Grade Inflation Revisited

In January I wrote about the “grade inflation” debate. Recently, Inside Higher Ed published a pair of columns on the topic.

One article looks at the relative prevalence of A grades. Reporting on a recent study, the article notes that 43 percent of all grades at a large sample of four-year colleges and universities are an A, and that this figure is 28 percentage points higher than in 1960, and 12 percentage points higher than in 1988. The other article offers an analysis of “why we inflate grades,” concluding it is a matter of pressure from students, administrators, colleagues, and finally, ourselves.

Taken together, both articles seem to imply that the graders got it right back then, but are somehow getting it wrong now. But this simply doesn’t ring true for me. In Bruner’s (1986) terms, it lacks verisimilitude. And curiously, the reverse scenario — that grades back then were too low — appears to have not been considered. Nor have I seen anyone consider the possibility that the grade distribution at each time period has been as right or wrong as at any other. What is missing in all of this is any recognition that the adjudication of grade distributions already presupposes an answer to the question: How many As “should” there be? Some have apparently concluded that 43 percent is too high. But such an evaluation is a fact/values judgment (e.g., see Putnam 2002). Any marshaling of facts already presupposes a certain constellation of values about the question, and vice versa. In other words, there is not some terra firma on which the question of grades and their distribution might come to rest. Grading is a disciplinary technique, and as such subject to ongoing values work.

Thus, as with the last time I reflected on this issue, I find it difficult to take sides. Moreover, on the heels of S&P’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, I found myself comparing and contrasting grade point averages (GPAs) with credit rating agencies (CRAs). Although both GPAs and CRAs have become highly embedded in their respective fields, perhaps even essential to the functioning of universities and markets respectively, it is not clear that inflation or deflation are the solution in either case. In the classroom, how and why do we grade? On Wall Street, how and why do we rate? For me, it is only in answering these questions that we can begin to understand the significance and the ongoing resignification of grades and ratings, whether half a century ago, or today.

Plagiarism and Values Work

One of my research projects looks at what I call “values work” — the distributed, interactive, contested, and ongoing process through which an organization’s values are repeatedly performed, assessed, and justified over time. The concept of values work emerged from research into the development of new honor code values practices within a large business school over a period of nearly ten years.

Given our research setting, several recent articles caught my eye. In “Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal,” Stanley Fish argues that stealing someone’s words is hardly the moral equivalent of stealing someone’s property, such as their car. Rather, “plagiarism is [a] breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.” In other words, plagiarism is a “learned sin,” one that “is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few.” It is “an insider’s obsession,” where the insiders are mostly journalists, academics and scientists. Nonetheless, as Fish notes, for these insiders the consequences of plagiarism can be quite serious.

At the same time, another article in the New York Times suggests that plagiarism has become quite ubiquitous among students. It appears that authorship and originality are no longer all that meaningful to many students. Of course, as Foucault demonstrated in his essay “What Is an Author?,” the notion of an author “constitutes the privileged notion of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences.” As such, plagiarism depends upon an Enlightenment ideal of the individual, and a Western conception of intellectual property rights. By comparison, Ms. Blum “contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity… than in trying on many different personas, which the web enables with social networking.”

In other words, a huge tension exists — between the “learned sins” of academic insiders and the “mashup” culture of self-expression now prevalent among many students. And yet, despite these tensions — or perhaps because of them — colleges and universities appear to be redoubling their efforts at curbing and controlling plagiarism. For instance, “To Stop Cheats,” the University of Central Florida has built a state of the art testing center — or what Foucault might have called a panopticon. Recently, the associate dean in charge of the center boasted that of 64,000 exams administered, only 14 cheating incidents were suspected.

Perhaps we should be relieved, or perhaps we should consider just what kind of society is required for such values work to remain dominant. As Foucault asked in Discipline and Punish: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (p. 228).  He concluded it is not at all surprising: “The power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating” (p. 303). “It functions as a normative power… The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge… [E]ach individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (p. 304).

In short, values work is everywhere, calling out for heightened attention. “We must hear the distant roar of battle… of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society” (p. 308).


Foucault’s Discipline and Punish

Among the books I read this summer was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Overall, I found this book to be both intellectually dense and spiritually sobering.  Below I attempt to highlight just a few of the book’s many insights.

disciplinepunishIn broad terms, Foucault uses the birth of the prison in particular, and the history of punishment more generally as a way of understanding society.  In some sense, the book is Foucault’s attempt to solve a puzzle, how in “less than a century… the entire economy of punishment was redistributed” (p. 7).  How the “penal style” of spectacle and torture came to be replaced by one centering on surveillance and the prison. Thus, the book centers on tracing the relatively abrupt emergence of “a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish” (p. 7). But more provocatively, Foucault concludes that these changes in the “right to punish” have implications which extend far beyond the penal system. In short, the birth of the prison marks the birth of the “disciplinary society” (p. 216).

Again and again Foucault’s analysis links discipline and individualization.  “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals” (p. 170). “The disciplines function increasingly as techniques for making useful individuals” (p. 211).  By discipline, Foucault is referring to an anatomy of power, a technology of power (p. 215), a unitary technique which maximizes the body’s useful force while reducing its “political” force at the least cost (p. 221).

Not only is the disciplinary society about individualizing, it is also about textualizing.  At the center of the disciplinary society is an “uninterrupted work of writing,” “an immense police text,” “a complex documentary organization” (p. 197, 214). “This turning of real lives into writing is… a procedure of objectification and subjection” (p. 192).  Thus, to understand the disciplinary, we must understand the individual, and the textual, and vice versa.  If I am reading him correctly, Foucault is suggesting that the disciplinary, the individual and the textual are all linked.

Speaking specifically of prisons, Foucault concludes that 1) prisons do not diminish crime rates, 2) detention causes recidivism, 3) the prison cannot fail to produce delinquents, 4) the prison encourages the organization of delinquents, 5) the conditions to which free inmates are subjected necessarily condemn them to recidivism, and finally, 6) the prison indirectly produces delinquents by throwing the inmate’s family into destitution (pp. 265-268). In short, punishment is not intended to eliminate offenses, but rather to distinguish them, distribute them, and use them (p. 272). Penality provides illegalities with a general economy (p. 272). If we were to continue this line of inquiry, perhaps we might go in the direction of seeing discipline and punishment in terms of moral boundaries (cf. Lamont, Anteby).

Perhaps more tellingly, Foucault asks: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (p. 228).  Later he concludes: “The power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating” (p. 303). “It functions as a normative power… The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge… [E]ach individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (p. 304). The discipline society is a normalizing society.

Foucault concludes that the prison is not subordinate to or the instrument of the law, the court, the codes or the judicial apparatus (p. 307). “It is the court that is external and subordinate to the prison” (p. 308). However, the prison is not alone in the center. It is linked to a whole series of “carceral mechanisms” — “intended to alleviate pain, to cure, to comfort — but which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization” (p. 308). In closing Foucault gives us an imperative, a warning, a question: “We must hear the distant roar of battle… of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society” (p. 308).