The Truth About Grades

Grades are a ranking system. Grades do not measure some empirical achievement; there are a relative achievement determined by a judge (with whom all judged take issue with). Grades are an imperfect measure of learning. They capture some of what one learns. They often leave out more.

Educational ideology, from the right to the left, considers assessment at some level to be a criteria referenced, neutral process. The rhetoric exhorts each and every graded one to do more. The sentiment is that with just the right combination of grit, perseverance, hard work and skill, you too can get the A.

Grades, however, do not measure excellence. They allocate resources. They divide. They are what makes this world of the student every bit as real as the world of work for pay. Grades work against cooperation; they undermine solidarity. They pit one student against the other as grades are a limited resource and one person’s gain means someone else’s loss. Immediately upon handing out a sheet of grades each honest instructor knows in their heart of heart that the honeymoon is over. We can read it in the recipients very body language.

So what’s the point of bringing it up? We all know this truth in one way or another?  Grades are a definitive statement of the underlying structural relationship that guides human interactions for at least the past two hundred years wherein market mechanisms have driven valuations of individual worth and resource allocation. The point of bring up grades us that as long as one labours under the misconception that grades measure some innate ability of something that is theoretical obtainable by everyone most of us will remain unhappy; but more importantly we will remain without the capacity to really do anything about it.

Key Lessons About Grades

  • Grades are not arbitrary, they are normative.
  • Grades are an intrinsic aspect of capitalist society.
  • Grades are an imperfect measure of learning.

What Can One Do?

  • Recognize the reality of the conditions of your work.
  • Work to adapt to it (without compromising principles) and to change it.

I once heard the Canadian singer and television host Tommy Hunter in an interview say “the mechanic down the street is a better musician than I am. The difference is I’m a better businessman.”  Similar things could be said about getting grades. Grades don’t necessarily go to the ‘best’ student, they go to the person who is (in Hunter’s words) the best business person. It’s about figuring out what one needs to do.

Some of us have innate skills.   These skills lead to nowhere without hard work and good timing. They also rely upon figuring out the optimum labour investment to output. There is a nice marxist concept, socially necessary labour time, that I suggest is relevant here.  Put simply, “socially necessary labour time is the amount of labour time performed by a worker of average skill and productivity, working with tools of the average productive potential, to produce a given commodity.” That means a student who invests a maximum effort into a paper shouldn’t expect a maximum grade.  It’s not how much effort one puts in, it is what kind of effort. For some taking more time might produce an average output. For other students a sub-average input might yield a superior output. The quality of the output then (as measured in grades) is not related to the time invested by a student.

It is important to recognize that there are many differnt paths that lead from one’s education. It is as though one is standing at the center of a garden with paths radiating out from in many directions. You are, in this moment, free to choose. Choice is power, but remember some paths are less forgiving than others. What is most important for you as a learner? mastery of a skill, learning something transformative, or accumulating a grade?

Through out my own life I have tended to focus on my learning, not the grade. This has consequences. Faced with an assignment I may not like, appreciate, or value, I would select something differnt, something that would give me a platform to contribute and allow me to exercise my voice. I would advise something similar to learners more intersted in learning than accumulating grades. Put a small piece of yourself into the work, but remember the work is not you, nor is it a measure of you. It is merely something you did one day.

Your task, no matter what you think or feel it is, is not todo a better paper next time. It is to learn, to develop, to explore. The paper is secondary. The mark will be forgotten But, what you take up as yours, what you take as your experience and knowledge will outlast any grade.




Reflections – ANTH 330, 2.

By Mercedes McGuire (Jan. 11, 2013).

It is hard to believe that next week we will be entering the second week of classes- already!  Time has gone by quickly, lectures, readings, and discussions melting together under one umbrella- education. I have been a student for some time now, and yet find that I am continually learning.  One thing which catalyzed this learning process, and encouraged me to embrace its true meaning, was a comment made my Professor Menzies on the process of critiquing- questioning the way in which the work of someone who has committed themselves to becoming experts in a particular field can so easily be torn apart by people who haven’t attained to the same rigor of understanding.  This resonated with me, both reminding me to listen before I interrupt the flow of words from another, and actually hear what the other person is trying to communicate.  This is an invaluable skill to develop in all areas of life, but is particularly interesting in the context of academia, where the exchange and development of ideas creates knowledge which shapes our society.  I realized that there is a pull, however, as students to profess that we know something.  To perform confidently on exams, papers, publications, with answers to questions.  There seems to be a strange and paradoxical dichotomy between continually learning and knowing.

Ways of knowing, depths of understanding, and methods used to interpret the world around us all play a role in informing that knowledge.  I was reminded of the complexity of communication during an activity the first day wherein we hid from ourselves the identity of a particular object and tried to describe it to a partner simply based on what we felt with our less dominant hand.  I was holding a pinecone in my left hand, and while I could identify it as such for myself, the reaction of the person to whom I was describing it was very telling; she was curious about this strange object, this mysterious artifact.  Despite the common relationship we each have to a pinecone, without experiencing it for herself, she was left to imagine what this strange, spiky, cone shaped creature with a somewhat organic feel could possibly be.

How much more is my own understanding of the world and the inner workings of its dominant systems interpreted according to my own imagination due to lack of tangible experience, and depth of knowledge and understanding of it?  Capitalism, for example, and the experiences of people living and labouring within this system. I remember taking an introductory microeconomics class and arguing with what I was learning because I disagreed with the ethics of such a system, but I think I failed to actually understand it before I critiqued it, making my arguments void of power due to lack of knowledge.  The subject of this course is the anthropology of rural people in a global economy, and we have begun with the works of Eric Wolf and Anthony Brewer, as well as a film directed by Lorraine Gray in which the timeless tensions of labour, society, capital, and justice have been explored. There are so many facets from which to engage with these concepts, in terms of society, economy, environment, politics… And while they describe a unique facet, there is a deep interconnection which persists in threading together these different ways of knowing which have been fragmented into ‘disciplines’.  As I engage with this material in the context of my education as a whole, I can only understand society and culture(s) as elements within expansive and complex ecosystems, continually embedded within multiple other ecosystems.    Ecosystems are complex, they are dynamic, they are ever changing, and they are alive. So, how do I, on those grounds, begin to know about them; to engage in understanding and gaining knowledge about such awe-inspiring organisms?


Wolf, Eric (1982). Europe and the People Without History.“Introduction,” 1-23; and “Chapter 3 –Modes of Production,” 72-100.

Anthony Brewer (1980). Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey. “Introduction,” 1-24.

The global assembly line (Lorraine Gray). 58 mins


Reflection – ANTH 330(rural peoples in the global economy), 1.

By Jenna McArthur (Jan 11, 2013)

Eric Wolf’s introduction in Europe and the People Without History addresses the different branches of academic fields such as political science, economics, sociology and anthropology. Wolf claims the period in history of the division in disciplines resulted in people focusing on specific areas of study rather than seeing the connections and relations between the different branches. I found his ideas thought provoking as the separation of different disciplines is very important in understanding various aspects of the world. Our classroom is an excellent reflection of his views as people are majoring in different subjects. This helps promote classroom discussion, as based on our specialization there will always be different perspectives. At times I find it challenging to relate to others points of view on topics.

Everyone will interpret and understand things differently. How you were raised, what faith you practiced and where you lived are all crucial questions that shape an individual and influence their understanding and opinions of the world. The very first day of class we had to close our eyes and describe an object to our partner. One of the objects I found interesting was a clear paperweight that had a shape inside which was impossible to see unless one’s eyes were open. When talking about the object the professor mentioned surface description only offers part of the story. This is pivotal for anthropologists as when studying a particular village one has to separate themselves from their own personal bias and look from different points of view to understand the full picture. The paperweight got me thinking about my neighbor who dresses uniquely, wears wigs and has a very loud personality. If meeting my neighbor for the first time, one may be judgmental and see her as a bit crazy. It is only after getting to know her and peeling back all the layers that you realize she is a caring individual and passionate about her beliefs. What people see on the surface is quite different once you get to know her and break down the barriers.

Wolf believed boundaries had been created where societies were isolated therefore ignoring relations with other cultures. Wolf states sociologists study “ties which bind people to people as individuals”(Wolf 1982). Wolf’s analysis made me think about today and how we categorize certain countries and have predetermined ideas. For example, when one thinks of Iraq most people will think of Saddam Hussein. We have created a border around Iraq in which most people fear the country and the people mainly because of a particular individual. Similarly when thinking of Afghanistan one often thinks of Osama bin Laden and terrorism. The world has essentially categorized these countries as autonomous and independent and prefers to dissociate from them.

As mentioned, societies are still often categorized and given predetermined boundaries. Although when I think of Iraq I think of Saddam Hussein, this is greatly shaped by my background in political science. In contrast, a geophysicist would think of oil. It truly depends on what area one specializes in and what philosophies they believe which will continue to be a problem for anthropologists.

References Cited

Wolf, Eric R.
1982 Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.