Writing Sems Dept. re-evaluates grading

By ABBY BIESMAN

The Writing Seminars department reviewed its grading policy for the fall semester, eliminating the A+ grade and more concretely outlining how high grades are given.

Mary Jo Salter, co-chair of the Writing Seminars Department, discussed this process.

“I’m not aware of any grading policy being set out explicitly in this department since I came to The Writing Seminars in 2007,” Salter wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “That’s one reason we decided to do an overview of grading.”

The decision, which was not motivated by any specific request from upper University administration, was made after evaluating the average grades of Writing Seminars students over the past year. A high percentage of students were receiving grades of A and A+.

“We think these A’s were often, in fact, deserved,” Salter wrote. “On the other hand, we felt we needed to discuss among ourselves what kinds of work merits an A, so that the A continues to give meaningful feedback to students. Our only explicit policy change was to eliminate the A+.”

The department has no plans to add quotas, target percentages or a bell curve. There were no recommendations about shifting grade averages, and Salter did not discuss any explicit standardization of grading across Writing Seminars courses.

“It should not be much easier for students to earn an A in one Writing Seminars course than in another,” Salter wrote.

The revision of the grades was designed to best reflect students’ work.

“At the Writing Seminars, we see grades as much less helpful to the students than the extensive comments, both oral and written, that come from both the professor and from students in classes,” Salter wrote. “Nonetheless, grades are seen as necessary at the University, and so we aim to make our grades as accurate a record of student achievement as possible.”

The overall approach to grading has not changed and students should maintain a similar work pattern as before.

“I hope that students realize that no new approach is needed in taking our courses,” Salter wrote. “If they continue to work hard and make substantial progress in their learning and in their aesthetic growth (as Hopkins students generally do), their grades will reflect that.”

After evaluating the grades in the department, Salter discussed the matter with the rest of the Writing Seminars faculty.

“Most importantly, we discussed what we feel constitutes A work,” Salter wrote. “What we did agree is that B+ should indicate ‘very good work,’ that A- should indicate ‘excellent work,’ and that A indicates ‘exceptional work.’ We wanted to reaffirm that B+ work should not earn an A- or an A.”

This evaluation was also designed to ensure that the same work would earn similar grades across Writing Seminars courses, potentially a form of grading standardization.

“We wanted to insure that grades be as consistent as possible across the department–that is the same work would not earn two different grades in two different courses,” Salter wrote.

Writing Seminars students responded to the slight change. Some think it might help erase the stigma of Writing Seminars being an “easy” major.

“It’s good and bad,” sophomore Evan Garber said. “I definitely like it in the fact that a lot of people look down upon Writing Sems. It’s kind of regarded as a joke major here. But it’s nice to have it be regarded now as something that’s actually hard, something that takes a pretty smart person to get a good grade in. The department is going to get the respect it deserves.”

Ellen Ashford, also a sophomore majoring in Writing Seminars, commented on students’ choice of the major.

“I think some people probably do writing because it’s easy or it’s viewed as an easy thing,” Ashford said. “I don’t think it’s an easy major.”

Garber mentioned that none of his instructors had mentioned the policy change in his classes, although he said that some of his friends taking Introduction to Fiction and Poetry I were assured by their instructor that the class would not be an “easy A.”

“I feel like it’s not that drastic of a change that people are not going to apply to Writing Seminars. That’s the only reason I’m here,” Garber said. “It’s one of the best programs in the country for this, so why not apply here. If people still want to pursue writing as a legitimate major, a legitimate career choice, they’re obviously still going to apply here. And I think just making the department as a whole a little more difficult is just going to make us better in the long run.”

Sophomore and Writing Seminars major William Theodorou also commented on what he believed the nature of the change might be.

“I give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not actually trying to deflate grades, rather just to hold the students in the Writing Seminars department to a higher standard,” Theodorou said.

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