Manly Men, Macho Grades, and a Proposal to Recognize "Excellence"

by Neil H. Buchanan

Trying to keep our corner of society running as well as possible under scary circumstances, professors in colleges and universities nationwide have responded to the global pandemic by changing our grading systems for (what we hope will only need to be) the current semester.  The most cynical way to describe such changes is that grading is now "easier," which is freaking out the guardians of nerd machismo in the academy.

I cannot possibly improve on my Dorf on Law co-blogger Diane Klein's magnum opus from this past Friday, in which she systematically dismantled the arguments recently on offer from three law professors who have railed against the temporary grading changes -- although, as Professor Klein points out, it is frequently unclear whether their complaint is actually about curved grading more generally or, perhaps, simply an objection to noticing that our students are human beings who differ from each other in relevant ways.

Again, the Klein essay is masterful.  Although it is longer than the usual Dorf on Law fare, the subject demands extended analysis and she delivers.  It is well worth readers' time.

Here, I want to do two things.  First, I will add some observations in support of the obvious fact that these pro-tough-grading arguments are a bizarre form of what we might call performance masculinity.  Second, I will argue that, at their very best, those arguments actually support not a "rigorous" grading system but simply a grading lottery.

No, your eyes did not deceive you.  I am saying that the argument from the manly men, when taken to its logical conclusion in conjunction with what we know about our students' differences during the crisis, leads to the conclusion that we should simply assign letter grades via a random number generator.

I am not saying that this is a good idea, mind you.  I am saying that it would have been better than keeping grade distinctions (including "high passes" or "satisfactory-plus" grades) in the way that the protectors of manhood wanted us to do.

I have always been bemused by the phenomenon of the tough-guy academic, but one particular example has stayed with me.  Earlier in my career, at the end of my first year as a professor at what I will call Law School X, the school was up for its periodic accrediting review, as part of which the faculty held a retreat.

At its best, a faculty retreat gives colleagues the opportunity to meet in ways that we do not normally meet (faculty meetings or random hallway conversations) and to discuss institutional matters that we normally pass off to committees or ignore entirely.  At its worst, such a retreat is yet another opportunity for the biggest blowhards on the faculty to poison the atmosphere.  Ahem.

One of the small-group meeting sessions was devoted to students' mental health, a notorious and longstanding issue in American law schools, where the intensity of the first-year program predictably creates distress among large numbers of students.  The small group in which I participated began well, with the group leader talking about the extent of the problem and how Law School X might address it, based on what other law schools had been trying.  Good faith engagement with the issue prevailed.

And then the manly-man spoke up.  "Well," he said through his perma-smirk, "I think 1L should be harder, not easier.  I mean, I was bored for my whole first year.  I'd finish each day's reading early in the afternoon and have nothing to do for the rest of the day."  All right, then obviously every law student's experience should be made more difficult and stressful because this guy claims (and I frankly think he was making it up) that he was insufficiently busy during law school.

The reason this incident amused me so much (even as it worried me, given what attitudes like that can mean for our students) is that I had been through a graduate economics program where the entire ethos was built on the attitude that being rigorous, tough, and so on was the measure of personal worth.  The equivalent of having "ripped abs" was strutting one's math skills in ways that dazzled the other math nerds.

By no means was I a mere observer.  Like most people who end up in economics Ph.D. programs, I had grown up as the best math student in my town, acing all of the aptitude tests and entrance exams, and so on.  I say that not with pride but as a matter of fact that is merely a reflection of winning a genetic lottery and then being raised in a family that encouraged rather than discouraged academic achievement.  I entered grad school just as committed to math-nerd macho as anyone else.

Although some of the math-macho guys might be playing out psychological dramas from having been bullied as kids, not all of us are "pencil-necked geeks."  But even the ones who do not look the part, including the occasional varsity scholar athlete who has won the genetic lottery twice over, have childhood memories of being ridiculed for being eggheads.  In adulthood, some of us grow up and move on, but others never get over the sense that they were wrongly tormented.  Now it is their turn.

And to be clear, they like the grading system in American universities because it validated their superiority.  "I'm brilliant, and the current system recognized my brilliance.  Why would I want the system to change in response to the losers who cannot do differential equations in their heads?"  Admitting that the system might be flawed undercuts their masculinity in ways that are best avoided -- especially the idea that they are simply lucky, not inherently superior in a deep sense.

Note that this nerd machismo is not limited to economists and the econo-wannabes who form a sub-population of law school professors (including my preening former colleague), but it is particularly strong there.  This is in part because economists themselves are forever engaged in an elaborate ritual of proving that they are scientists (hence the non-Nobel Prize's designation as a "Prize in Economic Sciences"), all the while trying to imitate "hard sciences."  (Hard as a rock.)

This attitude also carries over to the political realm, where fake "policy geeks" like former House Speaker Paul Ryan (who always had his bar graphs at the ready) build their reputations by scolding poor people for being poor, untalented, and shiftless.  It is a world in which virtue just happens to be found in whatever the "haves" have, bizarrely including inherited wealth.  The advice to "choose your parents wisely" is especially apt, because it is not just a matter of being born with academic-friendly mental abilities but being given unearned money to put those skills to use -- or not, in the case of wastrel "trust fund kids" who would rather do cocaine than work (all without worrying about being jailed, thanks to Dad's connections).

Am I contemptuous of these people?  Ubetcha.  Anyone who can look at the privileged place that academics occupy in their worlds -- and even more so, that the children of the powerful occupy without even being able to excel academically (see, e.g., Jared Kushner) -- and think "I truly deserve this" (in some profound and non-contingent way) is deluded.  That is not a reason to dismantle the entire system, of course, but it ought at least to be a reason not to assert so confidently that any change to the system is an assault on "excellence" or some crabbed form of merit.

People come to law schools knowing that the system is already rigged in favor of some people in various ways.  Abilities to memorize, to read and comprehend quickly, and to think syllogistically are unevenly distributed.  So are family situations, living accommodations, the need to take on part-time jobs, and so on.  Life is unfair, but the unfairnesses are known, and people go to law school thinking that even if it is not a fair fight in some Platonic sense, at least it is somewhat predictable and controllable through one's own efforts and smaller bits of good and bad luck (such as waking up on the day of an exam just sick enough to do poorly but not so sick as to justify rescheduling).

But now, things have fallen apart.  I received an email from a student who was not arguing for grading accommodation but was simply explaining why he would not be able to follow my rule in the virtual classroom to turn on one's camera (so that I can verify attendance).  When my university sent our students home, he returned to another southern state, where the local university was (sensibly) barring non-students from entering buildings.  But the wifi signal could be captured, with these limitations:
"Currently I have to drive to my local university and sit in the back of my car in the parking lot and use their WiFi. Yes, I am able to get on as of now but it isn’t great. It kicked me off during another session and it has static sometimes as well as a little lag here and there. So I do not think I will be able to do video or audio. Also, I wanted you to be aware that the current situation makes it difficult to concentrate because I’m in the car with the windows down but I’m sweating profusely and also on my book and notes. Also with the windows down I can hear the traffic etc drive by so it’s constant distractions. Also wasps try to fly in the car, etc. I don’t want to leave the car running because I’ve heard it ruins the engine, it’s wasteful and arguably harmful to the environment."
Yow!  I think it is moving that he actually is still thinking about the environment under so many other stresses.  But the point is that, whatever else this young man was facing as a student before now, these new challenges are unique.  Similarly, other students who waited to enter law school until their kids were old enough to go to school now find themselves spending time as home schoolers.  (I see some of them in my virtual classes, with grade-school-age children in the background.)  No matter what one thought about how fair or unfair life was before now, nobody signed up for this with anything resembling "notice."

Even so, the defenders of academic rigor pushed back hard against the idea that the current situation is so extreme as to justify temporarily moving to a pass/fail system.  Some simply disparage the idea that we should care at all about a "haves versus have-nots" divide, because all we should care about is performance.  It does not matter why the student did better than others, only that he (and to be clear, because of the imbalance in caregiving expectations, it will usually be a he) did well on an exam.

But for my money, the most fascinating argument (as Professor Klein's piece noted) is that each law school should understand that employers care about grades, so when we "take away grades" from our supposedly best students, we are ceding jobs to students from other, less coddling law schools.

Leaving aside the broader question of whether inter-law school competition of this sort should be anyone's focus, we can assume that some number of legal employers will in fact be so narrow-minded as to be focused on whether job candidates have Spring 2020 grades.  I suspect that there will be very few of them, but I will concede that the number will be above zero.  Especially in law, encrusted thinking has remarkable staying power.

The problem is that, if we insist on something more fine-grained than pass/fail grades to denote "excellence" and thus to signal to employers that these particular students are the cream of the crop, we are lying to the employers.  The students who get the best grades will now predictably be those whose personal situations (including their unearned abilities to maintain mental focus in a time of unprecedented stress) happened to break in the right way.  It is not that the inherently best law students will still show their superiority but that better exam performance will correlate with something other than what we have always expected it to correlate.  (And to be clear, if we are giving grades so that some of our students can compete for elite jobs, then we are not going to reduce the number of top grades.)

I have no doubt that my former colleague at Law School X would dismiss these concerns, saying that excellence is excellence, that exams are all we have, or something.  Defending his threatened manhood requires continuing to believe that the system is fair even under extreme duress.  But even if I am being too disdainful, or if I am misreading his reasons for being so committed to "the virtues of hard work and mental superiority," the point is that there are those who simply insist that some of our students deserve -- and they do mean deserve -- to be awarded with high grades.

Hence my modest proposal.  If the idea is that each law school needs to protect the ability of some fraction of its students to earn A's (or HP's, or whatever), so that they can compete for high-status jobs, we can do that.  But because we know that the people who will "earn" the highest grades are not competing on what we used to accept as a fair playing field, we need to ask how to adjust.

The students who will not do as well on their exams this semester have lost various lotteries along the way, and the pandemic has exposed still more immutable unfairnesses.  So if we do need to give "some A's" to signal to employers that some of our students are somehow meritorious, why not simply give out high grades at random (and not tell employers or students)?

We are not doing that, of course, which is good.  But here is an additional thought.  If we had done something like this, the students who would have won what is a literal lottery would have quickly concluded that they deserved the advantages that they received.  And at some point, their nerd macho would be on display as they strutted around believing that they know what excellence is and that they embody it.  "It's not my fault that the system recognized my greatness, but why should I deny it?"  What manly man could disagree?