Scholar takes grades to task

Duke professor lets class decide

Staff WriterJune 20, 2010 

  • Age: 60

    Current positions: Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, DukeUniversity

    Education: Undergraduate, Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Ill.; master's and doctoral degrees in English, State University of New York atBinghamton.

    Though her "This is Your Brain on the Internet" course has received a great deal of attention, Duke students won't be able to take it for a while. Davidson is going on leave for the 2010-11 academic year to work on her next book. It will be a trade publication called "Now You See It: The Science of Attention in the Classroom, at Work and Everywhere Else." It will also feature applications for the iPad with links, illustrations, movies and sound.

— You'd think Cathy Davidson would like grades. She got great ones herself in college, all A's aside from one pesky C in introductory German.

But after more than three decades teaching everything from traditional American literature to a free-wheeling, futuristic course about the Internet, the Duke scholar is trying to get as far from the grade book as possible.

To do so, she has turnedover grading in one course to her students, a move that brought her headlines and some criticism from those who see it as an irresponsible challenge to a long-held academic practice.

To Davidson, 60, it makes perfect sense. Academia, she argues, has long been stuck in a rut, grading today's students with standards developed for the Industrial Age. It bugs her.

"We're doing a great job of training people for the 20th century," she says.

Davidson is an English professor, but lately she has focused on the interdisciplinary course "This is Your Brain on the Internet."

The first version of the class, which analyzes technology, communication and the Internet, stretched educational convention. It demanded heavy student participation. Two students taught each class, and all class members wrote long critiques on a blog they all could view and comment on.

But at the end, two students pointed out that, though the structure of the class was unusual, Davidson still graded in the customary way. It didn't seem right, they said.

So Davidson let students grade themselves. And the next time she offered the course, each student got an A.

To the skeptic, that proves a flaw in Davidson's grading model. Are students really equipped to evaluate each other? And in turning over the power to grade, is Davidson assuring an easy class?

Just the opposite, she argues. She contends that her students worked far harder knowing they were being judged by their peers.

In part, Davidson employed what is known as "Contract Grading," a method used for decades in which the instructor clearly spells out what work students must do to get an A, B, C, or worse.

But in this course, students decided whether those benchmarks were met. Students wrote 1,000 words a week in blog posts discussing the classes, more than is required for Duke courses that actually offer a writing credit, which Davidson's does not. They all had to lead a class section, go on two field trips, and do a team research project.

'Lower-order thinking'

Davidson didn't make her grading change lightly. She first researched the history of evaluation and found that universities didn't give letter grades until about the 1880s, when Mount Holyoke College began doing so. Until then, professors had commented on student work.

"Letter grades were considered lower-order thinking at the time," Davidson said.

She announced her grading plans on her blog last year, and buzz grew quickly. Higher education trade publications and mainstream media, including The News & Observer, wrote about her intentions. She was floored by the reaction, much of which was negative and, thanks to the anonymity of online commenting, faceless.

Others, though, felt she was really on to something.

"There's a world of people who love it and a world of people who think I'm the worst person on the planet," she said. "Grading: People hold it like a religion."

At Duke, officials like what Davidson is doing, said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs with Trinity College, the undergraduate home of arts and sciences.

"So much of higher education now is taking students outside the classroom, like study abroad," Baker said. "But she has rethought what it looks like inside the traditional classroom."

Davidson grew up in Chicago, an avid reader drawn to math and science. She was always "the only girl at math camp" and hoped at one point for a career exploring artificial intelligence.

She got great grades and scored well on intelligence tests. But she struggled with some simple things, like reading aloud from a sheet of paper. It wasn't until she became an adult that she was diagnosed with dyslexia.

"Learning disabilities didn't exist when I was a kid," she said. "I was the obstinate kid."

To this day, the woman who has written 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles struggles to write a check and can barely remember the lyrics to "Happy Birthday." Dyslexia forced Davidson, from an early age, to work around problems and may help explain her interest in stretching boundaries in the classroom, she said.

And it allows her to see things differently than most, says Ken Wissoker, Davidson's husband of nine years.

"It gives her clarity," said Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke University Press. "She can look at a manuscript, and the key sentences just jump off the page."

Davidson attended Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, and majored in English in part because a mentor told her that's what women studied at the time. She graduated in 1970.

She has taught American literature courses for decades, occasionally pushing the envelope.

As a visiting professor, she shook up somewhat-stodgy Princeton in 1988 by enlisting two junior faculty members to argue points of view from readings in front of a class. This was unusual then at Princeton, where junior faculty were treated as glorified grad students - expected to grade papers but do little else.

Intellectual dialogue ensued.

"It got written up in the student newspaper as an educational experiment," Davidson recalled. "Which I thought was funny."

Davidson came to Duke in 1989, and in 1998 became vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. In that role, she tried to create new courses and programs by meshing seemingly disparate academic disciplines.

She now directs the Duke-based Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, or HASTAC for short. Pronounced "Haystack," it is a consortium of scholars from across the academic spectrum who look for ways to mesh their expertise using new technology.

Freedom to rant

For Lacey Kim, Davidson's "Your Brain on the Internet" course was liberating . An economics major, Kim was accustomed to the constant stress that goes with a semester of traditional class work and the end-of-semester scramble for a good grade. In Davidson's course, Kim swapped those stresses for the adrenaline rush of self-expression.

Kim, who took the course in the spring as a senior, found a more liberal, livelier inner voice when critiquing each class. She wrote differently, knowing she'd be evaluated by her peers and not by her professor.

"People said I ranted a lot and was very passionate," Kim said. "I don't think I could have done that in a more traditional class. It really made a power shift in the classroom."

That added freedom is one benefit cited by proponents of Davidson's technique. Baker, the Duke dean, said that in posting student work to a blog, Davidson forces students into a higher level of scholarly responsibility.

"It makes students authors of their own ideas, which is different from just having a teacher critique it," Baker said.

The blog was an internal site, so students could view it but it wasn't public.

Gill Bosonetto, who teaches public speaking at Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina, read about Davidson's course in a higher education trade publication. She has long had students grade themselves, though she balances theirs with her own grades as well. She has often found students to be tough on each other.

"I find it's usually very close to what I score them at, and interestingly enough, they can be harsher," Bosonetto said in an interview. "They take it seriously."

Leonard Cassuto , an English professor at Fordham University, credits Davidson with creating a dynamic "learning community" but believes she is shirking her responsibility in not giving grades herself. He likens the student grading to peer review, in which academic experts vet each other's work prior to publication in scholarly journals.

"But in the academy, peer review is done by experts," Cassuto said. "If a journal receives an article on medieval ceramics, they send it to experts on medieval ceramics. My concern is that she is letting these apprentice peer-reviewers make final judgment."

And is there a problem if every student gets an A?

"If the students have done amazing, high-level work, there may not be anything wrong," said Todd Zakrajsek, executive director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Faculty Excellence, which trains professors to teach better. "[But] you go off to college to get an education. There has to be a way to convey to people what you've learned."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008.

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