“I Need to Get Tenure”

I’ve never actually seen the social science establishing this, but I’ve been told that the single biggest determinant of a student’s evaluation of a professor is the student’s estimate of his/her grade in the class. In practice, this does not affect most doctrinal law professors. Although there are exceptions, most doctrinal law professors don’t give grading feedback prior to student evaluations, so we do little to disabuse students of their (possibly deluded) belief that they will get an A in our class. But in most of the rest of academia (including legal writing professors), professors do give grading feedback during the semester and have to cope with the consequences accordingly.

In this article, an assistant professor of English explains how she has deliberately chosen to inflate grades to improve her student evaluations. She says: “I’ve lowered my standards. I still teach with the same rigor and enthusiasm and I still enjoy the material, but I don’t hold students as accountable as I used to. I need to get tenure.”

There are two ways to look at this. One way is that she was using too harsh a standard, and the student evaluation mechanism regressed her to the institutional mean. However, the other way to look at it is far less charitable–she has deliberately bent her standards to increase her odds of getting a payoff (tenure).

If the latter is true, her decision would be an indictment of the entire student feedback and grading systems–the unreliability/manipulability of student evaluations, the temptation to overweight flawed evaluation instruments, and the flexibility of professors’ norms in the face of significant professional and personal consequences from tenure decisions. Accordingly, this article may give a deep insight into the real dynamic driving grade inflation.

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