Letters to the Editor

Grading grade inflation

Readers write back about grade inflation, short-selling, and more.

The article on grade inflation (or compression) made me wince (“Grade Expectations,” September/October). The proposed grading scheme under consideration at Yale is almost identical to the scheme that was in place at the University of Toronto for many years until it was recently abandoned.

A survey of comparable universities in Canada led to the conclusion that U of T students were being disadvantaged with respect to graduate fellowships and graduate admissions by our relatively rigorous standards. U of T’s reputation as a top Canadian university was not enough to offset the insufficiently inflated grades of its graduates. Unless most of the top American universities buy into the Princeton model, adopting it may create as many problems as it solves.

C. Peter Herman ’68
Toronto, Canada

Grade Expectations” made me reflect on my undergrad days at Yale and my current grading dilemmas as a professor. Grade inflation is certainly an issue at many universities, but setting forth an ideal curve could cause more problems than it solves, for both students and professors. First, implementation of non-mandatory “guidelines” would vary from department to department depending on the attitude of the current department chair. Second, shooting for an ideal curve like the one proposed might make sense for courses with high enrollments that often have a large spread of student abilities and interest levels. But if a professor has a large class with an unusually strong student performance (or the unfortunate converse), she ought to grade accordingly.

Third, use of such a curve could cripple enrollment and morale in Yale’s best classes—those that are selective or small. I was fortunate to test into Chem 125 (“Freshman Orgo”), taught by the unparalleled Mike McBride for 30 entering students each year. The proposed guidelines might discourage students from taking such a course for fear of stiffer competition. Advanced seminars, particularly those where undergrad and grad students mix, are a unique setting in which an entire group of undergrads can catch fire and perform spectacularly as they acculturate to work at the graduate level.

Recommending certain proportions of A, B, and C grading in these settings would resemble the “stack ranking” group evaluations at Microsoft, which have been blamed for killing creativity and collaboration. That’s not the Yale I remember, or the university I want to teach in today.

Elisabeth Hildebrand ’94
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY

In 1987, I was hired as an associate professor of mathematics by a “highly selective” private college. Just before I arrived, the registrar compiled a summary showing that the most common grade at the college was B. There were more A’s than C’s, 3 percent of the grades were D’s, and only 0.3 percent were F’s. I saw much unsatisfactory student performance in my first year at this college, but it was only in my second year that I realized how massive were the flaws concealed by those grades.

I was assigned to teach a course in real analysis (essentially, rigorous advanced calculus). This course was a graduation requirement for mathematics majors. My class consisted of 16 senior math majors. By the middle of the semester, I realized that at least half of my class was incompetent in high school algebra. Because of this and other grave deficiencies, much of the class was unable to do a large part of the coursework. A majority of them feared that they would fail the course, so they went in a group to my department chairman with vague complaints that I was making the course too hard for them. He then warned me implicitly that I had better pass all of these students.

I was well aware that my job was on the line, so I did pass everybody but gave half the class grades of C minus or D (all of which should have been F’s). My appointment was terminated a few months later. The stated reason was that negative student reaction to my teaching was harmful to the department.

The story ended more happily for my senior class. They all graduated on time, and three of my worst students graduated with honors: one magna cum laude, two cum laude. On the basis of my case and other evidence, I’d say the college effectively gave students the power to set the academic standards.

I hope that Yale will never do the same.

Karl K. Norton ’59
Bangor, ME

I find it surprising that the discussion of grade inflation or “compression” at Yale seems to include no critical thinking about the relationship between grades and learning. For years now, educational reformers and other researchers have piled up findings that point to the value of intrinsic motivators (such as creating compelling questions and acquiring the tools to answer them) over extrinsic rewards and punishments. In higher-education circles, many leading thinkers now agree that instruments assessing student’s progress on clearly stated learning objectives yields more valuable information for both faculty and students than letter grades.

In my own classes at a small college in Vermont, I have embarked this semester on an experiment of banishing letter and number grades, to the extent I am able, from my teaching. I spend class time working with students to create a list of “criteria for excellence,” and am handing back papers with the best feedback I can give but no grade on any individual assignment. Because my institution does require letter grades, I will sit down with each student at both midterm and finals periods to record a letter grade—but only after the students have written me letters evaluating their own performance. Our discussion can thus focus in part on where our expectations for academic work do or do not line up. It’s a lot of work, yes, but I am already noticing the effects in terms of students’ willingness to take risks and work from their own motivations; the paucity of students appearing at my office hours to ask “how to get more points for the class” is a sheer blessing and time-saver. If I can see these effects on students being forced to take my classes as part of a required general-education curriculum, what might happen with the many highly motivated learners in a Yale classroom?

Adam Rosenblatt ’00
Burlington, VT

Chanos on the case

Jim Chanos’s work (“The Fraud Detective,” September/October) is more than an exercise in making money and identifying fraud. He, and others, challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom. As such, they represent particularly American corrective mechanisms which allow our economic system to work effectively. As described in your article, Mr. Chanos’s professionalism, ethical approach, intellectual rigor, and guts represent the best of American entrepreneurship. Yale students will benefit enormously from exposure to critical thinking and historical relevance in his class.

Gene Dattel ’66
Lakeville, CT

In his interesting article “The Fraud Detective,” Dick Conniff refers to Jim Chanos as looking like “an Episcopalian minister gone astray” with a blue blazer over a purple sweater. I fear Conniff has gone a little astray himself, since it is bishops, not priests, who get to wear purple. This, of course, was a minor point in an article that mostly concerned itself with big green and with red ink.

Nat Eddy ’83
Deep River, CT

Jim Chanos’s experience with Baldwin Pianos, two of which I enjoyed playing earlier in life, reminded me of several of my own early experiences as a practicing CPA, beginning with what is now KPMG, followed by 20-plus years of practicing on my own.

For years I have told friends, family, and colleagues that the business culture in America is every bit as corrupt and/or inefficient as is our government—whether local or national—mostly to deaf ears. Maybe the author of this article, Richard Conniff, and Mr. Chanos should consider collaborating on a book detailing all of the “fraud detective’s” past experiences? Hopefully, such a read would help lead America out of its persistent state of denial that corporate America is rife with greed and corruption. For as that well-known “good book” reminds us all, “The love of money is indeed, the root of all evil.”

Michael Sparkman ’90MDiv
Santa Fe, NM

What’s “nonconsensual sex”?

I read the official Yale statement and President Salovey’s comments on the semiannual report on sexual misconduct at Yale (“Questions Raised Over Sexual Misconduct Report,” September/October), including his explanation why none of the six students found guilty of nonconsensual sex were expelled.

The Yale statement points out that Yale uses the term “nonconsensual sex” to describe a range of behaviors that fall within the university’s broad definition of sexual misconduct.

I’m afraid the implication is that there are some forms of nonconsensual sex which really are not as bad as all that, at least not bad enough to warrant expulsion. It is hard for me to imagine any nonconsensual sex which would be a) violating enough to lead a woman to pursue a complaint, b) proven by the preponderance of evidence, and c) not deserving of expulsion.

William O. Rogers ’80
Greensboro, VT

We noted in our article that the university was compiling a set of hypothetical scenarios to try to shed more light on these kinds of cases and how the university resolves them. That document was posted online in September and can be downloaded at smr.yale.edu/node/16/attachment.—Eds.

Shaping the student body

As a member of the incoming freshman class in September 1950 (the last class that was all white males), I noted with interest both your chart (“Yale’s Top Feeder Schools, Then and Now,” May/June) and the response of Hilary Appleman ’86 (Letters, July/August).

The whole public-vs.-private calculus is a false dichotomy. I was an anomaly in my day, a scholarship student from the “St. Grottlesex” world paying $700 toward a bill of $1500 for tuition, room, and board. Today far more of the student body from prep schools are not from the “moneyed class.”

But there is nothing wrong with educating legacies. The mission of Harvard, Yale, and all the rest of our elite universities has always been to educate the future movers and shakers of the world. It worked out famously with George H. W. Bush ’48, not quite so with George W. Bush ’68. While intelligence, character, dedication, achievement, and a host of other virtues make up the profile of a legitimate candidate for admission, the principal players—whether you like it or not—have always been the ones with money, lots of it.

Richard L. Wainwright ’54
Brockton, MA

Hey, I thought Social Darwinism went out with the nineteenth century! So I was dismayed to read a letter from Sterling Professor Emeritus Robert K. Adair (Letters, September/October) with the assumption-laden sentence “Since faculties, such as intelligence, that lead to social success are highly heritable, successful people tend to have able children from inheritance alone and selective colleges properly select able children.” This is a classic example of being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

What’s even scarier is that, by his own admission, he served twice on the Undergraduate Admissions Committee. Professor Adair may know a lot about physics, but he sure could have benefited from taking a sociology course somewhere along the line.

Martin Snapp ’67
Berkeley, CA

On gifts and regifting

Elizabeth Stauderman of the Office of Public Affairs and Communication states that “Yale is scrupulous in honoring any and all restrictions placed on gifts” (Letters, September/October). I am happy to hear this, as it was not always the case. I personally was involved in a situation where the development office tried to hijack a bequest to the Outdoor Education Center. The donor’s heirs were sufficiently outraged to consider litigation before the matter was referred to then–athletics director Ed Woodsum, who ruled that the testamentary language so clearly made the center the beneficiary that no discussion was appropriate.

The development office then tried another trick: they proposed reducing the center’s budget by an amount equivalent to the income from the bequest. Thus, although the center received the money its benefactor had given it, its actual position remained unchanged. Yale’s counsel explained this was quite proper, claiming that the center was in a much better position because it was certain of the bequest income, whereas its budget allowance was uncertain. I don’t think they got away with it.

Foster Bam ’50, ’53LLB
Greenwich, CT

We asked the university for a reply. The response, from Elizabeth Stauderman ’83, ’04MSL, director of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communication, is below.—Eds.

Bequests are a very important source of support to the university and the university works hard to honor the wishes of all of our donors. How a bequest will impact the overall budget of any entity is determined outside of the Office of Development and involves careful review of the other sources of funding currently allocated to that entity as well as determination of the appropriate size of the budget going forward.

“Elite” English

I don’t wish to add to the heat of the letters from alumni written in the wake of your article about the study of grammatical diversity (“Why ‘Bad’ English Isn’t,” July/August, and Letters, September/October). Rather, I’d like to lower the temperature. As a longtime teacher of English, I found the professor’s survey accurate, entertaining, and unremarkable.

Undoubtedly, what touched the nerve of Yale alumni were two elements: the catchy title of the article, and the descriptive phrase, “the dialect of the elite,” followed by the condescension of “which can be useful, even necessary, in certain situations.” I take it what the reporter, Ms. Kalb, calls “the dialect of the elite” used to be called “The King’s English” and for many generations has been called “standard English.” In her situational scheme of things I guess that most candidates would choose “the dialect of the elite” when interviewing for a place at Yale.

Whether from an academician or an editor, this fashionable egalitarian thrust seems to me totally at odds with Yale’s historic drive for excellence across the board. The university has always strived to set a standard and has never seen itself as one of many equivalent options.

Though not a house organ of Yale’s development office, the Yale Alumni Magazine reinforces Yale’s primacy in every issue, most recently with word of the Center for British Art’s ranking—15th of the world’s museums—by the Times of London, and the cover story on the hockey team’s winning a national championship. Such splendid achievements make the alumni glow (and give).

Donald H. Werner ’55
Simsbury, CT

As a former English graduate student, I was interested to read the letters on grammatical diversity, especially because the blurb in the table of contents asserted, “Readers sound off—in impeccable English—about our article on grammatical diversity.”

I found three dangling modifiers, a subject-verb disagreement, a sentence so stylistically dense as to be nearly unreadable, three epicene theys, and a usage of “hopefully” that has only recently been accepted—all in letters purporting to support standardized English.

Perhaps we should be more sensitive to the ways in which even our elite English remains a living tradition that must be handled with care to preserve clarity and grace.

Lorna Wood ’92PhD
Auburn, AL

I was struck in two ways by this cover story. The first was admiration for the work that Professor Zanuttini and her group of students are putting into an interesting subject not previously studied in depth. The second was serious discomfort with the dismissive tone taken toward standard English, evident in the article’s title, and such phrases as “the dialect of the elite—which can be useful, even necessary, in certain situations.” The article relegates “elite” English to an equivalence with “They didn’ nobody live up there.”

I think we can agree that the term “elite” has become a coded word rarely used to convey anything positive. And it’s difficult to think of many situations where standard English isn’t necessary, from coupons and parking tickets to school texts at all levels, presidential addresses, and international relations.

I have no “prejudice” against anyone whose English is different from mine—coming from Atlanta, I’m hardly in a position to complain. However, I strongly disagree that standard English has no more importance than any other dialect, or that bad English isn’t actually bad English.

Languages evolve: the language of Shakespeare bears little resemblance to that spoken now. Words change meaning—“gay” comes to mind. Dialects exist, and no one needs to be ashamed of using them. But the state of standard English today has nothing to do with dialects. Rather, it’s the result of the ethos of current American education, with its emphasis on creative thinking at the expense of fundamentals; apathetic parents; and poor to nonexistent teaching.

I find the article disturbing because it’s a microcosm of the steady decline in the quality of American education. Internationally America has slipped to somewhere in the mediocre middle. And someday this is going to cost us terribly.

John N. Beeson ’66
Livingston, NJ


The graph in “Woman and Man at Yale” (Light & Verity, September/October) showed virtual gender parity at the college. In 1972, I transferred into the third class of women admitted to Yale College. Women were approximately 25 percent of all undergraduates. It was the early and mid-’70s, and some male alumni and students were not at all pleased with our presence on campus.

The Yale Daily News archives do not include issues from 1974 and ’75 to confirm or deny my recollection of President Kingman Brewster’s promise: “There will never be more than 40 percent women at Yale College.” I’m so glad for how it’s turned out!

Susan Dobrof ’76
Portland, OR

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