To Fight Grade Inflation in the Humanities, Add Context

Andrew Perrin:

“You don’t understand,” the student said. “This is sociology. I took this class to increase my GPA. It wasn’t supposed to be hard!”

It was my first semester on the faculty, and the student had come to my office to complain about the grade she’d earned on the first paper for my sociology class: a B-minus. I had explained to her why the grade was appropriate, and one she could feel proud of. (UNC’s official grade system says the B range indicates “strong performance demonstrating a high level of attainment,” and that “the student has shown solid promise in the aspect of the discipline under study.”) But the student remained dissatisfied.

Alongside too many such conversations I’ve had, I’m happy to say that there have been at least as many with genuinely curious students who want to explore the material and see where it takes them. But the governing assumption—particularly in relatively humanistic fields like mine—that merely adequate performance deserves an A makes it difficult to document or reward the outstanding work of such curious young minds. That is why I became an advocate for curtailing grade inflation and grading inequality.

When A stands for average.