Monday, 20 December 2010

The Prejudice of Grading Painting Students

Image Credit: Calum MacLeod

Thanks to James A for sharing a link to an article entitled: The Justice of Grading Painting Students”.

With barely concealed smugness, Professor Laurie Fendrich discusses how she works with and grades "beginning painting students". Any teacher who uses terms like “natural talent” without the slightest hesitation has made a fundamental mistake, in my view, by assuming that some students have it and some just don’t. You don’t have to know anything about the Pygmalion Effect to realise just how self-fulfilling such prejudices can be.

Whilst frequently using the possessive form (“my students”, “my course” etc), Fendrich begins by describing how she found it difficult to grade her students this semester. However, as the article progresses, it becomes quite clear that she doesn’t find it particularly difficult at all, and certainly not because she perceives any problems with the nature of grades.

“Yet the moment of a final grade in a course is not a small matter. It generates anxiety for students as well as for professors who take the act of judgment seriously. Rough and imperfect though they are, grades function as a form of justice, the meting out of which is a solemn occasion.”

What? ...grades function as a form of justice.” Does she think she's some kind of high priestess who meets out judgement to praise and punish her minions?

“After all the friendliness and soft competition in a studio course, students are often shocked when it’s time for judgment. […] The answer is that the time has come. A final grade must be given. A judgment must be made. This, dear students, is life.”

That last patronising sentence had me instantly reaching for the comments box:

That’s the voice of unexamined orthodoxy speaking. Yes this is “life” as you call it (or “the real world” as others think of it too). However, the point that needs to be scrutinised very carefully is whether it could be different, or even better? The creation of art is very much an expression of this belief (faith even) in the power of creativity to transform experience. If we are simply to accept the status quo, as your article seems to suggest your students should, then what point is there to make art at all?

Rewards and punishments (of which grades are a common form) of all kinds are corrosive to creativity. This has been shown in numerous studies conducted across cultures and generations (lookup intrinsic motivation or check out the research and writings of Alfie Kohn).

Your article says more about your own acceptance of grades as unavoidable (“a final grade must be given”) than it does about your students naïveté in the face of life. They, on the contrary, seem to understand, if only intuitively, that there’s some hypocrisy at work in the way they’re being treated. You’d do well to examine your “dear” students’ shock a little more carefully. Perhaps then you’d realise that it is not “life” they are dealing with so much as 'an institution' and there is nothing inevitable about that, only what we unquestioningly accept as being so.


Mary said...

I'd like to send you an image of a young student's school book which may have something to contribute to your post on rewards, punishments, grades, creativity and learning. Targets too, always worth keeping in mind. But I am a novice to this business. How do I attach an image to a comment?

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Mary,

Unfortunately I don't think it's possible to attach images to comments in Blogger but you could always email the image to me (there's a link in my profile).

Anonymous said...

I graded the professor's lack of original thought just as you did.

She is also apparently promoting to the students the idea that there is such a thing as a "“decline effect” that’s currently nibbling at the solidity of the scientific method". The effect she refers to (psychic ability becoming less pronounced as test conditions get more rigorous)is more readily explained by there being no such thing as psychic ability. Her source is a magazine article.

No evidence of insight or originality, or care in the selection of sources. We might be generous and give her a pass, but she's got to learn about real life sometime - Fail.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hahahaha - brilliant!

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