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Grading: “When in Rome,” or “Show ’em How Its Done?”

January 6, 2009

I’ve been watching some foreign teachers screw their students (and themselves) over regarding grading (especially at the university level) for quite some time. If someone decides to stand on principle at the risk of losing their job, that’s one thing, but more commonly the victims are the students. Often it appears to me that the problem has roots in cultural differences, and the inevitably different expectations that follow those differences.

At my university (I am a Master’s level lecturer), the university requires that no more than 40% of a class be given an A0 or A+ (there are no A- grades). Up to 50% of students can get a B0 or B+, and 10% get everything else (C, D, F). The university firmly maintains a particularly shaped curve this way. Its not the way a grading distribution usually looks at an American university, but that is beside the point: we’re in Korea. Students are assigned a raw score which is converted to a percentage grade from 0 to 99. American teachers are used to a system whereby 90-100=A, 80-89=B, etc. Customarily, Korean professors will rank the students by raw score and assign the top 40% A’s. This is the norm at my university (to give out the maximum number of top grades allowable), and many (if not all) universities across Korea.

So far, so good, right? Sure, until you get a foreign lecturer who decides their system is better. The person I replaced did this. If the top two students got 92’s, and everyone else got 89 or below, then those two students got A0’s, according to the common American formula. Everyone else got a B+ or below (according to how they stacked up in the American system). Students were angry about this, and rightfully so.

Why do I side with the students? Because this is Korea, and these students are competing with each other for jobs in the Korean market. If one foreign teacher is grading on her/his own standard, that teacher is hurting the competitiveness of those students. By taking some other teacher’s class, they could avoid an unfair grade (assigned due to cultural ignorance) which hurts their GPA.

Let’s take this wholly into American culture to see it from another angle. My father was a sailor in the US Navy for twenty years. I remember a conversation we once had about the evaluations that enlisted men get from officers. He spoke about a problem that sometimes cropped up. You’d get a brand new junior officer doing his first or second set of evals, who didn’t understand Navy culture. I don’t know about today, but when my father served, there was such inflation in the evals that a maximum score (5.0) in each area was absolutely required for advancement in most occupational specialties (called “ratings” in the Navy; for example, my father’s rating was Aviation Electronics Technician). The evals were designed in such a way that a perfect score equated to “no problems.” You’d read a sailor’s evals, across different categories (leadership, military bearing, physical fitness, technical expertise, etc.) and they would all read 5.0 down the line. If you saw a 4.8, it indicated a problem. Now this wasn’t a written rule, it was the Navy’s unwritten custom, and was understood by everyone. When an officer in one unit read your eval, she/he had the same conclusions about a 4.8 as an officer in another unit. When there are 3200 Seamen eligible for advancement, and the Navy can only advance 800 this quarter, officers use everything they can to differentiate those sailors and promote only the most qualified. So back to the brand new junior officer. He’s doing his first set of evals, and he says “Well, Seaman Jones, your Military Bearing is good, but I believe nobody is perfect, and there is always room for improvement, so I’m giving you a 4.9.” This officer, through his personal philosophy (and ignorance of Navy culture), has just delayed Seaman Jones’ promotion to Petty Officer 3rd Class for three to six months. The same Seaman would have received a 5.0 by any other officer.

This is what you’re doing to your students when you decide that their efforts are not “A” quality although they are among the top of the class. You are imposing your value system because it satisfies you/is what you’re comfortable with/are a stubborn bastard, and you are ultimately misrepresenting your students’ performance in your class (because maybe the 5th best student in your class is now sporting a B+ instead of the A+ she/he would have gotten in any Korean instructor’s class with the same performance) to future employers, graduate admissions committees, and others. It is ethnocentric, and it is wrong. When an employer or admissions counselor sees that B+, they aren’t going to know that the applicant in front of them worked hard, learned a lot, and outperformed a vast majority of the class but was subjected to non-customary grading criteria. You’re adding your own meaning to someone else’s language when you do that.

“But Korean higher education is ranked the lowest out of all the OECD countries,” you cry! That’s a problem the Korean government and Korean society is going to have to figure out over time. Do you think by using a foreign grading standard with your students, you’re going to help with that? The education environment you see is what exists. For you to stand alone, you’re only hurting your students to make a statement that nobody will hear or understand. Why would you do that?

If you disagree, then I implore you: At least, AT LEAST disclose to your students your grading standards on their first day, so they have the option to either drop your class (and take a class with a grading system they are comfortable with) or stay in your class and consciously accept the possibility of a low grade due to non-customary grading criteria.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Wise permalink
    January 7, 2009 7:28 am

    I don’t see this particular matter of difference in the application of grading models as being a problem of ethnocentricity. In the experience of many instructors in the college and university system in the US and Canada, instructors are often criticized, and given lower evaluations, for awarding too many A’s. Bell curve models of grading imply a thinly veiled imperative that the teacher cannot and should not award grades on the basis of individual merit, on the individual work performance of a given student. Rather, they require that grades be distributed according to the scores in relation to those of others in the group (class or course).

    Instructors and teachers often lack specific training and are left to fly or drown on their own. The situation is similar in academic life in the US and Canada and South Korea, in my opinion.

    Ethnocentricity has a deeper definition than merely bias on the partt of a person visiting another society/culture or looking at the other society/culture. It takes more experience in the second society or culture for a person to learn to employ methods and approaches other than what he knows from his own society or culture. Training helps to build and extend that new experience in a conscious and quicker way. Both the host and visitor have to be more aware that the society or community or culture of each other is alien to one another. This is a hard thing to come to realize. What we take for granted is not readily seen as culturally specific. Anyway, my main point is that one shouldn’t use the charge of “ethnocentricity” to circumstances where a foreigner is just being foreign.

    My secondary point is that there are many grading models that can be adopted and the institution should be specific. That does not preclude the instructor piping up to ask how the department wants things done, although many academic departments play monkey don’t see and monkey don’t say anything a lot of the time. That is to say that many academic departments, in whatever society, are so hierarchical and bureaucratic that they are not very communicative, locked in a combination of fear, snobbery and ineptitude due to lack of organizational savvy (academics being intellecturals, not administrators, first). Such an atmosphere drives a prevailing conservatism in most academic institutions. It tends to shape the practice of the best of instructors and scholars.

    • tonyhellmann permalink*
      January 7, 2009 8:14 am

      Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one’s own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion.

      When a foreign instructor is briefed by her/his department, shown the grading system, told “you can award up to 40% of the class A’s, and because the grading system is competitive, we usually award as many A’s as possible,” yet only gives out two A’s in a class of 30, because she/he prefers the grading system she/he is used to in her/his own culture, that is ethnocentric. When my predecessor looked at a student’s performance over the semester and said “That’s not A work,” even though they were the third best student in a class of 30, her cultural bias was very much affecting her decision, because according to my university’s culture, third best is A work.

      Whether grades should be awarded on individual merit or relative to each student’s relative performance (normally distributed) is a very old debate with no new arguments. That debate isn’t relevant here, because which system is better has nothing to do with the effect that not following the school’s customs hurts one’s students. When I came into the department, I was told “Here’s how we do it. You don’t have to award the maximum amount of A’s, but we recommend that you do.” When I told them that was fine, they looked relieved and told me that’s not how my predecessor did things, and it caused a lot of problems.

  2. Ed Wise permalink
    January 8, 2009 6:55 am

    I’m trying to highlight the problem of confusing “ethnocentricity” with “egocentricity”. Egocentricity is indeed a feature of the Western/ anglo-Euro or American cultural bias. It comes from the ethos of based on modern liberalism, with roots in ideas from Ancient Greece and Rome, the French and German philosophers, and such. One branch of this outlook is individualism.

    If you explore this vein farther, you will discover more about the anglo-Euro and American cultural bias and be better able to unlock some mysteries about cross-cultural confusion and stumbles in Korea.

    I thus suggest that you’d be better off discussing cultural difference between Koreans and foreigners in Korea from your own socio-cultural position, rather than be trying to assume the socio-cultural position of Koreans. You will learn more that way. In other words, you ought to try to understand your own cultural bias through the experience of living among people of an alien culture.

    You need to examine some assumptions. One is, who is a foreigner who comes to Korea as an English teacher? Such a person could have been born on any continent and of any among a wide number of nationalities by birth. That person could have been raised in any of a wide range of communities in a wide range of regions. That means that there is a wide array of cultural difference among foreigners teaching English in Korea so that the issues of communication and difference will vary.

    Among experts in cultural studies, the current prerogative is for the scholar to be reflexive and thereby raise her or his consciousness of her or his own position in relation to other people. You have not begun by initiating a self-identification of your cultural self. Who are you?

    I hope you understand that I am expressing skepticism about a foreigner acting as an authority on somebody else’s culture. Anyway, what training have you? Okay, you’ve identified your area of work and research. I ask further, what experience do you have in learning another language? What training have you in culture studies or anthropology?

    In fact, you appear to be discussing communication issues from a vantage point of communication theory, and sticking tidbits from cross-cultural studies in education onto it. You’ve mislabelled ethnocentricity as an ideology when it is not. You have not been discussing cultural difference in Korea in terms of ideology, mostly. I am pointing to topics in ideology that would concern foreign English teachers in interacting with Koreans. From the side of the Koreans, the rich heritage in scholarship, religion, nationalism, empire and so on would have to be explored. One would be better off listening to Korean scholars about those things. There is an excellent series of essays in the Korean Herald on this theme. Museum materials offer more knowledge.

    Could we gather and post some sources for the blog readers?

    • tonyhellmann permalink*
      January 8, 2009 1:13 pm

      >I’m trying to highlight the problem of confusing “ethnocentricity” with
      >“egocentricity”.

      Egocentrism is a psychology term. It is defined as a) the incomplete differentiation of the self and the world, including other people and b) the tendency to perceive, understand and interpret the world in terms of the self. An egocentric person cannot fully “put her/himself in other peoples’ shoes,” and believes everyone sees what she/he sees, or that what she/he sees, in some way, exceeds what others see (Piaget & Inhelder, 1971). This is different from such concepts as narcissism.

      Thinking your culture’s grading standards are “normal” or “superior” (for no comparative reasons) is ethnocentric.

      >I thus suggest that you’d be better off discussing cultural difference between
      >Koreans and foreigners in>Korea from your own socio-cultural position, rather
      >than be trying to assume the socio-cultural position of Koreans. You will learn
      >more that way. In other words, you ought to try to understand your own
      >cultural bias through the experience of living among people of an alien culture.

      It isn’t comparative cultural analysis if you don’t present attributes of the other culture. And it isn’t GOOD comparative cultural analysis if you don’t check your observations out with several different types of people knowledgeable about that culture, which I do (or when I don’t, I mark that as a personal observation).

      >You need to examine some assumptions. One is, who is a foreigner who
      >comes to Korea as an English teacher?

      You did not identify any assumptions in this statement. What assumptions should I identify?

      >Such a person could have been born on any continent and of any among
      >a wide number of nationalities by birth. That person could have been raised
      >in any of a wide range of communities in a wide range of regions. That
      >means that there is a wide array of cultural difference among foreigners
      >teaching English in Korea so that the issues of communication and difference
      >will vary.

      Readers decide if they can identify with the perspective of a writer or not. If they can, they take what they can use. If not, they move on. I’m writing for the folks that may find this useful.

      >Among experts in cultural studies, the current prerogative is for the scholar
      >to be reflexive and thereby raise her or his consciousness of her or his own
      >position in relation to other people. You have not begun by initiating a
      >self-identification of your cultural self. Who are you?

      Begun what, this blog? Go out and read any cultural studies academic journal. Go through the articles. How many of them start with a cultural self-identification? “The researcher is a 43-year-old American professor who lives in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC. His father was a longshoreman and his mother a homemaker…” That isn’t to say that the researcher doesn’t know who they are, but only what is relevant to the writing is provided. Of course this begs the response is that EVERYTHING is relevant because my culture influences my perceptions, but how much time do the major Western writers on Korean culture do that in their books? A few lines, and again, where they are relevant to an observation the writer is making.

      >I hope you understand that I am expressing skepticism about a
      >foreigner acting as an authority on >somebody else’s culture.
      >Anyway, what training have you? Okay, you’ve identified your area
      >of work and >research. I ask further, what experience do you
      >have in learning another language? What training have you
      >in culture studies or anthropology?

      Well let me start off by assuaging your skepticism by saying I am not an authority. I’m one guy with an opinion. I write mine in a blog.

      I hold a BA in Cultural Studies from Western Washington University. My major cognate was Asian American studies. I hold an M.Ed. in Counselor Education from Penn State University. My major area of research was sexual identity development and how that is affected by ethnicity/culture. I have a book chapter published in the field of ethnohistory, an academic journal article in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling and Development about how ethnicity and sexual orientation intersect and provide implications for counseling, but most importantly I use my training to ask good questions to Koreans that the average English teacher may not have access to. All psychotherapists are highly skilled at interviewing; the cultural studies degree helps me choose the questions. I’ve been fortunate to have experiences that have allowed me friends and contacts from all walks of Korean life:

      *I work with Korean linguists.
      *I have a good friend whose family owns a 5,000 pyeong rice farm (plus six vinyl houses with seasonal crops), and I go up and work his farm with him on weekends when I can get away.
      *I spent a year working for the Republic of Korea Air Force, living on a ROKAF base in the Bachelor Officer Quarters, and I taught one-on-one English lessons to low-rank enlisted men, high-rank enlisted men, low-rank officers, and colonels and generals. The lessons with the high-ranking officers quickly devolved into comparative cultural discourse over a beer.
      *Because of my work with ATEK, I have access to Korean reporters, a police inspector that I have coffee with every time I’m in Seoul, business people, legal people, etc.

      I spend a lot of time asking any one of the above individuals about something another one of them said. The responses are rich and fascinating. Last month on a train, I met the Deputy Director of Mental Health Policy for the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, and we had a great conversation about similarities and differences between the mental health industries in America and South Korea. He asked me to look him up next time I’m in Seoul. I probably will.

      That said, I am not an authority on Korean culture. I am one guy with a particular set of life experiences, who is making observations for all to see. If you find something insightful or relevant, cool. If not, its all good.

      >In fact, you appear to be discussing communication issues from
      >a vantage point of communication theory, and sticking tidbits from
      >cross-cultural studies in education onto it. You’ve mislabelled
      >ethnocentricity as an ideology when it is not.

      I don’t think the word “ideology” appears anywhere in my writing.

      >You have not been discussing cultural difference in Korea in terms of
      >ideology, mostly.

      Right. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

      >I am pointing to topics in ideology that would concern foreign
      >English teachers in interacting with Koreans.

      I write about what interests me. Practical things interest me more. If I understand how my communication patterns are different, and why, then I won’t be irritated when my 200 word high-context explanation is translated into a 25 word low-context response. Actually it is more likely that I won’t start with a 200 word high-context explanation in the first place. There are lots of books which cover (in depth) the history of why any given group is the way it is. I’m doing information arbitrage, touching on things here and there. I’m not writing for academic publication here, just making my observations for whomever finds them useful.

  3. January 9, 2009 5:26 pm

    I agree with everything you said. It is arrogant to presume one can change a culture’s education system within their own course/class. It also unethical to do so without giving full disclosure to your students.

    J

  4. Darth Babaganoosh permalink
    January 24, 2009 3:51 pm

    At my current uni, a bell curve is used. Not only is it used, but our computer input is such that you CANNOT give grades that lie outside that curve. There are both minimums and maximums for each letter grade and the computer calculates exactly how many of each grade you are allowed. Of course, I’m allowed to put in whatever letter grade I wish, but only if it fits the curve. No (whatever)centricity involved.

    Now, in my current position (different department), there is no bell curve. The grades fall where they may. The students are told this at the beginning of each semester, and at the end of it all, I give out more A’s in the non-belled classes than I do in the belled (and fewer Ds and Fs). Students know they can’t skate by as a class and still end up with an A. They know they have to earn their grade, and they do.

    My non-belled classes (and students) are SO much better than my belled. The difference is night and day.

  5. April 16, 2009 8:12 am

    An unpopular opinion – and one that I share given its cultural context. Well done!

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