Do the Humanities Really Grade Inflate?

There has been a spate of articles over the last few weeks discussing the fact that more students take classes and get degrees in the humanities than in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). Part of the hand wringing (and these articles are written in a handwringing, anxious tone for the most part) comes from the idea that humanities degrees don’t get students jobs or high paying jobs. Part of it is the unspoken divide between the hard sciences and the humanities. The humanities “look” like fun and students enjoy those classes. Moreover, they make good grades in them. The humanities, ergo, must be easier. Either be requiring less work/study time (as per this Washington Post article by Joe Light and Rachel Emma Silverman provocatively titled “Generation Jobless: Students Pick Easier Majors Despite Less Pay“) or because of grade inflation in the humanities. Timothy Taylor, the writer of the article on grade inflation, doesn’t come right out and say that the humanities needs to grade harder in his solution to the issue of students moving away from STEM in his article, but his proposed solution is to publish the median grade by department, thereby presumably shaming humanities departments into grading harder? Or letting high achieving students sort themselves into harder fields of study? I’m actually not sure what the point of his article is since his solution to his call to action is so ill defined at the end. The whole essay laments that the humanities seem to be easier and that students don’t want to put the work into the harder (and presumably) superior course of study, but the problem he identifies as easily fixed is grade inflation on the humanities side, not looking back at what happens in STEM that makes students switch. Nor do I think grade inflation is the cause for people switching to courses of study that they excel in.

Perhaps he needs to go back and examine the teaching practices in STEM which I think causes so many students to turn away from those fields. Note: I’m speaking in general here, and my point are drawn from observation of academia at large, not from my experiences at my current university. Our university has some fantastic teachers in STEM–they regularly and rightly win teaching awards. Nor do I want to put the whole blame on STEM. The academy is made up of many moving parts, but I feel that vilfying one field of study over another isn’t a solution. Lobbying the blame back on the humanities for being too easy I don’t think solves the actual issue. Perhaps the humanities are an easier course of study–I don’t think that’s the case, however. I think some of the difference in grades comes from disciplinary differences in how assignments are constructed and assessed. A composition student doesn’t fail an essay just because they have comma mistakes. They probably won’t make an A, but writing instructors grade grammar as one part of the larger paper grade. In STEM, partial credit is not the norm, or at least that’s my impression.

Also, in general, academics in STEM don’t get the kind of pedagogical training I received in the humanities. Indeed, the kind of training I got in teaching I think is rare in general. Academics do not spend enough time talking about how we teach and why we teach. I definitely think one solution to the issue Taylor outlines is more cross discipline instruction about teaching practices. Moreover, it’s easier for me to reach the struggling student who is putting in the hours and needs extra help–I only have 25 students in a intro level composition class (which is a high enrollment cap for a writing workshop course). I just get more opportunities to work one on one with that student than a professor in an Intro Biology course who has 90+ students. Perhaps another point of discussion should be about class size and dynamics. I can only imaging that Biology students would do better with more face to face instruction.

I don’t think students shy away from hard work when they’re passionate about that work.


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