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.




Term Research Paper

Students will write an ethnographic essay of five double spaced pages maximum.  Students will develop their paper topics in collaboration with their teaching assistant and instructor.  Students will draw from the course ethnographies, Cuban Color, Made in Madagascar, or Redflags and Lace Coiffes, for inspiration in the crafting and research of their own papers.  For evaluation criteria see “writing formal essays” guide on course outline.

Click here for a sample first year research paper (this paper was written by your professor when he was a 1st year student).

The paper is due November 22nd.  Because tutorials are cancelled on November 22nd, you will hand in your paper copy of your term paper in the dropbox provided in AnSo Building, right across from the Anthropology Department Main Office.  You will need to date stamp your paper and put it in the dropbox.  The office closes before 4:30 so you would be well advised to hand in your paper during the normal scheduled time for your Friday tutorial. 


Rules of Engagement

No matter what question you end up using to write on,  your paper must conform to these rules:

  1. Your essay must draw from at least one of the course ethnographies.
  2. In addition to drawing from one of the course ethnographies you must cite at least two other anthropological journal publications in your research paper.
  3. We encourage you to focus your papers on the theme of globalization.  Consider ways in which tourism, eco-tourism, race, and/or gender are shaped by and/or shape processes of globalization.
  4. NO WEB SOURCES.  The articles or books that you cite in your paper must be appropriate peer-reviewed publications.  Wikipedia or other internet sources are not acceptable for use in this paper.
  5. Your papers are to be arguments –not descriptions.
  6. Make an effort to incorporate key concepts that are raised in class (i.e. power, social organization, production, economic activity –this is not an exhaustive list).

Potential Questions (examples – consult with TAs to develop your own question.

  1. Fishing in the Bigoudennie can be thought of as a form of hunting or food collecting.  Being homeless in New York can be compared with foraging societies.  Evaluate the effectiveness of this analogy with direct reference to anthropological debates on hunting/gathering societies.
  2. Participant observation lies at the core of the anthropological research endeavour.  Compare and contrast the fieldwork settings and processes described by Roland and Walsh with that described by anthropologists who conducted their research prior to the 1950s.
  3. Identify and discuss the intellectual tradition within which Roland and Walsh are working.  Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their approach.
  4. Compare and contrast the different gender ideologies and structures in the ethnographies.
  5. Race, ethnicity, and identity play a critical role in all of these ethnographies.  Describe and evaluate the ways in which these subjective identities are linked to underlying socio-economic structures of power.

GET: Mini-Ethnographies

Further to Adam’s post on writing suggestions for the GET mini-ethnographies here are some more detailed guidelines.

At its most simplistic, an ethnography (noun version) is a written account of a culture based on first hand interaction. It is an attempt to both understand and give an account of another culture from the “native’s” point of view—that is from the view of the person living in that culture. Ethnographies tend to cover all aspects of a culture from traditions, to family, to religion, etc. For this paper you are going to write a “mini” ethnography. You are expected to use the information you gained through first-hand interaction with your partner(s) and their classmates to write a short ethnographic account about a particular aspect of your partner’s culture. You may write on any aspect of your partner country’s culture that you choose, but keep in mind, since you must get the information from your partner and his/her classmates, it must be something that they are willing to talk about.

For this paper, you should explore the topic of your choice in depth. To get the information you need, you, as the ethnographer, must use ethnographic inquiry to get the information required. That is, ask your partner and his/her classmates lots of questions about the topic. When they answer those questions, ask them to further explain and elaborate. The idea behind this is to get a good understanding of not just what is going on in the other society, but why it is the way it is. You will be able to do some of this through your chat sessions and video linking, but e-mail interaction will also be an important tool for this task.

The paper will be no longer than 3 (double-spaced) pages. Here is a general guideline for the format of the paper—keep in mind, these are only guidelines:

  • General introduction to topic and country (1 -2 paragraphs)
  • Descriptive and explanatory account of the topic in question. (1.5 – 2 pages): What is going on here? Why is this important? How do they explain it? What does it mean to them?
  • Reflection and Conclusion (1 – 1.5 pages)How does this particular topic you covered help us understand their culture in general? How does it compare to what you are used to?

Once you complete your paper submit a copy to your T.A.  and send a copy to your partner (be sure to CC your T.A. on this e-mail). Your partner should then write a short response to your paper (a few paragraphs is fine—this can be done through e-mail) in which they evaluate your paper and explain what parts you got right and what parts you misunderstood or need clarification. Your professor will also provide you with feedback. Once you get this feedback, you are then to rewrite your original paper to address the issues your partner and T.A. raised and resubmit that final draft along with your partner’s comments to your T.A.