Grading policy smothers fiery section discussions

The amount of work assigned here is absurd.

It has no rational or orderly relationship to human life; it is meaningless. Professors assign hundreds of pages of reading each week to be largely skipped by students with the best of intentions. Professors do this instead of assigning 50 to 100 pages to be closely read, analyzed, debated and thoroughly understood.

This practice results in students’ cursory, fleeting and tenuous awareness of knowledge rather than knowledge itself. Week after week, these consequences play themselves out in discussion sections. These sections consist predominately of uninformed or partially informed students and include one or two standouts who have somehow managed to do all the reading (or at least appear that they have) at the expense of other classes or of their general health.

Confronted by this group — whose collective ignorance is actually more intimidating than any well-articulated knowledge — teaching assistants, through no fault of their own, resort to using class time to demonstrate that they know more than we do. Students deal with the imbalance of “discussion” sections in different ways. Some wait obediently for the opportunity to show that they’ve done a few pages of reading and maybe even formed an opinion about it. Others supply a thankless fact here and there. Some quieter types, who are often more determined to impress upon the TA their hunger for approval, scribble notes furiously and say nothing. Some students tune out completely. Very few express original ideas based on a critical analysis of what they have read.

Courses end with a frenzied purging of whatever knowledge may have been gleaned over the course of the semester. By the next semester, students realize that four months of panicked speed-reading has earned them good grades, maybe, and also the sort of nagging approximation of knowledge that leaves crucial information forever teetering on the tips of tongues.

While excessive workloads lead to a more superficial knowledge base, they also promote skills such as time-management and prioritization that are vital to real world success. Students may acquire the ability to sift through the superfluous for information and ideas essential to a given subject only after frantically racing against the clock to get it all done. Perhaps this skill set accounts for the exorbitant reading assignments. If so, then Yale has chosen to emphasize practical skill acquisition over more thorough, in-depth critical analyses. This choice does not reflect Yale’s position as a bastion of liberal arts education.

A simple, less revolutionary way to improve Yale academics is anonymous grading. Students could hand in nameless papers that teaching assistants and professors could grade impartially. Favoritism, whether of the conscious or unintentional variety, has no place at a school of Yale’s integrity. Anonymous grading would rid Yale of favoritism, and our school would more closely resemble a true meritocracy.

My perception of Yale is colored by three years spent at Phillips Exeter Academy, which, its own integrity notwithstanding, ought not to be the best school I ever get to attend. There, assignments consisted of the close reading of fewer pages and engendered a true understanding of material. Fiery discussions were the norm. It is one thing to memorize a few facts or ideas to dutifully regurgitate in the presence of grading authorities. It is quite another to have such a comprehensive command of a subject’s ins, outs and in-betweens that subsequent discussions inspire so much passion and belief that students forget they’re even being graded.

Of course, smaller schools like Exeter benefit from naturally better communication and coordination among professors, and between professors and students. But let Yale’s grandness be no excuse — our school ought to be more like this. In fact, it ought to be even better.

Zachary Curtis is a junior in Morse College.