S/NC and the purpose of higher education

Opinion by Thomas Slabon
April 6, 2020, 8:32 p.m.

As a Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy department, I have TA’d or taught eight courses, and I want to let you in on an open secret of post-secondary educators: We all hate grading. Every. Single. One of us. Every TA you’ve ever had has contemplated grading piles of problem sets or papers with dread — and half the reason you had a TA in the first place was because your professor wanted to grade your work even less.

Please don’t take it personally. It’s not that we hate grading your work in particular. We just hate grading in general. Inevitably, five or six hours into the process, as we turn to the next paper that thought it prudent to begin with a quote from Webster’s English Dictionary or a citation from Wikipedia, we inevitably begin wondering whether our students will even read the comments we’re writing (don’t tell us—we’re happier not knowing), and the whole endeavor feels decidedly hopeless.

In retrospect, if you weren’t already aware of this fact, you surely should have seen it coming. After all, it’s hard to imagine your TA sitting down before a pile of p-sets with the thought, “This is why I went to grad school!” Ask any professor, and, if they’re honest, they’ll tell you that grading is a necessary evil, a trial that must be undergone in order to do the things we really care about — like teaching you everything we can about the subjects to which we’ve dedicated our lives.

Even if we put aside the sense that grading is only wasted time and fruitless labour, I’ve always found something deeply discomforting about having to somehow quantify my students’ philosophical growth, as if the value of 10 weeks of struggle and discovery could be summed up with a B+. And there’s something equally discomforting in thinking that the difference between A- and B+ might just be the difference between winning that scholarship or not, between going to the professional school of one’s dreams or not. Who am I to wield such power?

All this might lead you to expect the Faculty Senate’s recent decision to mandate a universal Satisfactory/No-Credit grading system to have been greeted with excitement by professors and TAs looking forward to significantly reduced workloads and a brief cessation of protracted conversations defending grading decisions. Deciding whether work is simply satisfactory or not, after all, should be much easier and more straightforward. 

But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, every colleague I’ve spoken with about the decision has expressed some variation of the same fear: that this will have a significant negative impact on the effort students put into their classes. They’re worried that course attendance (already fragile, of course, because of newly-digital classrooms and a global crisis) will suffer, that the quality of work submitted will suffer and so on. That’s not to say they don’t think there are overwhelming reasons for us to adopt the system even if it will in fact result in diminished academic engagement — we’re all struggling to keep our heads afloat in the present crisis as is. But the worry is still there.

The underlying line of thought is, I take it, something like the following. As it stands, students are only putting the effort into coursework that they do because of the menace of bad grades if they don’t. Without the threat of poor evaluations, what motivation is there to devote a weekend to improving an essay when a draft written the night before will suffice? Whatever other carrots we might be able to offer, meaningful engagement with one’s education just isn’t possible without the stick of a possible C on a transcript.

In this line of thought we find displayed with remarkable clarity both the crisis of the modern university and the germ of its solution. Let me explain. 

I submit that the reason why, from our present perspective, evaluations seem the only way of guaranteeing students’ engagement with their courses is because we have both, teacher and student, lost sight of the purpose of university education. If contemporary post-secondary education is seen as merely a necessary means to the end of gainful professional employment, rather than as an end in itself, there is no motivation to devote any more effort to the endeavor than the minimum required for it to effectively serve as this means. If a 3.9 GPA is required for me to get into a good law or medical school, then I will do what is necessary to get a 3.9 — no more, no less. And now, if all that is required of me this quarter for the same result is an S, then I will do what is necessary to get an S — no more, no less. 

Of course, this problem predates our present crisis, and will no doubt continue long after it ends. But what are we to do?   The long-term solution, I think, is to transform the modern university system, resurrecting the vision of universities as institutions devoted to the cultivation of the whole human person through the exploration of the eternal questions that confront us as we make our way in the world. 

This is not a new vision, of course — one need only read John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University” or John Stuart Mill’s “Inaugural Address” from when he was rector of St. Andrew’s to gain a sense of the long pedigree of this vision, and to see it put forward with a keenness of insight and strength of conviction that I have always found equal parts convincing and inspiring. 

Mill argues that the goal of university education ought not to be the creation of people skilled in a specific trade or discipline, but “capable and cultivated human beings”:

Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details … Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses.

The realization of such a vision need not be completely divorced from professional ends — as Newman himself notes, the sort of wisdom engendered through the education of the whole person will enable them to be a better engineer or lawyer in much the same way it will enable them to be a better citizen or religious believer. “If liberal education be good,” he argues, “it must necessarily be useful, too.” The difference is that getting a job and being good at it would no longer be viewed as the goal of a university education. Instead, they would become happy by-products of the realization of the university’s true end, namely, the holistic formation of persons capable of critically engaging with the cultural, political and spiritual world that surrounds them.

This transformation will, of course, not happen between now and the end of spring quarter. But a short-term solution is to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the S/NC grading structure to live as if the university system has already been transformed.

If you’re a student, now is the time to take risks with your education. Take a course you would never have dared to take if you knew your final grade would show up on your transcript. Write papers that challenge you, that compel you to wrestle with profound questions, to make daring leaps in your thinking. And if you fall flat mid-leap, if you “mess up,” if your TA picks your thesis apart … Who cares? Getting a good grade was never supposed to be the point in the first place — growing as a thinker and a person was. The privileges of grad school, where grades on coursework carry much less weight than they did during undergrad, have given me the opportunity not to have once looked at my transcript since I arrived at Stanford, and it’s been one of the most intellectually liberating decisions I ever made. For a quarter, take advantage of that liberty yourself. 

Most importantly, when you sit down to do your readings or p-sets (and especially when you consider not sitting down to do them), stop to remind yourself why they matter, why this work is important. Remember that the response “well, I need to do them to graduate” is no longer adequate. If you can’t think of a good answer, and you don’t in fact need the course to graduate — take a different one. 

If you’re an instructor, as you’re finalizing your syllabi and your teaching plans for this quarter, remember that (again, for the most part) you can no longer compel your students to care about your coursework. You have to inspire them to do so. Design courses that will excite your students, assign the sorts of readings and paper prompts that will make them want to spend their weekends grappling with them. Think about how your course might serve, not as adequate vocational training, but as a helpful step in your student’s development as a human being. 

Embracing the sort of transformation of university education I’ve been describing as if it has already happened is, I think, the only way this new system might work. And if we strive to meaningfully change what it means to engage in one’s education, the S/NC system has not only the possibility of not leading to a catastrophic reduction in student involvement, but beginning a transformation of the university’s role in the modern world. And maybe, just maybe, when seen as part of this transformative project, grading papers might even prove enjoyable for once.

Thomas Slabon Ph.D. ’22, Philosophy

Contact Thomas Slabon at tslabon ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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