January 30th, 2009
Like many of us here at SAIC, I was first attracted to this school because of the interdisciplinary education, mind-blowing course catalog, and world-renown facilities. Prior to admittance to the MFAW program, I had mixed feelings about the possibility of being in a school that had Credit/No Credit as opposed to a more traditional letter grading system; coming from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, where we did receive letter grades (and they often seemed arbitrary or superficial, especially in experimental classes), I was ultimately excited by the opportunity to work and grow in a school where my creative endeavors would be assessed through a more substantive system than numbers or letters on a transcript. As a member of the Writing Program who asked to be anonymous explained, “Not having grades means that the exchange between professors and students can be more democratic…This encourages more risk and more daring choices in the work itself…the problems are sometimes students have been trained to be motivated by grades so they may have to assign new investment incentives for their work.
This sentiment was echoed by several of the teachers and students I spoke with, as was Chair of the Photo Department Barbara DeGenevieve’s sentiment that, “the real world doesn’t give grades for doing what you’re supposed to do.” DeGenevieve added, “There will always be people around you who aren’t pulling their weight, but grades are a rather juvenile form of motivation and reward,”
The crux of the conundrum seems to be that while the majority of our 2,333 undergraduates and 602 grad students are incredibly passionate about their work, and it is often impossible to objectively assess art, there is also an undercurrent of laziness, a perceived lack of motivation, which undermines the experiences of those dedicated students who feel that it is unfair to receive the same grade as students who slack off and don’t even bother to show up to class. SAIC Student Betsy Yaros says, “The lack of grades fails…there is lack of motivation. I’ve met quite a few undergrads who are here on their parents’ money, are f–ing around, doing drugs, and producing crap. I think the grades may make people have to drop out sooner, and I wouldn’t mind if the lazy people left.”
This was reinforced by undergraduate student Aaron Greene, who in his first year at SAIC has already experienced a vast discrepancy between the quality of education and exchange of ideas in a class where he felt the teacher demanded a lot of the students, versus a class where it seemed like very little was required to pass the class. “Our grading system” Greene explained, “isn’t necessarily the reason, but I think teachers need to hold us to a higher standard, and from what I’ve seen, when teachers require more of us we step up to the plate…it’s discouraging to be in a class with people who aren’t putting in the same effort.”
“If you do better” asked Mike Genge, a second-year student in the Architecture and Designed Objects department, “shouldn’t you receive the affirming reinforcement of a good grade? One that would be better than the kid that drools while he sleeps during critiques?”
This issue is especially thorny when thinking about collaborative projects, where Nadine Bopp, adjunct professor in the AIADO and Liberal Arts departments explains, “there is often a backlash from those who excel and work diligently about those who slide by with the minimum or less than average work.”
Perhaps this is an issue inherent in all learning environments, especially in an interdisciplinary art school where conceptual, experimental thinking can at times have the unintended result of scattered interest rather than deeper learning and understanding. Alum Jack Bornoff, who received his MFA at SAIC in 1976, defends our grading system, saying, “Please keep in mind, SAIC has been named the number one art school in the United States for the past fifteen years and the most influential art school of the past decade.” But while there is no doubt about our student body’s potential for excellence, one does need to acknowledge that, according to some individuals I spoke with who have been involved with SAIC for several decades, things seem to be changing for the worse. Gregory Mowery, who first came to SAIC in 1977 as a grad student and now teaches in the Art+Tech department, praises the school’s incredible range of course offerings, range of ideas, and diversity of faculty, but acknowledges a recent shift in the student body’s overall commitment. “When I was in school” remembers Mowery, “it was too conceptual with not enough craft…I’ve noticed what seemed to be a sudden shift in what I perceived as a student failing (or my failing). Things I had been doing forever didn’t work anymore. [Previously] pass out a syllabus, make a schedule, and stuff would get done. [Recently] I would schedule a midterm and people wouldn’t even show up! It finally occurred to me that there was a profound generational shift. My generation thrived (or at least thought we did) on personal freedom…this generation multitasks but doesn’t synthesize well.”
If attendance is the very minimum required to pass—and from what I gathered in my interview process, teachers and students both seem to agree that credit at SAIC is about showing up, and it seems like it would take more effort to fail than to pass—then attendance guidelines need to be more strictly enforced, though, as Nadine Bopp explains, it is not always accepted when a professor decides that a student has not met the requirements to receive credit. “More recently,” explains Bopp, “I have had to give no credit. This is extremely difficult as the student fights you every step. They get their parents involved, department heads, administrators etc. Unless we can completely document every misstep of the student, it is often easier to cave than to fight over a prolonged period of time. However, depending on the student, some will acknowledge their mistakes and lack of effort and accept the NC.”
Perhaps a more nuanced assessment scale should be put into place, where at the beginning of each semester a student and teacher would work together to specifically map out a student’s intended goals for each course, with more opportunity throughout the semester for rigorous, thoughtful self-assessment. Raja Halwani, Chair of the Liberal Arts department, suggests a “more finessed system than the binary CR/NCR,” of high pass, pass, low pass, and no pass. Other suggestions include giving letter grades to each specific assignment and then mathematically calculating the student’s average at the end of the semester to see if he or she met the threshold for receiving credit, having different departments come up with different grading perimeters that would be tailored to their field, giving unofficial grades throughout the semester, and having more consistently rigorous critiques that challenge the students to assess how well they have met their goals for each project. Regardless of where this debate ultimately takes us, I think that we should all devote a few minutes at the start of this new semester to think about why we are here, what we want to accomplish, and how we will do it.
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