I’ll try to hold back my relief at having just finished grading final papers for the first semester. Grading has probably been one of the most stressful parts of this whole process for me. Having done this for a semester later I still haven’t come up with an evaluative system which I am really satisfied with. The biggest problem is the disparity in English–as I mentioned last time, the gap makes it really difficult to cater to the whole class at once. The girls in the first several rows have no difficulty communicating verbally in English, and their written work is understandable and shows a fairly complex command of grammar and vocabulary. Nearly half of the class, however, has difficulty stringing together several sentences of spoken English together, and judging by the content of their written work can understand only the general meaning of my lectures. I have no doubt that this is at least in part reflective of the huge difference in English education that they would have received in high school depending on which part of the country they are from.
This presents a major challenge for a teacher hoping to judge class performance. While I understand that this class is meant in part to be a language platform and cater to their difficulties with English, I nonetheless see myself as a history teacher first: having focused on historical content and narrative, I only feel comfortable testing them on their ability to comprehend historical patterns and make arguments based on historical knowledge. I have no interest in testing or evaluating them on grammar, language, or mechanics. But when previous language ability is so clearly tied to their ability to comprehend lectures and to express their opinions on the material, how do I separate the two? As a result, my general attitude has been to grade leniently, ignoring linguistic mistakes entirely and offering generous marks for any student who demonstrated significant effort or who displayed at least the rudimentary ability to make a supported argument. While this seemed to work well for most of the semester, it’s come back to haunt me at the end as I confront yet another wall: the rigid grade curve that Beida uniformly imposes upon all of its classes. Throughout the university, no professor is allowed to give a grade higher than an 85% to more than 30% of their students (which in my 52-person class, comes out to 15.6 students).
The discovery of this policy was a source of great unease for me, though I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise. There’s hardly an aspect of living this country that isn’t highly competitive–that much is clear from the first time you try to step on a subway at rush hour. The education system, though, is particularly brutal–I have heard all manner of horror stories from my undergrad friends and the draconian study schedules they all undergo in high school in order to do well enough on the college entrance exam (Gao Kao 高考) to get into Beida. While the competition seems to lighten a little bit in college, the university still seems to adopt the attitude that grading should be a process of weeding out the weak rather than awarding effort. The highly competitive nature has made me even more unwilling to award anything that would significantly hinder their GPA in their first semester of college. My general solution has been to award a lot of 84’s.