The conundrum of grading…

I was recently part of a fascinating discussion on philosophy of grading.  Very experienced and dedicated teachers fell all over the spectrum on approach, purpose, and flexibility.  It seems simple on the surface.  Do X amount of work, exhibit Y amount of learning, get Z grade.  Beneath that simple surface is a murky, muddy swamp of challenges.

What is the purpose of a grade?  While it can be both motivator and punishment, it is primarily used for evaluation.  It is supposed to indicate an amount of mastery of a subject.  A C might indicate a basic working knowledge of biology or statistics or British romantic poets.  An A  would indicate a strong and deep understanding of those subjects.  And we arrive at the first conundrum…who is giving those grades?  Is their scale the same as ours?  The second conundrum is implicit.  It is very possible that the C student has the same strong and deep understanding of the subject as the A student but didn’t bother to turn in a paper, or just had a bad day during final exams.  So, the grade is already muddied.  It is not just an indicator of subject knowledge.  It is also an indicator of work completed.

Interestingly, the grade as evaluation tool is for the academic institutions’ use (Have you learned enough basic chemistry that you’ll be able to grasp organic chem?  Have you exhibited enough learning and work that we’ll let you into our law school?), but it is the students who really focus on it.  “Will this affect my grade?”  “Is this going to be graded?”  While there may be some fields where employers consider collegiate performance, most do not.  Over the course of my career I hired hundreds of people and interviewed thousands.  I never once asked what grade someone received in English 101.  Grades really only matter if you’re continuing your education.  The old joke goes, “What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of his class in Med. school?  Doctor.”

It is easy for me to tell my students that I care more about what they learn than what grade they earn.  The grade matters to them because they want to get into nursing school or just for their own measurement of self worth.  The fact that we have ingrained in students a connection between value as a person and a letter grade is itself a massive topic of concern.  So, the act of grading becomes a grave responsibility.

Students rightfully expect grading to be fair and objective.  It isn’t.  The best I can do as an educator is strive to be as fair and objective as possible, but what I think is critical is to also be consistent.  I primarily teach English courses, and I grade lots of essays.  I create detailed rubrics delineating what I am analyzing and what makes a specific element good, bad, or mediocre.  At the end of the day, it is still me, with all my biases, deciding if, for example, a student’s thesis statement is clearly stated, provocative, and relevant.  What if I’m in a bad mood the day I’m grading?  What if I really like or dislike particular students? (Yes, it’s true.  Teachers are human.)  I try to be very cognizant of such factors and take steps to neutralize them, but they exist.  For example, I grade every essay twice to account for maybe being annoyed that the Red Sox lost the first time I graded.  What if I’m really happy because Chris Sale struck out twelve the second time I grade?  Into the swamp we sink….

This subjectivity is present even in courses with obvious right and wrong answers.  A math teacher’s subjectivity may not be evident in grading the answer to 2+2, but what questions that teacher puts on an exam eases that test right into the murky swamp.  What happens if every student gets an A on that math teacher’s test?  What if every student fails?  The math teacher has probably thought about that, and the test questions are selected to avoid both extremes.  The teacher has subjectively created a curve wherein some expected amount of students will get A’s, some larger amount will get B’s and C’s, and some few will fail.

Thus far, I’ve only considered myself and my hypothetical math teacher.  What about the thousands of other English instructors at the thousands of other institutions?  Even if we all started with the same textbook and the same syllabus and the same assessments, (and we definitely don’t) what is the chance that my A student has the same knowledge as Professor Dumbledore’s A student?  Probably zero.  It is likely that both A students have a strong grasp of the content.  We start sinking into the swamp at the center of the curve.  Is my idea of “satisfactory,” i.e. a C, the same as Dumbledore’s?  Maybe my concept of a C is Dumbledore’s idea of a B.

So, a grade is partially indicative of subject knowledge, but it is also indicative that a student did or did not turn in an assignment by an arbitrary deadline.  It is likely that an A student has subject mastery.  However, a C grade does not conclusively indicate less subject mastery.  The grade is the product of an individual teacher’s subjective appraisal or predetermined distribution of outcomes.  It may or may not be comparable to another grade from another teacher or institution.

All this uncertainty for the certainty of one of five letters that we’ve conditioned students is the be all end all of their academic lives.




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So, who hates clean water?

It has become our new normal to get up each day and see what cringe inducing actions our president has taken.  While we rightfully focus on his unsubstantiated tweets about phone taps, the lies of his cabinet, and the rabbit hole that seems to be his administration’s ties to Russia, the GOP is going on their merry legislative way.  I struggle to understand their objectives, and I am at a complete loss as to why their supporters don’t have the same struggle.

Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida has introduced bill HR861 to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.  Terminate.  He doesn’t want to restrict or modify the EPA.  He wants to eliminate it.  The EPA’s purpose is to ensure a clean, safe environment for us.  Is there really a big right wing outcry for dirtier water?  Yes, I understand some may feel the EPA has regulatory overreach and inhibits commerce.  There is a rational debate to be had there.  Is there anyone who thinks eliminating the EPA won’t result in a substantial degradation of our air and water quality?  Who is for that?

Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced bill HR899 to terminate the Department of Education.  The assumption is that it can be administered at the state level.  Who will decide distribution of federal financial aid?  Who knows…maybe he wants to eliminate that as well.  Incidentally, Massie’s state is not exactly doing a bang up job in the education department.

HR147 allows a father to sue the doctor who performs an abortion.  HR785 makes a national “right to work” law and essentially kills unions.  HR354 defunds Planned Parenthood.  It goes on and on.

Who benefits from these proposed laws?  Do they help the average Republican voter?  If so, how?  Red states have substantially worse environmental quality than blue states with the EPA.  Republicans ought to be seeking to make the EPA stronger instead of eliminating it.  Blue states have far better education than red states.  Wouldn’t a Republican voter be demanding their representatives strengthen the Department of Education?

Say HR899 and HR861 pass and become law.  The EPA and Department of Education disappear.  We tree hugging, academic elitist, liberal states will probably be okay.  We’ll pass state mandates for air quality or education spending.  Which states won’t do that?  The red ones.  So, these actions will primarily affect those who support them.  Why would you support something that will diminish your quality of life?

I assume most of these bills are the result of lobbyists and campaign contributions.  Our representatives are lining their own pockets, and I fully acknowledge that both sides of the aisle do this.  To answer my own previous question, a select few special interests benefit.  I think that is the full list of beneficiaries.  If you can prove that the average citizen benefits from industrial waste being dumped into our water supply, I’d love to hear it.  If you say “jobs” you’re going to have to show me the math because I don’t buy it.

So, back to my head scratching.  Who hates clean water?  How many Republicans are business owners?  Whatever that number, it is fewer than the number of Republicans who are employees.  Why support eliminating unions?  The party of “less government” wants to defund Planned Parenthood and create federal community health centers.   Isn’t that counter intuitive?

I’m at a loss…


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Trump sucks as a leader…

So, we all heard the campaign rhetoric.  Trump is successful!  He gets shit done!  He knows how to run large organizations.  I imagine that seemed good to some.  Well, they were sold a bill of goods.

Trump sucks as a leader.  He even sucks as a manager, and I think managers are the bane of corporate hierarchies.

We’re essentially a month in.  Here’s what we have:

*Signature “get shit done” piece of work is the Muslim ban (he called it a ban so save the dispute.)  It is widely protested and blown up in court….twice.

*National Security Advisor forced to resign because of illegal activity with a foreign government.  Trump says information is false while simultaneously saying leaks are a huge concern and will be pursued.  He used “huge” several times.

*Calls the press the “enemy of the people.”

*Says he inherited a huge mess from Obama.

*Publicly insults an American company for dropping his daughter’s products.

*Has a foreign threat security meeting in a restaurant dining room.

*Makes up terrorist attacks to fortify his narrative.

We can debate his questionable cabinet picks or his seeming desire to unravel every law that inhibits the select few from making more money.  I’ll concede every one of those.  My point is he is a piece of shit leader.

I don’t think any of my bullet points are debatable.  They are widely reported (even by the media he deems valid), and in most cases we have video of him saying it.

What, in those, suggests he is a leader?  To me, he seems more like a juvenile throwing tantrum after tantrum.  A leader might think through events so that his “huge” act isn’t found unconstitutional.  A leader might use “extreme vetting” on people we entrust to protect our national security.  One of his first hires is a traitor?  Not good leadership.

Think of the great leaders you know.  How many of them blame everything on everyone else?  How many of them use positional power to bully?  Even more important, bully those they swore to serve?  Which leaders you admire lie…all the time?  Which of your favorite leaders lack judgment?

What leaders blame their poor performance on others, whether true or not?  What leaders complain that things are unfair, whether true or not?  What leaders publicly criticize those who work for them?

Trump is a piece of shit.  The one thing he was supposed to be is a leader.  He’s a horrendous piece of shit at that.  Every business leader should be embarrassed by him.

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You’re not a patriot…

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

That is the first amendment of our constitution.  Journalism is the only profession explicitly named in the document that has made America unique in human history.  Our founding fathers recognized that a free press would act as an alert whistle to government overreach.

Today, our beloved leader called the press, “the opposition party.”

He takes offense at the media doing their jobs, the jobs the architects of our exquisite constitution found so crucial.  This follows our sitting president’s efforts to undermine and destroy well established institutions of journalism.

Think about that.  Our president is deliberately exerting his power to marginalize a news outlet that publishes content critical of him.  Our president opposes the first amendment.

I don’t like the second amendment.  I don’t like guns.  I still fully support gun owners and their rights because I believe in our constitution.  Nobody, not even the president, gets to select ala carte which parts of our constitution they believe to be valid.

We have systems in place to amend our constitution.  Don’t like part of it?  Work to amend it.  Don’t subvert it.  Especially, don’t subvert it if you’re the…um, president.

Don….I’ll call him Don because a president who disrespects the constitution I served to protect and the office I was bound to follow as the highest in the chain of command….doesn’t deserve my respect and insults the title of President, you are not a patriot.  You’re an insult to real Americans.  Real patriots died for our constitution.  You had bone spurs.  Now you’re having a tantrum that is unconstitutional.  It isn’t the press’ job to confirm the narrative you want.  It is their job to call bullshit.  A real patriot would celebrate that.

You’ve already diminished the office by your tweets, but please, by all means, show us the fake news the NY Times published.  Man up, you twitter bitch.  Put some actual facts in your posts.  “People tell me,” does not constitute evidence.  Your butt hurt does not make the Times fake news.  Until you produce something tangible, your words are sedition.

What do you have to prove to us that your disregard for our constitution is valid?

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And then came the taxi drivers…

Well, we’re one week into the regime.  After previously criticizing president Obama for his use of Executive Orders, our Beloved Leader whipped them out so fast this week that he didn’t have time to spray tan.  Notice how he’s significantly less orange now?

Sooo, we had the removal of scientific data, a gag order placed on our government agencies communicating with us (you know, We the People?), a continued temper tantrum about the press and the election, and we banned all incoming travel from a group of Middle East countries.  Fortunately, we did not have to ban travel from countries where Beloved Leader has investments.  Whew!  (Yes, I know those are the countries where the 9/11 attackers actually came from.  Remember, we now have a government mandated narrative.)

A funny thing happened on the way to the empire.  Resistance came from unexpected sources.  It started with the Badlands National Park tweeting pesky scientific facts.  They were quickly shut down but not before they went viral. In what seems to be a planned response, they were quickly joined by @altusforestservice, @altFDA, @altEPA, and (my favorite) @RogueNASA.

Our scientists and conservationists, people whose careers are about protecting us and our land and advancing our knowledge, are the ones saying, “we will not go quietly into the night.” (Independence Day quote is totally for Rogue NASA.)  These people are, at the very least, risking their careers and paychecks to tell us our leadership may be bat shit crazy, but they’re going to be called on it.

Right now, legal U.S. residents are being denied entry to the country.  Why?  Because they are originally from one of those “terrorist factory” states our Beloved Leader  has vowed to crush.  These are teachers, students, doctors, engineers, or artists.  They are working here and helping advance our society.  “Nope, sorry, can’t come back in.  Sucks that your children are still in our country.”

We’re also not taking any immigrants from these countries for the foreseeable future.  So, we have three big issues.  First, we just became world class dicks.  Second, Beloved Leader followed up by saying Christians in these very bad countries would be given preferential treatment so we have a violation of church and state.  Third, want to create more terrorists?  A good place to start is by telling people you don’t like them or trust them, you don’t need them, and you don’t care about them.  YAY US!  Beloved Leader told the world we were assholes, violated our constitution, and put us more at risk.  In his first week!

Each of those topics deserve their own post or twelve.  I want to go back to our badass scientists.  I don’t know that many of us thought the Park Rangers and quantum physicists would be the first to draw a line in the sand.  Right now, NYC taxi drivers have called a work stoppage to JFK airport.  I’ve been in a lot of New York cabs.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a driver who was born in America.  They are a melting pot of immigrants from all over working their asses off, and they just said, “Fuck you, Beloved Leader.  We provide an essential and critical service, and we’re going to stop because you don’t want us here.”

While Rogue NASA makes me so happy, the NYC cabbies are doing some serious shit.  Beloved Leader and his cabinet and his pals are all about getting that almighty buck.  I’d say they are business people, but given his bankruptcies and half his staff came from Goldman Sachs, they’re not very good at it, and it would be an insult to business people.

Know what business people hate?  Disruption to the orderly collection of profits.  Know what happens when taxis refuse to go to JFK?  A disruption of the orderly collection of profits.  Know what ruthless business people do when there is a disruption to the orderly collection of profits?  They turn on their own.  Someone has to take the fall for missing the quarterlies or a plunge in the markets.

Who will be next?  Plumbers?  Sanitation workers?  Who knows?  I just anxiously wait for the next group to say, “Fuck you, Cheetoh.”  When enough start doing it, Wall Street will pay attention.  That will be the end of Beloved Leader.

Next time I’m in NYC, I am way overtipping my driver!



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Is this what it looks like?

Is this what the birth of a regime and the end of a democracy look like?  I don’t intend to be melodramatic with that question.  I ask it honestly.

This week our government began deleting web pages.  These weren’t just “position” pages.  They included actual science and study.  Now they’re gone.  This week our government issued a gag order.  Only the trusted inner circle could use social media.

I was on the Badlands National Park  twitter feed when the posts were deleted.  These weren’t political posts.  They were statements of scientific fact such as, “The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm).  As of December, 2016, 404.93 ppm.”  I watched the posts disappear because they didn’t fit the mandated narrative.  Think about that.  We now have a government mandated narrative.

This week we were introduced to “alternative facts.”  These are even more scary than censorship.  We can delete information such as pre-industrial CO2 concentration and hope people forget.  Alternative facts tell us to disbelieve what we saw.  I watched the inauguration and thought, “Huh.  A lot of empty spaces and seats.”  Now I’m told it was a record breaking attendance.  My own sensory input is wrong.

Data is eliminated, and we are told how to think.  Is that open government or the beginning of something different?  Our new leader continues to seek validation and announces an investigation into a voter fraud narrative that has already been thoroughly debunked.  Why?

My social media feed is filled with scared and angry people.  Is that statistically representative?  I doubt it.  How is it different from, “People tell me…”?  How many times have we heard Trump say, “People tell me it’s great.”  What people?  Where?  When?  We don’t get those answers so my social media feed is just as valid.  I can at least identify the people.  Our citizenry is worried.  What does our president do to alleviate those concerns?  Nothing.

Today, our president put his signature on denying Muslims into our country and announced he was proceeding with his wall.  The wall is a symbol.  It won’t accomplish anything, and his vehement spending cuts supporters don’t care that it will cost hundreds of billions.  Know who else has a wall?  China.  Is that whom we’re emulating?  Psst…authoritarian rule throughout their history.

It all seems like Orwell was a visionary.  Is it?  I hope not.  We’re in week one, and our scientists, our conservationists are already hiding and posting from anonymous (I hope for them) accounts.

What will week two look like?

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Quantifying loss

I see a lot of social media posts about the grim reaper that 2016 has been.  It certainly seems like it has taken a higher than usual toll on our cherished celebrities.  Two days ago, we had to put my dog, Bailey, down.  It has been a sad time in our house.  To occupy my head, I started thinking about quantifying loss.  Is it possible to objectively say this year has been worse than others?

First, let me be clear that the loss of a loved one is devastating to those close to that person…or pet.  I am not suggesting one death is a greater loss than another to the friends and family of the deceased.  I am exploring how that loss affects us, the general public.

The first criteria I established was level of fame.  Here is a list of celebrities who died in 2016.   I don’t even know who some of these people are.  I researched methods of measuring fame, but they are inexact at best.  A rudimentary approach is a simple google search of the person and how many responses come back.  This is skewed by the actual death, and it can’t be measured retroactively.  I can’t google Natalie Cole in 2015.  What I can determine is how famous someone is to me, and I can make assumptions about general public awareness.  I doubt many people don’t know who Muhammad Ali is.

Next I added current relevance.  While probably every American knows who Nancy Reagan is, making her fame level very high, how many of us have really thought about her in the last twenty years?

There is a marked difference in response to the death of Fidel Castro and say, Gene Wilder.  To account for this, I added “belovedness.”  For Harry Potter fans, Alan Rickman, who portrayed the ultimately heroic and devoted Snape, was truly cherished.

The unexpected celebrity deaths seem to punch us in the collective gut even more.  To at least partially account for this, I indexed age against U.S. life expectancy for men and women.  I recognize that not all celebrity deaths are American, but I am exploring American reaction to them.  Our life expectancy for a male is 76 years so we respond to the death of a British actor in relation to our frame of reference.  So, David Bowie’s death at 69 is 91% of life expectancy.

I ended up with this formula:  Response = (Fame + Relevance + Belovedness) +/- Age Index.

So, Abe Vigoda passing away at 94 looks like this:  F5 +R2 + B8 – AI 23% = Response of 12.  By comparison, George Michael dying at 53, with fame of 8, relevance of 4, belovedness of 8 and an age index of +30% has a response score of 26.

For me, who came of age in the eighties, David Bowie has a score of 29.7.  Prince has a 32.5.  And, with a resurgent relevance score due to her return as Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher has a punch me right in the feels score of 34.

By comparison, 2015 did not have a single celebrity death with a response score above 28.  We lost Leonard Nimoy and B.B. King last year, but they were much older.  Maureen O’Hara was certainly beloved, but she was 95 and long out of our collective consciousness.

Robin Williams, in 2014, received a 33 but was far and away the highest score.

I calculated the notable celebrity deaths of other years, and I can say with the exact precision of inexact science and questionable math, to quote my better half, “2016 sucked dick.”  I would speculate that the values I applied in each formulation at least approximate a median response.

So, you can calculate for yourself or quote me as an expert.  2016 was, in fact, an epic shithole of a year as far as losses of icons go.

Incidentally, my dog passing away at only 8 years old, gets a response score of 36.  So, 2016, fuck you and good riddance.

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