Hello friends, family, potential future employers and stalkers,
As part of my Master of Journalism at Ryerson we had to write a Major Research Project, which is basically a (rather long) magazine piece.
Please feel free to send it far and wide over the interweb, just link back.
In short, it concerns undergraduate education in Ontario with a special focus on grade inflation:
I’ve decided to paste the entire piece below, as well as attach a PDF version: When did C become the new F-KUBES
The number was written in red on the last page of my essay on Nicholas Barbon’s Discourse of Trade. I quickly shoved the paper deep into my knapsack trying to ignore the tightening of my stomach and the pressure behind my eyes. I still had an hour and a half left of Culture and Imagination and there was no sense being dramatic in class. For that, I waited until I got home. I shut the door to my bedroom and let the sobs rip through my body. My roommate Amy, who preferred to spend her evenings making spaghetti with her on-and-off again boyfriend instead of studying in the library, knocked on my door to ask what was wrong. I opened the door, blinking at her with bloodshot eyes.
“I got a C+ on a paper.” Fresh tears immediately started coursing down my face.
“A C+?” She said. “That’s not even bad.”
Not Bad!? My GPA was shot; I’d never get into grad school! I was so stupid, honestly, why did I even think I could compete with my classmates in the College of the Humanities program at Carleton? There were only a few dozen of us and they were all so smart and talked about Ancient Greek verbs in their spare time. Even when they were drunk, they preferred to discuss Plato over The O.C.
I later made an appointment with my professor where he assured me he didn’t think I was a total moron, even though I got the name of the book wrong, confusing it with another fascinating treatise on economic theory called A Discourse ON Trade. He reread my essay, but, to his credit, he refused to raise my grade.
Afterwards, he sent me an email. “An ‘A’ means the work is highly polished, well argued, something you can be proud of.” What followed, he put in bold: “…that is the only way, in the long run, that your degree can be something we both can be proud of.”
If an A in the arts and social sciences no longer means we’re excellent, but is merely the product of universities increasing enrollments without the money to properly teach and evaluate students, then our degrees will decrease in value.
One hundred and four thousand eight hundred and twenty six students were enrolled in arts and social science programs in Ontario Universities in 2010-11. Are they all graduating with a degree that we – students and institutions – can be proud of?
In every educational institution in Canada, a C is defined roughly as meeting the expectations of the assignment. A B is exceeding the expectations, and an A is for going far beyond the expectations of the assignment – for producing excellent and outstanding work with perhaps some original thought. A D is for not meeting most of the expectations and an F is for failing to meet any expectations of the assignment and making significant mistakes.
But those definitions don’t reflect current marking practices.
The bottom two letters, D and F, have become grades only assigned to truly disastrous work.
Alan Callahan, a TA for four courses offered at Ryerson who declined to give his real name because he says he hopes to get hired on as a faculty member, says the last time he failed someone was when the student handed in only 900 words of a 2000-word essay. Since he did less than half the work, he deserved fewer than 50 marks out of a 100.
Otherwise, “I’ve only given three D or F papers in my entire year. All of them were incomplete and not what the assignment asked for at all,” he says. “Unless you blatantly misunderstand and just do not do the assignment, it’s very difficult to get a D or F.”
A 2000 study “Evidence on Grades and Grade Inflation at Ontario Universities” by Paul Anglin and Ronald Meng, reported that fewer Fs are being assigned across all courses in Ontario universities and that the number of As awarded has grown by 4.7 percentage points. They studied seven Ontario universities by comparing 1973 to 1993 and determined that more students are getting higher grades and fewer students are getting lower grades.
Sixteen out of the 24 courses they studied in the arts showed significant grade inflation. More than half of students in first-year arts courses were receiving higher than a B, while English courses were handing out As at more than double the rate they used to.
There’s no indication that this trend has been in reverse since the 1990s, but data on grades is hard to come by in Canada.
In essence, a C seems to have replaced the D and the F as the grade awarded for minimal effort. Take my roommate Amy, whose transcript was almost entirely in the C range. She selectively chose which classes to attend depending on how tired she was from her part-time job or how upset she was from a fight with her ex-boyfriend, and wrote essays the night before they were due while watching TV. Her sources came from the bottom of the Wikipedia page or half-read excerpts from Google books, while her writing was littered with grammar mistakes and her essay lacked a strong thesis or one at all.
When you give Cs for work that doesn’t meet expectations, you devalue the grades given for work that exceeds them – A and B.
What then occurs is what James Côté and Anton Allahar dub grade compression in their book Ivory Tower Blues. It’s when grades become squeezed across only three letter grades instead of being spread out over a spectrum.
Rampant grade compression results in high-strung students, such as me, crying over Cs because they understand they have just been awarded the lowest possible grade that most professors, part-time faculty and TAs feel comfortable awarding for work that is not outright horrible. More importantly though, is the effect this has on learning.
It leaves little room for high-performing students to grow, and makes mediocre students believe they’re excellent, thus pushing them less hard to produce outstanding work and ultimately devaluing their entire degree.
“I think there absolutely has been grade inflation,” Leo Groarke, provost and vice-president of academics at Windsor tells me. But his opinion is certainly not universal among professors and administrators.
Take John Lye, associate dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Brock: “There’s a school of people who think that the standards are declining, I have taught with those people for 40 some years now, and they’re always saying the standards are declining,” he says. “My experience is that they’re pretty much the same.”
It’s definitely an old complaint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s possible that a decline in standards has actually occurred amidst the dramatic changes that universities have undergone in the last fifty years: universities have experienced tectonic plate shifts in what they’re offering, why they exist and who’s going.
Back in the 1960s, “You had to be basically either wealthy or upper-middle class to afford university,” says Ted Smith, a history instructor at Guelph. “There were no student loans. It was something that upper-class people did, and then in the 60s, when they came up with student loans, all sort of people who’s kids had never gone to university started sending them off to university . . . They went and their kids went, and it became like going to high school.”
University isn’t for the elite anymore, not just for learned men, not just for sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who can’t envision a future without a law or medical school textbook on their shelves, not anymore just for white European high-brow men who enjoy sitting in an easy chair opening a musty hardcover book and musing aloud about how Caesar had the guts to cross the Rubicon.
University is now for the masses.
Instead of offering the classic courses based off of the Trivium and Quadvirum, whole new disciplines have been created, from equity studies to sexual diversity studies to psychology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The university umbrella grows ever wider with every passing decade.
And along with more people, more courses, more degrees, more expensive tuition and more public funding, it seems less work is required to get good grades.
Never even mind the changes that have occurred over the last 50 years. In the mere eight years from when I started university in 2005 to when my younger brother will start in 2013, it’s become easier to do well – especially if you’re in the province’s largest arts program at the University of Toronto.
For years, there’s been a perception among students that it is too difficult to get good grades at U of T. They would rather go to schools where they have a better chance of getting the grades that will get them into grad school.
About three years ago, U of T took note of this and relaxed its grading guidelines.
“The previous guidelines said that for courses with more than 30 students at the 300 or 200 level, normal expectation would be that not more than 25 per cent of the class would get an A grade,” explains Derek Allen, vice provost and dean of arts at Trinity College at U of T. “And not more than 75 would get . . . a combination of A and B.” If more than a quarter of a class was evaluated as having produced excellent work and more than three-quarters as at least exceeding the expectations of the course, the professor would have to write a letter to the dean explaining the circumstances under which this arose.
Under the new grade distributions at least 35 per cent of students can get an A without anyone blinking.
Allen considers the new system a trade-off.
“There’s a difference between very restrictive as to indicate high standards and being so restrictive that students are disadvantaged when they compete with students from other universities for places in grad schools, professional schools,” he says.
But not everyone thinks that this sort of change is in either the university’s or the country’s long-term interests. Pamela Banting, English professor at the University of Calgary, is one of them.
“I was thinking about your question about grade inflation and things like students saying ‘I want to get into pharmacy, or go into law, and I need such and such a grade for that’. And one is sympathetic, of course; you don’t want to be somebody who thwarts someone’s career plan,” she says.
“But on the other hand, do we want lawyers who can’t write a sentence . . . or do we want pharmacists to say ‘whatever’ when they read labels…? If we do succumb to those kinds of pressures, then we’re going to have bridges falling down on us and getting the wrong type of medication.”
And the sorts of pressures we’re succumbing to don’t start at university. They begin in high school.
My grandma’s living room in her Downsview bungalow looks like a set from Mad Men. She has a circular wooden coffee table in the centre of the room, and underneath the table are stacks of photo albums neatly labeled with names like “Norine’s Sweet Sixteen” or “Our Silver Anniversary”. One of those albums concerns my Uncle Stephen, 53, who’s now a lawyer for the Federal Government. On the first page of the album is a plastic flap and snugly underneath it is a certificate from the Ontario Government awarding him $100 for getting an A average in Grade 13.
He graduated in 1977, which was one of the last years that the Ontario government awarded money to those at the top of their class. Back then, “top of the class” was a phrase a bit more literal, since only 31 per cent of students graduated with an A average at his north Toronto high school, William Lyon Mackenzie. It’s different today at his alma matter, where a full half of students graduate as Ontario Scholars – an increase of 66 per cent
And Mackenzie isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. Côté and Allahar say that only about 5 to 10 per cent of graduates were A students in 1975, in keeping with traditional grading standards. Around the time I graduated in 2005, 40 per cent of the province’s graduates were A students. No wonder the Government stopped handing out cash. The Ontario Scholar program is no longer a meaningful distinction to set successful students apart but is now an award for being simply average.
More like me than my uncle, Bruce Tucker, associate vice-president of academics at Windsor, also got Bs in school.
We both graduated with around a 72 per cent average, except he graduated forty years earlier than me in 1966.
Although our marks were the same, they garnered different reactions. My parents scheduled an academic intervention every semester to inform me of the ways in which my poor Grade 10 marks would cripple my future (no consequences seen of yet). In contrast, he says he was pleased with his marks and that he “was just a few marks short of having a really outstanding grade.”
That’s because a B in the mid-60s meant was what it was designed to mean – that you were above average – whereas now it means you’re doing worse than the average.
So are more student’s getting As today because they’re just smarter?
They certainly don’t appear to be stupid. On the Program for International Assessment (PISA), an international test given to fifteen year olds to test their reading and math skills, Canadian students scored fourth in the world in 2009. They’ve only been testing students since 2000 so we can’t compare data from decades ago, but it appears that our kids and our education system aren’t failing.
But the PISA simply measures if 30,000 Canadian teenagers will be able to participate fully in an information society, not if they’re A students.
To that end, the PISA asks students to read timetables and graphs accurately and at its most difficult level, to identify which of two opinion pieces was more convincing and why. For example, a typical question provides a student with a bar graph of Lake Chad’s water levels over the past 13,000 years and asks them, in multiple choice format, what year the graph starts and how deep the lake is today.
Our students will do fine as adults in our society – 70 per cent of them score at the middle literacy levels – but with only 13 per cent scoring in the top two literacy levels, they’re not all destined to be rock-star academics.
Another indication that our students aren’t drinking from the fountain of genius is how much their grades drop in their first years of university.
A 2008 survey initiated by Maclean’s reports that the majority of students who obtained entrance scholarships for having high averages in high school, didn’t keep them past their first year at university. For example, at York 60 per cent of students got an entrance scholarship, while only 10 per cent kept it.
These drops don’t occur for everyone though.
A University of Saskatchewan study of 12,000 first-year students found that Albertan students’ grades dropped just 6.4 percentage points from Grade 12 while students from other provinces dropped as much as 19.6 percentage points.
That could be because Alberta’s students are different than Ontario students. They have mandatory provincial exams in Grade 12 worth 50 per cent of their mark, which could be part of why only 20 per cent of them graduate with an A average.
Some universities, like the University of British Columbia, adjust their admission process to recognize that Albertan’s grades are not equivalent to those elsewhere.
Michael Bluhm, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UBC, told me in an email that UBC raises the entrance averages of Alberta high school students by a few percentage points in order to level “the playing field to ensure that strong Alberta high school students are given the same opportunities as strong students from other educational systems.” Otherwise, these high performing Alberta students wouldn’t be able to compete with the inflated admission averages seen in other provinces.
More universities taking this step would encourage provinces and high schools to actively stop grade inflation. But since UBC is one of the only universities to make the distinction, high school teachers are feeling the pressure to pad grades, which is sort of like pressing a button on an elevator and going nowhere, since admission averages follow the law of supply and demand by directly reflecting high school grades.
Although Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) tells me in an email that there’s “no evidence to support grade inflation; entering averages have been steady for years,” her organization’s own data database, Common University Data Ontario, tell a different story. In 2005, the entering average for the arts was a B+. Five years later in 2010, it had already climbed to A-.
Maybe it doesn’t matter too much anyways. By 2015, the government intends to add an additional 41,000 students to Ontario’s universities, so there’ll be plenty of room.
Enrollment in universities Canada-wide has increased about 240 per cent since my uncle’s generation. When my uncle began at York he would have been one of 141,841 full-time undergraduate students enrolled in an Ontario university. When I began university in 2005, there were 341,882 students – even though there were fewer 18 to 24-year-old university age Canadians.
In the four years it took me to graduate, another 25,733 bodies had been added to Ontario universities, with the Ontario government calling every year for more, more, more spaces. The number of adult Canadians with a university education is currently 28 per cent and the government wants to increase that two-and-a-half times to 70 per cent.
The most pressing reason they call for the increase is because we’ve become a knowledge economy and we need people to be trained for our workforce. Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario, wrote in the 2005 report “Ontario: A leader in learning,” that 70 per cent of future jobs in this country will require post-secondary education.
Then why are universities significantly increasing enrollments in liberal arts and social science courses when these are not the sorts of courses which will lead to those future jobs?
To be sure, there is inherent value in studying literature or history and learning how to think critically and write well. “You need someone in your society who remembers the history of your country and society. And you need somebody who remembers the great novels and understands them. And you need some philosophers,” says Ted Smith, Guelph professor. “But how many do you need?”
If you were to look at first-year arts courses at Ontario universities, you would think, “a lot”.
Although class sizes get dramatically smaller in upper years, first-year courses with more than a 100 students are now the norm, not the exception. In 2009, about two-thirds of Ontario universities reported that at least 30 per cent of first year courses had more than 100 students.
The number of students that can be added to universities, especially first-year classes, seems to be limited only by the amount of chairs available.
“U of T has a convocation hall that holds, I don’t know, 1500 people. They can have a first year class of 1500.” John Osborne, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton says. “Our biggest classroom is at 444. So our first-year classes are capped at that.”
Universities are increasing the size of arts courses primarily because students are money. (Literally. They are referred to as Basic Income Units in reports by the COU, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and inside university administration meetings.)
Groarke, provost and vice-president of Windsor University, and his colleague Tucker say that their costs are increasing by five per cent a year, without any corresponding governmental increase.
“It is true that universities receive nearly the lowest per-student funding in Canada from government,” says Patterson of the COU. “But we also educate the largest number of students, and have some of the highest rates of participation, retention and graduation in the province.”
Perhaps those high numbers are because universities are closing the funding gap partly by increasing and maintaining enrollment. “Class sizes have grown over the years, and will grow as we continue, because the funding model for universities is continual growth.
“The amount of government funding per student has not increased, but our costs increased.” Osborne says. “How do we meet those increases? We meet them in part by raising tuition fees, but that’s capped as well. So mostly we raise our budget each year by taking in more students.”
It costs comparatively little to add students to a class. Adding 60 students to a first-year class costs only $8,000 for an extra TA. Ontario tuition is the highest in Canada, at a 2010 average of $6,307. At that rate, universities get $370,420 net revenue.
An educational system cannot achieve excellence when class sizes are routinely this large, according to Groarke: “I do think we could significantly increase the quality of education for students if we could significantly reduce class sizes,” he says.
Few argue that large class sizes are a stop on the road to the quality education. Angelika Kerr from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario reported in 2011 that students are more likely to feel disengaged, unmotivated, distracted and isolated in large class sizes. Professors surveyed cited complaints that they didn’t know how to teach larger classes and weren’t provided with the training to do so.
In Windsor Provost Bruce Tucker’s experience with small and large classes, he’s noticed a difference. “I think we would probably say in the 70s when my history colleagues were teaching a maximum of 50, and often 15-25, there was a different relationship with the professor, for one thing, and there was, in theory, more time to take to carefully grade and to teach things like writing and so on, or to put more attention on to teach people how to write,” he says.
With so many students in these large classes, you need more people (or more scantron machines) to evaluate them. But universities aren’t choosing to hire full-time professors – not when part-time faculty and TAs are cheaper.
Over the last two decades, university enrollment in Canada increased at three times the rate of increases in full-time faculty, according to the Canadian Council on Learning’s 2008-2009 report, “Meeting our needs”. As a result, Ontario now has the worst student-to-faculty ratio in Canada at 26:1.
Before the double-cohort in 2003, the ratio was 24:1. To achieve this ratio again and to keep pace with enrollment, Constance Adamson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, says in an email that her organization “recommends hiring 6,000 new faculty by 2020, or approximately 660 new full-time professors per year.”
Instead, universities increasingly hire sessional instructors, who teach on a course-by-course basis. Some enjoy a multi-year instructional contract that offers more stability. Niko Scharer’s on five-year contract teaching philosophy at U of T, and says she enjoys the flexibility and work/life balance that the job offers and is happy to escape the “publish or perish” mentality that pervades academia.
But most sessionals are desperate for a full-time professor position that allows them to do research since there’s no hope of ever getting on a tenure-track without publishing. It is a position full of anxiety since they are constantly applying to teach courses each semester and it takes only a snap of the administration’s fingers to get rid of them – unlike tenured professors who have better job security than Queen Elizabeth II.
Besides not having funding for research or job security many part-timers don’t have access to adequate facilities like “an office, phone, computers and printing,” according to Adamson.
There are no statistics on how many part-time faculty positions exist in Ontario universities, but part-time faculty in the U.S. now comprise about 41 per cent of instructor positions, compared to 24 per cent in 1975. Adamson estimates that half of faculty here are part-time, and it’s easy to see why universities prefer them.
At Ryerson, a professor gets paid at a maximum of $124,585.38 and teaches up to 32 hours a year. A full-load sessional teaches the same number of hours gets paid a minimum of $54,709.07. Universities can save 44 per cent on their compensation costs if they don’t replace a tenured professor and instead higher a sessional at the lowest pay grade.
The university and students also receive the benefit of having instructors focused solely on teaching. Contract workers are energetic eager to prove themselves, which would be good were it removed from the desire to please students.
Tina Portman, a TA at the University of Ottawa has worked for both professors and sessionals has noticed a difference in their grading practices.
“The tenured professor was like ‘these are the standards. They either can or can’t live up to them,’” she says. “Whereas the contract professors are concerned about how the students can view the class, if they thought it was fair. They don’t want [them] to think it’s easy, but they don’t want the students to be unhappy.”
Jason Wiens, English sessional at the University of Calgary for 11 years, disagrees: “If anything, a sessional would probably be harder,” he says. “We’d be worried caught giving grades [that] are too easy.”
Yet, the perception that sessionals have a harder time distributing bad grades persists because their contracts are tied so closely to student evaluations, which have become increasingly relied upon as a tool to judge teaching since the 1960s.
At Carleton, for example, students fill out a scantron sheet evaluating their instructor at the end of each module. If the evaluations result in lower than a 4/5 about the course overall, the dean will start up a discussion with the instructor. If two classes evaluate the professor below a four, the university may choose not to re-hire .
In the 2008 study from Bishops University, “The Invisible Hands behind the Student Evaluation of Teaching”, Calin Valsan and Robert Sproule write that universities defend their decision to hire so many part-timers by saying that they receive great scores from students. But, they add, how do we know they’re not getting these great scores because their class is easier?
Anyway, the real people on the front-line of grading practices marking students aren’t professors or sessionals–they’re TAs.
You see them in cafes all over the city. Papers stacked in two piles, sharpeners, erasers and pencils on one side of the table, a coffee cup on the other. They pick up a paper from one pile, look it over for 10 or 20 minutes, sigh, make some marks with the pencil, and then transfer it to the other pile.
In one of these cafes in Ottawa you might find Portman. She’s been a TA for five courses since her fifth year at Carleton University. She’s currently completing her Master of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, which she hopes will lead to a PhD.
For her, being a TA is a perfect job. She earns about four times the minimum wage. She can do it at 2 a.m. with a bottle of wine, or sneak off to the library in the middle of the day between her own classes. Since she intends to be a professor, a major benefit is that she’s getting experience in marking and leading a class.
As a TA you get paid a steady wage every two weeks regardless of the actual hours you work. You usually get paid between 3-10 hours a week per class so it works out that some weeks you do zero work and other weeks you work all day and night.
Universities achieve several goals by hiring TAs. It’s an alternative to getting philosophy students to fill out bubble sheets (Did Descartes’ ball of wax: a. melt, b. dissolve. . .), they get a training academy for potential future teachers, and, of course, inexpensive labour.
But it’s not much of a training academy as a learn-as-you-go seminar. John Foxe, in charge of running the training programs for TAs at Ryerson University, says although the workshops are excellent, TAs aren’t required to attend them, “What other types of professions are there where you get the job with no training? It’s odd.”
“The reason they’re not mandatory is because if you make them mandatory then people have to be paid to do them,” says Foxe.
Most universities expect that TAs will learn how to grade through what Lye, Brock’s dean, calls the “socializing process”. Basically, as a good student yourself, used to being marked, you know how to mark others.
The extent of training is usually a discussion with your professor. They give you a rubric, grade a few samples and then spot check a few to make sure it’s consistent with other TAs. “The first professor I worked for was great and walked us through the whole thing and she would grade a sample,” Portman says. “Subsequent profs have been a lot more lax about it.”
U of T’s philosophy department is one of the few places that have negotiated with unions to make training mandatory and they consider it money well-spent. Along with her instructor duties, Scharer is also the TA trainer for that department. “We’re finding that the more training you give a TA the more you gradually change the culture and expectations around grading practice and as a result make it much more fair,” she says.
Another thing that would eat up three hours a week of their contract is attending class, so many TAs don’t do that either. Scharer likens that approach to “marking in a vacuum.”
When I TA’d at Ryerson, for example, I didn’t know whether to award a student higher marks, let’s say, for giving an original example, because I didn’t know what sorts of examples the professor used in class.
When Paul Franks first started teaching philosophy at U of T in 2004, he “was actually shocked” that it wasn’t mandatory for TAs to come to class. He previously taught in the U.K and the U.S where non-unionized TAs are just given a certain funding amount and then expected to do whatever the professor says, which includes attending classes.
Although he says that left the door open for some exploitation, it also made for better TAs.
Portman, always the overachiever, goes to her classes. “If I didn’t go [I wouldn’t be able to stand up to students if they complained about grades],” she says.
TAs are in a particularly vulnerable position when it comes to grade disputes. Besides the fact that they’re usually only one to five years older than the students they’re marking, their lack of training means they’re less than confident in their grading abilities, which Scharer says further contributes to grade compression.
“TAs, when they’re not feeling confident, they push everything to roughly the B level,” she says. “They bring the low ones up, and they take the As down.” That way they can keep the class average at what it is usually expected to be, which is a C+ to a B- for first and second year and a B to an A in third and fourth year.
The deans I spoke to insist that if the majority of a course is consistently failing or acing it, and if that’s unusual for the history of the course, they would have a conversation with the marker to see what the problem is.
But what if there’s no problem? What if everyone deserves to fail?
If a TA is marking papers and the distribution is lower than it “should be”, the administration will not bell curve it, but will just raise everyone’s grade altogether. One professor at Carleton told Portman to bump up everyone’s midterm grade by 10 per cent.
It was “necessary” for Portman to raise the grades because “even if they all did well on the final exam, the average for the course was so low and I didn’t think [the professor wanted) to deal with the crap from the department,” she says.
I asked every provost and dean I interviewed about this scenario, and they all had almost the exact same response as Lye.
He says that it’s the instructor’s job to say, “These grades are all too low, we’re raising all the grades.” The alternative is for the instructor to re-grade all the papers, “but people have to live a life.” Besides, he says, “I have met a lot of graduate students who are also just grading too hard. Their expectations are unreasonable.”
This is a common trope leveled at beginner graders, but what if those “unreasonable expectations” are actually the right ones? And if being more realistic is just an excuse for lowering one’s standards because more and more students are entering university with less aptitude or inclination to do the work?
“. . . If everyone is just kind of doing banal, C average work, then you are kind of dismayed,” says Banting. “And I think that it’s not really even conscious perhaps, but the C+ paper starts to look better than it really is. So it’s not really that you’re responding to anyone’s coercion, it’s that you kind of find merit in a pile of something that doesn’t have enough merit as it should have.”
Since TAs are still students, they can more easily spot when “students are just lazy,” says Portman. “I think professors buy into the excuse that ‘I think this is easy, but I’m a professor so maybe it is really complicated.’ But as a grad student I remember what it’s like to be a first-year so I understand this.”
But having lower expectations hurts the very people that to whom they’re trying be kind: the students.
You go to university for one of two reasons: you want to learn or you want a job.
So why are students, and their parents who are paying for some of it, enrolling in droves to programs for which they neither have a strong fascination nor an easy route to employment?
Patterson points out that university graduates “currently earn 32 per cent more than those with a college education and 53 per cent more than those with no post secondary education.”
This may be true for business graduates, but isn’t necessarily the case if you study the arts. Compared to any developed country Canada had the highest percentage of post-secondary educated workers earning less than half the Canadian median employment income, according to a 2006 study by Stats Can. That’s an average income of less than $16,917 a year and those who studied the arts were more likely to be the low-earners.
Furthermore, when you have this many students attending arts programs, it’s unlikely that they’re all passionate about it.
“There’s no question that a lot of people who go, if three-quarters go, aren’t really going to get much out of it,” says Brown, the U of T philosopher. “They’ll be bored; they’ll go because their parents are making them go.”
Mostly students go because they’re supposed to–because that’s what you do when you graduate at 17 and society has told you that you’ll end up pulling espresso shots for the rest of your life if you don’t. You pick a major that seems kind of interesting because you either don’t want to commit to business or science, you got rejected from it, or you feel like going into the colleges or the trades isn’t a real option for the socio-economic demographic in which you were raised.
You go because your degree is your parent’s high school diploma – since everyone has one, employers no longer consider it a distinguishing feature but have made it a basic requirement.
I got a pretty good GPA my first year in Carleton’s general arts program, but it was mostly because I answered fill-in-the-blank exam questions squished so close in the auditorium to other anthropology students that I couldn’t help but see their responses, and because students in philosophy wore headphones right in class so I seemed attentive by comparison. I didn’t know education could be different until I transferred into the more specialized Bachelor of Humanities. My GPA continued to be decent, but it was because my professors took time to talk to me at length about my essays over a beer in the pub, because my peers had a lounge to ourselves where we could flesh out ideas with each other and because my classmates challenged me; their academic aptitude inspired my own. When I got an A in a course, or finally worked out what Hegel was trying to say (still a bit unclear on that one) I celebrated. That pride, so lacking in my first year, is what makes my degree have value.
Do we have only the funds for universities that have either high standards for the few or mediocrity for the masses? I don’t know, but my thesis advisor keeps warning me not to sound elitist. Ironic, a bit, graduating as he did in an era where only the few had degrees, which were valued as a consequence of their very scarcity.
I’m months away from graduating with my Master of Journalism–as soon as I get through writing this – and then I’ll be out there, holding my two pieces of very expensive paper that took six years to earn. I don’t want our society to act as if they’re worth less than they were two or four decades ago. But because so many people have them, and because of how easy they’re becoming to get, that’s already happening.