What is an A?

I just went to a performance of the symphony.  The symphony in our city is very good—they have played at Carnegie Hall in New York and have even been nominated for a Grammy.  Needless to say, the concert was great.  People around here are generous with their praise; at this, as at almost every performance I have seen, they gave a standing ovation.

Now, I love music, and I think that the talent that goes into any production of music is wonderful and mysterious.  This is especially true because my musical ability reaches just about to the level of a three-year-old sitting on the kitchen floor, banging pots and pans with a spatula and singing, “Da Da da Da Da.”

Still, I am a reluctant participant in standing ovations.  It’s not because I am too lazy to stand up after sitting in a darkened theater for hours. (I even heard the woman next to me say, “We have to stand up to leave anyway, so we might as well.”)  I just can’t shake the belief that standing ovations are not for merely wonderful performances.  They are for performances so magnificent that they blow your mind and reach down into your soul and pull it out onto the stage.  I’ve been to those kinds of performances—whether in music, theater or dance—and they are life-changing experiences.

The same principle applies for me with student papers.  An A paper is a paper that stands above all the others.  An A reflects excellent use of language and expression, innovative ideas and engaging, well-organized support.  The paper doesn’t have to have perfect grammar (though that is an ideal to strive for) or flawless discussion.  Usually, the insight, details and expression are so good that I’m willing to overlook the flaws.  Such papers are rare, but grading one is like unwrapping a gift.

The rarity is a problem because every teacher wants to reward students with good grades—especially when students work hard and strive for more than they actually achieve. We live in a society of the participation award, and sometimes students think good grades are a birthright. I have succumbed to the temptation to reward really good papers with an A, even if they don’t reach the highest level. I’m afraid that makes the true A’s less distinctive, but if students feel the best is unattainable, they stop trying—and sometimes getting a good grade will change a student’s attitude toward writing.  I also feel the pressure to make students happy—because I like them, because I empathize with their struggles, because I want to be liked and to have students like my classes.  Plus grading writing assignments is subjective, so it seems like each semester I come up with a different approach to this dilemma: one time I will uphold the absolute and the next I will be a little more flexible.  While in theory, I am very clear about what makes a grade, in practice I am more ambivalent.  I believe that other writing teachers face the same choices, and I would love to know how others resolve it.


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