So this class I'm taking "Copyright and Rhetoric" (actually it may be "Rhetoric and Copyright," but whatever) is a particularly unusual course for law school. It's probably one of the most productive and useful: we're honing our persuasive writing and speaking skills, essential skills as future advocates. But it's a little free-form, more like a workshop than a class, which raises a problem with how to work out grades at the end. My professor invited us to write to her a proposal for how we thought the grades should be calculated, and this is what I sent:
I've long lamented that my education is inconducive to my education. The classes where the educational value is most bountiful are bullied into mute submission by a system that demands to be able to measure and rank its participants. Succeeding grade-wise often seems to require mastery of a different game than mastery of the material itself, which really should be the ultimate goal.
Here we have a class where learning for learning's sake is tantamount, and where that learning is somewhat ephemeral (not easily quantifiable). While you could quiz us on how many cool Greek words we've learned, the larger lessons we are supposed to walk away with probably won't reveal themselves so directly. Our thinking is being shaped, and that's a hard thing to test. Especially because the true impact of these lessons might not reveal itself until years from now when we are all supreme copyright scholars, or politicians, and have had lots of practice behind us.
The other problem with measuring things is that its validity depends on students knowing up front what those things would be. Some people may have exerted themselves in different ways if they'd known that certain aspects of their work would be more highly valued. But we were mostly left to our own devices to figure out how best to apply ourselves to get the most out of our engagement with the class.
The real problem I think you are faced with is that you need to differentiate students who may not really be differentiatable on any sort of productive basis. It's a small class, which self-selected serious, intelligent, hard working-students. If only you had a couple of complete flakes enrolled... but alas, not at this school.
As long as everyone has done what was asked, with reasonable good-faith effort (and I'm inclined to think this is true for everyone), we are all essentially equal. Nitpicking individual assignments may not be constructive because it changes how we should apply ourselves to them. To truly get the most out of this class we should feel able to risk failure. But if doing so jeopardizes the GPA game we are all forced to play as part of our larger progression through school, we will not feel sufficiently free to be able to get as much out of the class as we should.
So this is my proposal, the best I can come up with if giving all A's is not an option...
Step A: We trust you. You are an experienced educator committed to the development of your students. You have the ethos to be able to gauge potential and know when your students live up to it. So for each student, based purely on a subjective sense of how well you think we've been engaged in the class and the material generally, you determine a legitimate high grade and low grade. The test for you to use is whether, after this semester is over and we go out in the world saying, "I got X grade," you would cringe or not. Too high, it might not be deserved. Too low, you would feel it injust.
It may or may not be possible to spread these out over the letter notches (A, A-, B+, etc.) because there may not be enough for a legitimate spread, so perhaps you might temporarily use a more nuanced scale, like from 1-10, where 1 might correlate to a B and 10 an A. This is a step in a process, so that they don't quite match to the potential grades available isn't important right now.
Step B: Draw lots, throw a die. Use some sort of random device. Grades often feel like a crap shoot anyway, with the way they are so often detached from the educational experience. Let's be honest about it for a change. In the end it will be much more fair.
So the idea would be that the random device would allocate a grade distribution. You could even do this without Step A, if you chose. Just draw lots for the A's, A-'s, etc. But if you feel that someone really has a better claim to it than someone else, then use the floor-ceiling pre-qualifier to decide who even gets to be in the A pot, etc.
If you use the 1-10 system, perhaps you would pick a number from a hat for each person. If it were outside the range, you would redraw. When you have the final digit decided, then you can correlate it back to the regular grade scale.
However you would do this process logistically is less critical than that it be done at all. The important ideas to keep sight of are that the grades don't inhibit our learning, and that they don't incorporate unfairness that would result if certain aspects alone suddenly became more greatly prized. Your subjective judgment, applied to the entire course and tempered by randomness, would be far more equitable and constructive.
Interestingly, the skills we've learned this semester showed up in most people's proposals, as we made our suggestions and strongly argued for them. My favorite was the one from a classmate who did a contractual analysis of the syllabus, reaching the seemingly incontrovertable conclusion that it would be unconscionable if we didn't all get A's.
Also interestingly, I didn't make the case for all A's. It's like I feel that A's are so rare and exceptional... someone naturally needs to get the B's. And I guess I feel that, such is my lot, inevitably that someone is going to be me...
Backdated to 11/8, was posted on 11/9.