student’s course work. Whether or not the “master” is fair and sensible, the worker is supposed to serve as amiably and diligently as possible, as unto the Lord, knowing that the grade that lasts comes from on high.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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  • Mark Coppenger