Right now, today, I'm living in a nightmare. My own personal trial by fire. It's an ordeal. A struggle. I agonize over it every time I am faced with it. It never gets any easier. I think it becomes more difficult. Maybe it's character-building. I don't know. But it's unquestionably one of the most challenging tasks I ever have to face.
I'm grading my students. I genuinely like my students. As I grow to know them, more and more. My job is to help them succeed. I tell them that. Again and again. Grading them seems counterproductive to me.
I do not like assigning "final grades" to people. Period. Isn't that what a eulogy is for? Or an obituary?
How can you put a final grade on a work in progress – a student. I can't pin them down with a final grade and I don't want to. What if I'm wrong? It's possible. I'm human.
My mostly young college students are very vulnerable. They take their marks terribly seriously. They do not yet have the life experience to realize that it's not the mark that really counts, but what they've learned. What they take away with them. What they can apply in their lives – at work, at play, in their personal relationships with the people they know and meet.
"You know, in 20 years you probably won't remember the mark you receive in this course," I always tell my new classes of students in an attempt to defuse their initial concerns about a new course and a new teacher. "But I bet you'll remember what you've learned."
(I can attest to this. I have no idea what my transcript looked like when I graduated from Seneca in 1971, but I have full recall of what I learned. I can visualize my most outstanding professors and the important lessons they taught are still with me.)
My students look at me incredulously. They don't buy it.
Sadly, for too many of them, marks determine their future. And they're so arbitrary.
A single mark never seems entirely right. It never seems to say enough. It seems unfair.
Do we assign a letter or numerical grades to our sisters, brothers, parents, friends, colleagues, employers and acquaintances?
"I have an A++++ boss. What about you?"
"Oh, mine only rates a C+/B-. But she's improving. Maybe next term. We'll see."
Take our politicians. Voting is grading I suppose. Winning or losing is a mark of success or failure. But what does a winning number of votes say about an individual? Other than more people voted for him/her than the other person in the race? I'm a little naive when it comes to politics, I know. But I'm very nervous when I have to apply either a number or a letter grade to a human being. I can't help it.
I don't like competition. Never have. Not when it comes to human beings. (I'm not a sports-buff, so I'm not referring here to games people play. That's different. That can be character-building, depending on the sport. Boxing doesn't fly with me, though. I prefer team sports. But not violent ones. Or golf. Or tennis. I like baseball, too.)
Grading what students learn when they've just finished a course seems rather premature. They should be graded when they've been able to put what they've learned into practice in the real world. A year or two or three later. After they've graduated. And worked for a while. A job is the acid test. A profession.
It would be nice if students could receive a grade of "complete" or "incomplete." But that wouldn't help them in the big picture of their lives – if they want to continue with their education. The post-secondary education system simply doesn't work that way. Too bad. Ultimately grades are for administrators.
So I'm left with my trial by fire every term. I agonize over my eternal conundrum. Is it possible to appropriately and accurately grade or categorize or classify or place a value on a person you see only three hours a week for 14 weeks? Especially the students I teach. Often they're 17 years old and from other countries. International Students. This past term 99% of my Women in Canada students spoke English as a second language. Only one other person besides me in my classroom spoke English as a First Language.
Bear with me for a minute and imagine this. You're going to study at Peking Community College. It doesn't exist, but for the sake of argument, let's assume it does.
You walk in on your first day and everything is printed in Chinese. Every sign. Everyone speaks Chinese. You are automatically enrolled in a 14-week term of "Chinese as a Second Language" and for 12-hours a week, that's all you do. Study Chinese.
Then, Bingo. You begin classes where Chinese is spoken and written and everyone around you either speaks Chinese as a First Language, or another language that you don't speak as a First Language – a language other than English.
That's how my students from China, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Iraq, India and many other countries feel. My heart goes out to them. You wouldn't believe how hard most of them work and how well they manage to do.
Grading students who are just forming and developing and learning about life seems almost immoral. Unfair. Meaningless. It's a form of pigeonholing that can really be damaging, depending on the individual student.
Isn't that one of the major issues around mental health and psychiatric labels?
Bipolar Disorder. Anxiety Disorder. Schizophrenia. Hypomania. Depression.
If I tell you my psychiatric diagnosis is Hypomania, and that's all I tell you about me, what do you really know? About me? Other than the fact that I have no trouble telling you about my psychiatric diagnosis.
A grade is a rating, a classification. A pigeonhole of sorts. Can't the same be said for a psychiatric label or disorder? Yet with psychiatry, where so much is still unknown, the label can be very damaging.
And in psychiatry, once you're pigeonholed or labeled, that's it. Labels stick. You're in the system. Someone may give you another label, too. You'll believe it. You'll internalize it. And that can be very damaging, especially if you begin taking medication. Too often, even the medication may not work for you, because you are unique. Special. An individual with your own experiences, your own body chemistry, your own uniquenesses.
And ultimately, psychiatric labels are for insurance companies, I suppose. Administrators.
By definition, a label or classification is restrictive. But labels are often inaccurate, and in psychiatry, this is all too commonplace. How many of us have had multiple diagnoses? After all, you're dealing with diagnostics in an imprecise science. They're far more imprecise than a grade in college which sums up a student's classroom performances and behaviour over more than three months. Their assignments, class activities, interactions, attendance and punctuality, questions, concern, tests, exams.
As well as, you can learn a great deal about a student's individual complexities, their extraordinarily diverse cultural and personal perspectives and their backgrounds in the learning laboratory of a classroom.
Why, compared to giving a human being a psychiatric diagnosis, grading a college student seems like a walk in the park.
In school, you can at least change your Grade Point Average or your letter grade with hard work, if you really apply yourself. You can raise it. Improve your prospects. Often there's lots of help available to you.
"I've got a 3.5," one of my former students told me the other day. "Not very good," he said, sounding dejected. Confused. Lost.
Like someone who says, "I have bipolar disorder."
Whether it's a grade or B+ or C+ or a label like bipolar disorder or depression. What does it tell you about an individual? I ask you.
Does that tell you what this person has learned about life or a particular subject? What this person loves to read? Does it reveal their personal ethics and morals? Does it tell you who this person loves and cares about and cherishes? What this person likes to do in his or her spare time? What she or he wants to accomplish in life? What his dreams are? What her hopes are?
If you have a GPA of 3.9 it means you're a good student in a specific course. You write exams well and know all about how to do academic research papers. You have a set of skills at which you can perform in a classroom.
But what about meeting deadlines in the real world? About respecting your co-workers and their concerns? About being a good citizen?
The same goes for a psychiatric label. It's a pinpoint on the course of life, a judgment made by an individual psychiatrist based on a collection of criteria – the DSM-IV and soon the DSM-V. People write the DSM criteria. Psychiatrists may have their own agendas.
We are all human. We make mistakes. We're always changing. Evolving. Growing. Learning. And surprising ourselves and others. I'm always curious about people, waiting hopefully to be pleasantly surprised. Often I am.
Our outside appearances may not change all that much. But our minds are constantly in flux. Like kaleidoscopes. Beautiful fleeting refracted images of coloured glass that are never, ever repeated. Never the same. Unique. Like us.
That's why grading is so painful for me.