A letter to my colleagues who give A minuses.


Dear Colleagues,

Grading season is just around the corner and some of us are about to do something, well, how can I say it… dumb.   Dumber than telling colleagues that they’re doing something dumb.

We will all average our student’s grades and then we (some of us, anyway), will assign a few of our students the grade A-.

I have tried to figure out some diplomatic way of saying this so someone doesn’t think I’m saying that THEY are dumb, because I would never say that (publicly), but the grade is dumb and if we think we are qualified to evaluate the academic and intellectual performance of our students, but insist on assigning them grade designations that are completely illogical, well then….

People, an A- is dumb because it’s a nonsensical fiction.  It doesn’t exist. It can’t.  And just because we can submit them on the report cards these days (at lesser schools) doesn’t mean they are real things.   I could draw a picture of a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean they exist.  Allow me to explain.

It IS possible to make up some kind of rationale for +s and -s (below A), as a way of giving the scale a little more subtlety.*  Take, for instance, the letter grade B.  The student who does a good job in a class is supposed to be awarded the grade B, because that’s what B means — good.   So if a student does a REALLY good job, they can get a B+.  I get that.  And if they do a pretty good job — they can get a B-. Likewise, the grade C means average, and so I’m willing to concede that there is such a thing as high average or low average.**

But we can’t extend this logic to the letter grade, A.  The grade A means “excellent,” or “superior.”  But so then what in the Sam Hill*** is an A- supposed to mean?  Superior minus?  Is it possible to be kind of superior?  Can anything be “excellent, sort of?” Of course not.   Superior means (by definition) the top.  So I don’t really care how you define the top in your classes (90%, 96%, whatever), but if a student has worked hard all semester and actually earned enough points to be in that top category, they are just in it — they are excellent.  If the work they have done isn’t excellent  but is only nearly excellent, then they get a B+, because that’s what B+ means — it means nearly excellent.


Still not convinced?  OK, an A- is about as meaningful as an F+.  What would an F+  mean?   F means failure. Again, define failure however you want numerically, but if you are in that lowest percentile you just fail.  You can’t fail well, and you can’t fail poorly.  “Mom!  I know it’s an F, but it was a really high F.  I had the highest F in the class!  I was just one point away from a D –.  I earned every F point possible!  You should be proud of me.”  Of course, no student would ever say such a thing because even students who get Fs know there is only one level of failure. It’s not a matter of degree.  If  Morris Snively fails Chemistry for Citizens with a 42%,  he can’t go around acting superior to Fred Schnieber, who failed it with 34%.  They are both failures (well, at least as far as chemistry class is concerned).

An A- is completely nonsensical.  Giving them is dumb.

A-s are also mean!  Petty and mean.  Look , students (some students, of course) want to make an A in our classes.   Now it’s true that some of the students make it there easily and some make it by the skin of their teeth — sweating great drops of blood — but they both make it. It’s akin to mountain climbing.  Some people bound effortlessly up and some spend every ounce of their being in the struggle and just barely make it — but they reach the top just the same and both get to enjoy the view.  But what do we do to our students who achieve with this greatest effort?  We smirk at them and saddle them with an oblique insult — a left-handed compliment.  We’re like some kind of grouchy Sherpa who sarcastically smirks to 73 year old Tamae Watanabe  of Japan (the oldest woman to reach the top of  Mt. Everest), “Do you think you could go a little slower next time, Sir Edmund?  I hope you don’t really call that a summit — maybe a summit minus.” No, if the climber manages to pull herself over that last ridge, even if she collapses at the top and start babbling incoherently because of hypoxia, she made it and everyone rejoices!  Our students have earned the status “superior,” but we insult them by saying, “But not a very high superior.”

We tell students that they don’t “get grades,”  and that professors don’t “give them,” but rather, that students “earn them.”  I say that too — I like the way it puts the burden on the student.  But this logic falls all to pieces when it comes to the grade A-, because they’ve earned something real and you give them a fiction.   It’s as if you’ve paid your students with monopoly money.  And it makes them mad.  They think you’re the putz because they know that an A- isn’t a compliment.  They don’t think of it as some sort of “victorious B+.”  They think of it as the “tarnished A” that it is.  It’s as if you gave them a nice tall glass of ice cold bubbly milk — with a fly in it.

So if  your student earns a stinking A, for heaven’s sake, just give them the stinking A!****  They deserve no less.




* p.s.  Of course, the need for more grading subtlety is our fault — it’s called grade inflation.  Students expect As and Bs these days, and since faculty are afraid to “give out” Cs (let alone Ds and Fs), we have simply readjusted the scale — instead of 5 letters, there are now 5 levels (B-, B, B+, A-, and A).  Basically, the worst you can do is a B-; “pretty good.”   This is also dumb.  You should never want to be at an institution in which is is impossible to be average, below average, or in which it is impossible to fail.

**p.p.s. The grade C is a perfectly acceptable grade.  If you got a C you did OK!  The C grade means average!  There’s no shame in that — it’s where most of us are.  But students are so used to having lackluster performance rewarded with a B, they think C is an insult.  Our bizarre assumption that average is inherently bad is, well, bizarre.  The general education committee at my fair college was attempting to articulate common standards for all students and so the committee agreed that we were hoping all students would be, at a minimum, competent.  Competent writers — competent speakers — competent badminton players — competent whatever.  But administrators and the folks in the business department said, “Competent?  Competent?  We don’t want our students to be competent!  We want them to be EXCELLENT!”  Sigh.   I defer to the good people at NASA who, when launching bazillions of dollars worth of technology into space, are perfectly content saying (in that nasally voice), “All systems are nominal.”  Nominal is just another way of saying normal or average or “the way things are supposed to be.”  Too many “educators” these days would say, “Nominal?  Nominal?  How’s it going to make it all the way to space if things are just nominal?  And we can’t be having any nominal rockets around here — our rockets should be excelling!”   But rocket scientists know that you don’t want an over-achieving rocket — you want one that is doing exactly enough!  People aren’t rockets, of course, but I would be only too delighted if all of our students were at least competent — if our students left college with “all systems nominal.”

***p.p.p.s. Sam Hill was a real person who lived in Marshall, Michigan.  He was the most vulgar, cussed man anybody in town had ever known and so they stopped swearing and just started using his name.  Hence, the expression; “What in the Sam Hill?”  It’s true.  There is an historical marker right by his house.  I have a picture of it.  Paul Beardslee showed it to me — Paul is a friend of mine from Marshall.  You don’t know him.

****p.p.p.s. From time to time, on particular assignments my students get/receive/earn the A- designation, but never for a final grade.  I typically assign points on assignments and students often ask, “How does that work out grade-wise?” and so I write A-… sometimes even the more bizarre A-/B+ fiction.  But at the end of the term, the student who has earned the absolute minimum required to be in the A category, gets an A.  Without exception.

(photo credits:  As you can see, I have been getting A-s since the first grade.  I also got some Us (Unsatisfactory) for talking too much; the F+ tshirt can be purchased online; the photo is of Tamae Watanabe at the top of Mount Everest — I found it on Relaxsphere blog)



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