Maph Week 5: If I’d wanted an “A” I’d have gone to Yale

University of Chicago and Yale worked closely in the design of U of C’s official seal.

Walk around U of C’s campus for more than a day or two and you are bound to see striking examples of the university’s thriving counter-culture.  No, I’m not talking about the girl with bubble-gum pink hair or the guy with all the tattoos, I am instead referring to the T-shirts.  Probably the most common is the ever popular “University of Chicago: Where fun comes to die,” but I have also seen “That’s fine in practice, but how does it work in theory?” and “Where the squirrels are more aggressive than the boys.”  The very best combination of art and frame was one of the notoriously difficult “superstar” profs doing his grocery shopping in a shirt that read “Where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA.”  To wear one of these shirts is–paradoxically–both to register a protest against the U of C and its prevailing academic culture and to slyly advertize the superiority of that alma mater and its intellectually rigorous culture over other schools.  The best example of this reading is a shirt I saw yesterday evening on a mini-skirted coed announcing “If I’d wanted an “A” I’d have gone to Yale.”

Welcome to the fifth weekly installment of my personal appraisal of the University of Chicago’s MAPH (Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities) in which I’d like to address the thorny issue of grades.  Now, I’m not sure if this is U of C’s attempt to curb the rising tide of grade inflation, the result of the current incoming class of MAPH students being replaced by lobotomized Danes, or yet another example of another U of C grade system that defies convention and explanation, but it appears that the aforementioned t-shirt is startlingly accurate: it appears you can not get an “A” in the MAPH program.

Now this is a hotly contested claim and is open to correction should–at some point in the future–some change in the evaluative system be revealed, but as it sits–seven weeks into the Foundations of Interpretive Theory (that is, the MAPH Core course) it is not possible to get an “A.”  The evaluative structure consists of four papers, each an analytic exposition of one of the texts that we have read for class.  The first was due just one week into class and on Freud’s Three Essays.  The second was due two weeks ago and on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit.  The highest grade given on the first paper to anyone–so near as any of us can tell–was a “B+/A-” and the vast majority of students received a “B” or a “B-.”  Precept groups were informed that the second paper was graded even more harshly than the first such that if a student was able to earn the same grade on the second as they had on the first that grade was actually equal to one step higher on the grading scale.  I received a B on my first paper and a B on my second paper which would thus be equivalent to a B+ by the standards of the first paper.  It appears that no one received a grade higher than a B+ on the second paper.

So, what’s wrong with a “B” from a top flight school like U of C?  Well, for starters, my fellow MAPH students and I were informed that a “B-” would be the lowest possible grade that we could receive in any of our courses and pass the program.  Thus, a “B-” is actually equivalent to an D in any of the regular classes.  However, in the case of the core course, it is necessary to pass with at least a “B,” rather than a “B-,” in order to graduate with a master of arts sheep skin.  So, in the Foundations of Interpretive Theory, a B- is equivalent to an “F.”  If all that weren’t bad enough, the news has been leaked among the MAPHers that at least some professors do not allow students with grades lower than an “A-” in their discipline (e.g. a “B+” in a philosophy course) to take further classes in that discipline.

Now, it is possible that U of C will pull out some last-minute “participation” grades from their collective hats just in time to save all of our bacon, but the question remains–why is it not possible for even one of us to legitimately earn an “A?”  Now, I understand the idea that grade distribution does not have to be a linear distribution or a bell curve.  I had to work infinitely harder in my undergrad education to keep a 4.0 than I would have had to work to keep a 3.75.  I also understand that this core course seems to function almost like a “hazing,” in which we are all intellectually abused so as to cause us to adopt a collective identity as MAPH students and prepare us for the challenge of competing for grades with Ph.D. candidates.  But none of that answers the question “why has the grading scale been collapsed so that an “B-” is a failing grade and a B+/A- is the highest attainable mark?”

Perhaps this is the University of Chicago way.  Perhaps we are to made aware of our own scholastic failings to such an extent that we both strive after excellence and are willing to accept whatever evaluative scraps fall from the tables of our preceptors and professors.  Perhaps I am being baptized by fire into the arbitrary and political gamesmanship of the academic world.  However, whatever the reason for this artificial evaluative horror purports to be, it sucks.  I felt less beaten down by Oxford.  My friends at Yale’s divinity school and Princeton’s lit Ph.d.–who also graduated from my alma mater–tell me that their time at those school’s graduate programs have been only a little more rigorously evaluated than their undergrad courses.  It seems entirely plausible that if I’d wanted an “A,” I should have attended Yale.

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2 comments on “Maph Week 5: If I’d wanted an “A” I’d have gone to Yale

  1. Two things of note:

    T-shirt seen yesterday: “U Chicago: Because I was wait-listed at Hogwarts.” Clever, yes, but also an interesting commentary on the fact that U Chicago is only slightly less difficult than an imaginary school wherein students seem to have been regularly and somewhat randomly killed.

    Secondly, I came out of my shiny state school with it’s top-30 ranked (by the Holy Father Brian Leiter himself) continental program with a 4.0, summa cum laude, having worked my ass off to get that. My undergrad thesis was strong, my papers were strong, my understanding relatively strong. Sure, I was a little wild on the creative side, given to wild flights of fanciful supposition, but no less taken by the poetics of philosophy than Nietzsche or Heidegger or (the oft-maligned but misunderstood) Derrida. That is to say, I worked out, bulked up my muscles, honed my writing chops, and could strut down the philosophical beach proudly displaying my intellectual physique.

    But now. Now I am again the 90-pound weakling. I write with what feels like incisive, insightful clarity, and still I am in the morass of fellow MAPHers reaching up out of the depths for this mythical thing we used to know, this “A,” this grade that exists now only in myth and legend. (To be fair, I do know one of our cohort achieved an A/A-. But many others did far worse.) As I said to one of our precept cohorts, I felt the comments on my paper amounted to, “You did really excellent work on this paper, in a mediocre sort of way.”

    And so I, too, vacillate between wanting to strive ever harder and resign to weep into my already over-moistened pillow.

    But god, I do want that A.

  2. maphman says:

    Hey Bill, thank you for your comments! I wonder if it would be possible to transfer to Hogwarts? My sense is that even being killed during your program there would still allow one to have an academic afterlife–as in the case of Moaning Myrtle–while having my grades killed at U of C will likely end both my academic and professional lives without the possibility of haunting any ivory towers.

    I am actually very please to hear that someone attained the–now–superhuman standard of “A-/A” as that proves that MAPHers are not dealing with an arbitrary grade ceiling. However, “far worse” is a chilling thought. I feel I have a pretty good grasp on the capabilities of our fellows and I find it hard to believe that any of them deserved anything BELOW failing (the dreaded B-).

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