28 January 2003

Grade Deflation?!

I have just finished my first semester teaching at a large and well-known northeastern university that shall, as usual, remain nameless. Though I have only a semester of experience under my belt, this CNN article resonated with me. I was teaching a large, introductory history course and it became clear to me that most of my students lacked the most rudimentary study skills. This could be in part because, as the article put it "only 33.4 percent of college freshmen reported spending six hours per week or more studying or doing homework during their senior year in high school." I figure six hours is about the minimum a student would need to put into my class. Most of my students were putting in the time, but not using that time effectively. I imagine they didn't learn how in high school. Instead I had students traipsing into my office hours demanding lists of terms that might appear on the final and possible essay questions. One particularly clueless student wished to know what parts of the textbook he should "look at" prior to the exam. (I replied that he should look at the parts that were assigned. "But that's the whole book!" Duh.) Today's college freshmen are graduating from high schools where the task of teachers is apparently to make As as painless as possible, so that students may be assured of a place in my classroom. What they find with me is a rude awakening.

I make these observations as Harvard University, that bastion of grade inflation, reports lower overall grades for the second year in a row. "I think that moving grades more in the direction of the B-level will restore A as a recognition for truly outstanding work, in the context of Harvard students in Harvard courses," said Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz. Whatever happened to C's are average, B's are good, and A's excellent? Students who got C's, or even B's, on my papers generally presented themselves with stony faces at my next office hours, eager to parse with me paragraph by paragraph, footnote by footnote, for those few extra points that earn them a B+ or even an A-. Even if Ivy League universities are deflating their grades, it isn't changing the perception among students that grades are negotiable entities, not markers of their performance.

As a parting gem, this Duke University professor claims he gave no C's this semester. Well, at least I claim the distinction of having given five C's this semester, and no straight A's (only A-'s). That's a far cry from redeeming the C as an average grade. And it has been not-so-jokingly suggested in my presence by my elders that I could become one of the most hated and feared Teaching Fellows in the department.

Hurrah for me.

22 January 2003

Roe vs. Wade

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. I've read several news stories about this over the past week, many opining how women of my generation take their reproductive freedoms for granted. Apparently, my peers do not even recognize the coat hanger as something more than just a hanger--a symbol of the dangers of illegal abortion.

I don't take my reproductive freedoms for granted. And, I know what a coat hanger means when I see it on a button or a banner. And I know, when I look at the Bush White House, that the old white guys running the country are keenly interested in usurping my body. They wish to take away my right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Not only that, they are interested in taking away my right to birth control.

You think I am exaggerating? Bush himself has suggested removing birth control from the list of drugs covered by the health insurance federal workers get. He has nominated men to FDA boards that believe PMS can be cured by prayer and who refuse birth control to unmarried women. And it gets worse. The Bush administration wants legislation that will allow public hospitals to refuse access to the morning-after pill, even for rape victims. On top of that, the CDC was forced by the administration to remove information about condoms from its website. The abstinence-only message paraded by Bush and his cronies denies young women access to life-saving and pregnancy-preventing information both at school and on the web.

Yes, ladies, take a good look around at the rights and freedoms we currently enjoy to make medical decisions about our bodies, because every indication shows they are on their way out. It will start with overturning Roe vs. Wade. And it will continue to Griswold vs. Connecticut, which legalized birth control. The issue here isn't life--it's women's rights as citizens of this country and as human beings. And women won't realize it until their rights are gone.

If you think I am being alarmist, fine. I would love to be wrong. But look at the actions of this administration carefully. Look at Bush's public statements. Look at the policies he has pursued both here and abroad. You'll see a steady degradation of women's rights, across the board.

Read Ellen Goodman's column in the Washington Post today. I think it is the most moving tribute to Roe I've seen. But it also shows how our rights have been steadily eroded since 1973. And it shows how much we have to lose.