I had a troubling conversation with a junior colleague this afternoon. He will be teaching Intro Micro this spring for the first time and he came by to ask me how I usually assign grades; that is, whether I use the traditional cut-offs (95+=A, 90-95=A-, etc.), or if I curve, or use some other system. I said that I start with the traditional cut-offs and then curve up if my average is 'too low', which I deem anything below around 78%. If I do make any adjustments, it's generally to help students at the lower end of the distribution, rather than making sure there are a certain number of As, Bs, etc. But my department likes for us to keep our class averages in the C+ range (2.3-2.5-ish) so if my class average ends up "too high" then I won't curve at all.
I don't know if other departments do this (try to make sure class averages fall in a certain range), but the way it was explained to me was that we don't want students to think that certain professors are 'easier' than others. Personally, I've always had mixed feelings about it; on the one hand, I can understand and appreciate that this policy helps ward off grade inflation or professors "buying" good evaluations with easy classes and higher grades (if you want to debate whether that's a real concern, that's a whole other post). On the other hand, suppose you have someone who is a really good teacher so his students actually learn what he intends for them to learn and therefore, they do well in the class. This is supposedly why we look at more than just teaching evaluations in the RTP (retention, tenure and promotion) process but I've been in more than one meeting where someone's good evaluations have been questioned because the accompanying class GPA was 'too high'. As one colleague has put it: if someone has high evaluations and low grades, or if someone has low evaluations and high grades, then that tells you something, but how can you know what it means when someone has high evals and high grades or low evals and low grades?
But more troubling is that this is not a formal department policy, written down somewhere and given to new faculty; it's just an informal, unstated kind of thing that people are somehow supposed to know. And of course, my young colleague was not aware of it. As we continued talking, he asked if there is a similar expectation about upper-division classes and when I said yes, I could tell he was upset. Turns out that in the fall semester, he curved the grades in his intermediate theory course up to a B+! Now, I really wanted to ask what in the world made him think that B+ should be an "average" grade but I can't remember where he went to undergrad or graduate school and I know there are places where that would be perfectly normal. The bigger problem is that next year during his review, I know there are many in my department who will discount his evaluations for that course. I told him that I will help him figure out a way to address it in his narrative statement but it sucks that he now has to worry about this.
I'm curious if other departments have similar policies. If yours does, how is it communicated to new faculty?
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