During my first year of college after getting out of the Army (a less than creative entity), I took a philosophy class and really struggled. I failed my first two tests, miserably, got a D on the midterm and then, to my surprise, an A on the final. When grades came out, I got an A for the class. When I asked the professor why after such a miserable start (I assumed that he had made a mistake), he said that my early lack of understanding was moot. In the end, all that mattered was that I got it.

Of all my college classes, photography and otherwise, it was the most useful thing I learned. I wish I could remember the professors name so I could thank him properly for that gift.

I bring this up because, for this academic year, the local college asked if I would take over the photo program as budget cuts meant they were unable to hire a proper, full-time, tenure-track MFA recipient. I took the job as I like teaching photography, and I hoped it would help inspire me in different ways.

But I forgot about grading.


I hate grading.

I really, really hate it.

Traditional grading is an archaic and overly expedient method of evaluation. Not only that, it’s demeaning to students as they not only have to please the instructor, but they have to compete with their classmates to be atop the curve. Education should not be a competition. This is made even worse when we factor in the evaluation of artistic creativity. I mean, can creativity be objectively and fairly assessed into one of five presets grades. I don’t think so. But, it has to be done.

My first and only responsibility is to the students. I don’t give a rat’s ass about grading curves or the reputation of the school. I want the students to learn. To come away not only better photographers, but with more open minds. To be better people. I do my best to make that happen and, if I actually do my job right, nothing would make me happier than to be able to give all the students A’s.

Even if that means I get an F.



14 thoughts on “F”

  1. How lucky are these students to have you as a teacher. I hope they understand the greatness that they are with. I would love to be in that class.

    I had a similar experience in college, a professor graded on a curve and most times a 60 got an A. He said, I don’t care what you know, I want to know what you don’t know.” Then after the test was handed back we would go over what we did not know until we did. Great class.

    1. I dunno, I feel like I am the lucky one. Most of the students try so hard it’s impossible to not be inspired.

  2. John is right. Those students are very lucky to have you. What I wouldn’t give to be part of that class. And that school is getting something far better than a typical tenure track / MFA. They have a teacher with experience, passion, and a crack sense of humor that will keep those kids engaged and yearning for more. Go get ’em, Professor!

    1. Thanks, Jo. To be honest, the academic teaching requirement of terminal degrees does not make sense to me. It excludes so many knowledgeable and talented people from the classroom. This is especially true in the fine arts where a teaching credential can be achieved with a 2-year MFA program. I just don’t understand how that can be more valid than someone with many years of experience, especially as MFA programs provide little, if any, instruction in pedagogy.

      But, I am not sure it would be for me anyway. I am too opinionated to teach facts 🙂

  3. “If a roomful of students all arrived at the identical (and demonstrably correct) answer to a math question, it would be exemplary. But if those same students answered an artistic question by producing a roomful of identical paintings, something would be terribly wrong.” ~Ted Orland.

    1. Guy, that is something I struggle with every day of class. The last thing I want to do, and the last thing the world needs me to do, is to create a bunch of little Chucks

  4. I assume this means the administration is not amenable to a PASS/FAIL grading system? Probably not. I can easily relate to your position, Chuck, as I found myself in similar waters when I taught for nearly 3 years as Adjunct Faculty in Media Design & Production at a technical college in Tacoma, WA. I found myself teaching Photoshop ( basic & advanced ), Illustrator, Powerpoint, and Digital Photography. The same issues related to individual creativity arose. The same inflexibility about letter grades
    being policy was strictly enforced by the Dean of the department. She & I were at such loggerheads over this issue that eventually, she did not renew my contract.
    What I resolved to do in these courses is to subjectively grade on the high end of the spectrum. Those who received poor or non-passing grades were the class members who consistently were no-shows; their perpetual absence was an indice of their lack of interest. Those who showed genuine interest and even enthusiasm, got A’s. And during my review/evaluation periods by my “superiors” (sic), I was redressed and admonished for posting so many high grades. This did not bother me in the slightest, because my conscience was clear. After all, at the end of the day, the only one you have to live with is yourself, right? Maintain your scruples, Chuck! Damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead!

    1. One of the art faculty actually graduated from a university that didn’t give grades. I don’t know the specifics, but am guessing it was a simple S/U.

  5. “…but they have to compete with their classmates to be atop the curve. Education should not be a competition.”

    That need not be true. Anyone teaching and grading that way (“grading on a curve”) is stuck in the distant past. A professor/instructor can set criteria for each grade, and any student meeting the criteria for a particular grade gets that grade, regardless of what their peers get.

    Unfortunately there can be many political complications related to grading, which I won’t get into!

    1. Gregg, that is predicated on the assumption that I am doing not only a great job of teaching, but a great job of creating fair tests. Also, as these are primarily creative studio classes, objective evaluations (aside from tests and quizzes) are not really feasible. My gut does as much grading as my brain.

  6. My first class in grad school, I really mailed it in and was late turning in some assignments, even though the syllabus said no work would be accepted late. The professor never returned any graded work to anyone during the semester and kept talking about how his home renovation was eating up all of his time. When pressed he said, “Don’t worry. I think you’ll all be happy with your grades at the end of the semester.” I got a much undeserved A in the class. I swear to this day he gave everyone an A and never graded any of our work!

    1. That sucks, Blake. But I sure wish I had the audacity, courage, and lack of caring to do the same thing 🙂

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