Law Professors quietly agree with my post on pass/fail grading

"I was just steamrolled by my faculty on this — almost everyone but me joined the copy HARVARD-STANFORD train."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Yesterday, I published a lengthy post about grading for the Spring 2020 semester. I knew the post would be unpopular in certain quarters. First, many professors have long opposed grading on a curve; I criticize a deeply-held position. Second, many students will oppose my position. The bulk of the class falls along the middle of the curve. They would stand to benefit from a pass/fail grading system. Students at either tail-end would be harmed from a pass/fail mandate. Third, some people may view my position as insufficiently compassionate. Fair enough. Empathy was never my strong suit.

But I knew that my post would resonate in other quarters. There are some professors who vigorously oppose the pass/fail movement. They are less likely to publicly state their views for the three reasons I mention above, and others: they do not wish to alienate their colleagues. But they privately messaged me.

One professor wrote, "Just saw your article on law school credit/no credit grading and wanted to let you know that you nailed it. I was just steamrolled by my faculty on this — almost everyone but me joined the copy HARVARD-STANFORD train." Another wrote, "Great stuff. We are trying to stick to our guns, but it is getting increasingly hard." A third wrote, "The University informed our law school that we could not have a pass/fail option. We can only do all standard grading or all pass/fail. Seems pretty stupid to force us into that choice, but there we are." And so on.

I am not optimistic my position will prevail at law schools nationwide. But I hope my post gave some voice to professors who can respectfully dissent.

Tenure, in theory at least, is designed to insulate faculty members from pressure, so they can take unpopular positions they deem correct. I routinely write on controversial topics without concern to how I will be received by my colleagues. I am fortunate. But on many faculties, peer pressure serves as a natural limit on tenure's autonomy. Fighting over any particular faculty governance issue can strain relationships going forward. This crisis, too, shall pass. Current students will graduate, pass the bar, and maybe attend a few alumni events. Most of them will never step foot in the building after they graduate. Deans come and go. (The average tenure for a law school dean is about 3 years.) But the faculty remains. Conflicts from today can simmer for years to come.

Your position very well may be "steamrolled." My recommendation: ensure that any changes sunset automatically, and the normal order reverts in the Fall of 2020. Any future debates about grading should be held in calmer times, not during a calamity over Zoom. (By the way, my Zoom tutorial has over 4,000 views. Check it out if you need some help.)

 

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  1. The bulk of the class falls along the middle of the curve.

    Huh, imagine that.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. I watched and much appreciated your Zoom tutorial. I only “teach” a Girl Scout troop, but it helped me have a successful meeting, so thanks!

  2. Pass/fail system is just universities finally conceding that 99% of their academic rigor is just cash for credits.

    1. Truth, truth. I have never been a good student unless the material interests me so much that I learn it on my own. But I have had good teachers who did teach me things I didn’t care about. An 8th grade teacher made it fun to diagram sentences. An econ professor made me look forward to his classes. A 4th grade teacher accelerated the textbook materiel so he could spend two weeks teaching us some Japanese. A high school teacher ditched the prescribed textbook and read us passages from oddball histories so we could learn history from those who lived it.

      It’s made me think that too many teachers take the easy way out and just plod through prescribed books, as if their job is to read to us what we can read for ourselves, to grade tests and homework. They don’t care if it is pass/fail, grade on a curve, or throwing darts. Only a few actually take their mission seriously, enjoy finding ways to make their subject interesting and memorable, and actually care about grades for the purpose of identifying students who need help.

    2. Or that the meritocracy of grades is kinda BS. You can have rigor while acknowledging that the final evaluation is going to be an incomplete assessment.

      It is ironic that only elite institutions take this kind of tact, but it is certainly not ironic that Prof. Blackman stands proud for the status quo.

      1. Classic Sarcastrated.

        1. Classic failure to engage.

          I want our meritocracy to work; a good meritocracy is good for America.
          You like the status quo, where it works well for you. America works good enough for you after all, except for you being so angry at immigrants and Democrats all the time.

  3. Why is “Professors” capitalized in the headline? Should that editing (or lack of it) be graded on a curve — or would pass/fail be better?

  4. “Deans come and go. (The average tenure for a law school dean is about 3 years.) But the faculty remains. Conflicts from today can simmer for years to come.”

    This is a major problem in higher ed today. Faculty governance is based on the presumption that a Dean comes from the (institution’s) faculty and either will retire as such or return to the faculty — that the Dean (and President, etc) aren’t going anywhere.

    Now a lot of things are run by the Dean’s secretaries, who also remain and remember. And unless the institution goes under (and a lot soon will) or the institution abolishes tenure protections under financial emergency, the faculty are not held accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

  5. The bulk of the class falls along the middle of the curve. They would stand to benefit from a pass/fail grading system.

    No, they wouldn’t, they just think they would, because they’re ignorant of the underlying economics. In the absence of information, prices decline to offset the risk of buying a lemon. Given a applicant from a pass-fail school, people hiring new law school grads will reduce their offers to “pass” hires from that school to just fractionally more than what they’d offer a D student from a school of equal reputation, in order to offset the risks of hiring a D student. Thus, not only the A students, but the B- and C-students will suffer.

    1. Yes, but the “I can win the lottery” students won’t enroll in the first place.

      Third rate law schools sell dreams — one kid will make it good, and a hundred more think they will be the one…

      The odds are better at a casino…

  6. I agree. The whole issue is fairly ridiculous and just a lot of weak nonsense.

    1. Couldn’t disagree more. This issue far from ridiculous and affects law students in a variety of ways. Our school opted to make all exams take home / open-book / available for the duration of the two week testing period. Even with all its shortcomings, the timed exam (open book or not) is necessary to ensure the “curve” serves its intended purpose of qualitatively measuring students’ viability as BL associates.

      Without the timed-exam, keeping the curve would be absurd. The new exam format negates the benefits students may derive from months of preparation / any inherent intellectual advantage they may have, thereby severely undermining the curve’s efficacy. The window of differentiation shrinks exponentially when every student has unlimited time and access to the material we were expected to become intimately familiar with. [Not to mention the rampant cheating that will inevitably occur (no, I don’t have faith in the honor code as a deterrent) will primarily benefit the average student at the expense of those most deserving of the top jobs.] Because the curve’s primary purpose isn’t served without the use of a timed-exam, it only makes sense to go pass-fail.

      *top of class so may be biased b/c in terms of grades (covid concerns aside) I’d stand to benefit the most from pass fail, but it still wouldn’t seem fair to keep the curve when doing so would disadvantage those who’ve already proven themselves to be successful under the time-proven approach*

  7. May 7 will mark my 43rd year practicing law. In all those years, with all those clients, and in all those courts around the country, and at all those CLE seminars I have presented, I was never once asked what my GPA was, what my class rank was, or if I was on law review. Sorry, but this is just much ado about nothing to my way of thinking.

    1. Your gpa becomes increasingly less important as your experience grows to be sure, but class rank is the difference between making 40k in one summer and paying (living expenses etc.) just to have an unpaid internship on your resume. Anything that aggravates the already disparate footing students are on is worth spending the time / energy to determine how best to mitigate the effects of the current situation.

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