A Theology of Grades at YC: The Case of Prof. Snozzeldörf
What resides in a student's mind, above all and throughout, is a colony of grades; they are the merchandise of his intellect, the artifacts of his consciousness. Sometimes he juggles the letters he is given, then puts them in his backpack and carries them with him. They stick to him. While eating, while chatting, while reading and writing, the student is in their power. In the synagogue, as the Lord leans forward in His throne to inscribe the books of life and death, the student bows before the ineffable name and prays, "Dear God, please God, an ai and not an eff."
But, in our upward movement through the educational system, we are often left with a troubling question of academic theodicy: why do good students get bad grades, and vice versa? Are they earned or fated? Allow me to share my recent encounter with an offshoot of this confounding phenomenon.
A friend of mine took a class with a distinguished YC professor, who, to spare him public disgrace, we shall call Prof. Snozzeldörf. This friend received a C on his first paper. Frustrated, for the next paper he asked a student who took the class the previous semester (and got an A- on all of his papers), to send him his essays. Since it was an identical assignment as that of the semester prior, my friend plagiarized this paper and handed it in. One semester beforehand this same paper was graded A- by the selfsame Snozzeldörf, and yet, when my friend got his paper back, on its surface was scrawled – miracles, wonders, finger of God! – the twisted horseshoe, the sickle, a C once again.
What happened here? To my mind, the only reasonable explanation is that Prof. Snozzeldörf determined – whether on the basis of previous papers, classroom comments, dress and haircut, a dumb-sounding name, astrological sign, or any of a million other factors – that one boy is an A- student while the other was made for all C's. That it was essentially the same paper was irrelevant; he gave a grade to the boy, not to the page, and so it made perfect sense to criticize now what he admired then. Nothing else could explain such a large discrepancy. Professors, the human ones, are understandably subject to certain biases, but a drop like this is inexplicable: a C on a paper is a curse word, while an A- is a kiss. Any qualified teacher must be able to discern the difference; one cannot have both of those reactions to the same paper.
Due to fear of expulsion neither of the students could complain, but I was riled by the professor's academic schizophrenia and decided to petition on their behalf. I met with a dean (who I will not name so that his outrageous and self-incriminating statements will not be used against him) and laid before him this baffling injustice. He, however, was far more concerned with the student's plagiarism than with what, in my mind, is the graver offense of outright professorial bias. It is graver precisely because it is committed by a paid and respected member of the faculty, rather than an average student, and because it presumably is not limited to this individual case, but almost certainly represents a habitual Snozzeldörf policy of grading his students rather than their papers.
But this dean heard none of it. His reply to me was confused, free-wheeling, and noteworthy. He defended the professor in various ways, arguing that a professor may change his mind and anyway it is perfectly legitimate to grade the same paper differently based on one's respect for its author. I was, of course, astounded to hear that chiddush coming from a dean whose job it is to maintain academic integrity. He then floated the following surreal theory: perhaps Prof. Snozzeldörf sniffed out the cheating but lacked evidence to prove it, so he decided to compromise and give the alleged plagiarist a C. This dean, himself a professor, even admitted that he occasionally does that in his own classes. His defense for this policy was that, you know, it really is such a hassle to accuse a student of plagiarizing a paper, and especially if you can't really prove it, so, in that case, well you just give him a C and it's so much simpler that way, isn't it? As if compelled, I nodded my head in agreement. It really is much simpler that way. I wondered, in fact, why I hadn't thought of that myself.
Now, in this case I have the advantage of having read both papers and for various reasons I am quite certain that the professor did not notice the plagiarism. But it is for other reasons that the arguments of this dean did little to reassure me – rather the opposite, I think.
Unsatisfied, I then met with Dean Eichler, and that was also a noteworthy experience. He too was far more interested in the plagiarism than in the erratic grading of Snozzeldörf. He had theories of his own as well, such as that the professor noticed the scam but was unwilling to report it because, due to his soft and loving heart, he considers the official penalty of expulsion too harsh. (As it happens, based on his syllabus and the impressions of several of his students, this professor would likely not harbor such misgivings.) Our meeting was a long one but doomed. Once more, the dean's concern seemed curiously diverted; the discussion of the professor's conduct produced little reaction in him, yet at the mention of student plagiarism his nostrils flared, his dean-eyes narrowed above his trembling dean-cheeks, and as he continued speaking bullet-point paragraphs in repetition to emphasize the futility of our talk, his voice thinned out to a metallic poker, jabbing haphazardly and in staccato.
Thus, on top of Snozzeldörf's shenanigans there is a blanket of indifference stretching across the offices of multiple deans, one of which engages himself in tricks and antics no more dignified. I do not know why this is so. Perhaps they feel it is less their job to police the integrity of the faculty than that of the students, or maybe they wish to avoid unpleasant encounters with their colleagues. It might even be that the deans have different reactions to similarly contemptible behavior depending on whether the perpetrator is teacher or student since, by heavenly decree or natural law, the professor gets an A- while the student is blessed with C's. It is nice when there is such consistency of bias in the world: isn't the universe wonderfully designed?
The case of Snozzeldörf is, in my opinion, a flagrant instance of direct bias in grading. But it is not just about Snozzeldörf. I suspect that many professors are afflicted, to one degree or another and with a spectrum of subtlety, with academic schizophrenia. This is probably mostly restricted to the humanities, though even there there must be some professors who take measures (or meds) to counteract these biases, but still they exist.
Indeed, there are a whole host of factors endemic to the system which contribute to the peculiar mistranslation between academic achievement and G.P.A: the huge gap between easy teachers and hard teachers, general grade inflation, and grade penalties and rewards for procedural issues that do not affect the quality of the work or knowledge, such as lateness on assignments. No, the system is not perfect. But my encounter with the saga of Snozzeldörf and my journeys through the deans' offices revealed a more pointed failure. We witness the weakness, the paltry maturity of the PhDs. This is the indomitable pettiness of the ivory tower; it sits, in the end, on a kindergarten playground while its shadow blankets us with phony glory. And the student prays to God, "Please some aid," for no one wishes to be F'ed.