Faculty Discuss Grade Distributions and Workload

The April 17 faculty meeting opened on what college President Audrey Bilger called a “beautiful-ish” April day, with dozens of faculty in attendance in the foyer of Kaul Auditorium. The Administration Committee (AdComm) brought forward a proposal to strike part of section V.B.1 from the college’s Faculty Code. This policy lays out a “recommended distribution” of grades, encouraging faculty to give A’s to 25% of their students, B’s to 45%, C’s to 25%, and D’s to 5%. The policy appears in an online copy of the Faculty Code but does not appear in the more public-facing Evaluation of Students page on Reed’s website. 

However, AdComm presented concerns that the actual distribution of grades was “nowhere close” to this curve, and had not been for “thirty years.” The Committee presented a spreadsheet that appeared to show the distribution of grades for at least the last decade, but the Quest was forbidden from taking photographs during the meeting, so cannot attest to the exact distribution. However, it appeared to this reporter that the distribution of A grades had risen since the pandemic, surpassing 45%, and had hovered closer to 30% prior to 2020. 

Professor of Psychology Kris Anderson raised concerns about the proposal, suggesting that faculty should reverse the pandemic trend of increasing grades and return to the recommended distribution, rather than scrapping it completely. Associate Professor of Chemistry Kelly Chacón also raised concerns, saying that she had found the policy helpful as a guideline when she first began teaching at Reed. At this point Professor of Theatre Peter Ksander — a member of AdComm — interjected that actual grades had not been “anywhere near” the recommended distribution for “thirty years.” Chacón responded by wondering aloud whether there were particular other departments that did not have a tradition of adhering to the distribution policy, knowing that she and her colleagues did, to which Ksander replied that AdComm had not reviewed data that “granular” while crafting the proposal.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Angélica Osorno concurred, saying that she was curious as to the origin of the shift away from the policy, knowing that “there are some of us who do think we’re following it, at least.” “Just removing the policy doesn’t seem like the right thing to do,” Osorno said, “we should at least talk about it first.” Osorno did, however, raise the possibility of the ideal grade distribution becoming simply a “guideline” rather than a policy. 

Professor of French Luc Monnin, who presented the proposal on behalf of AdComm, replied that the current distributions were “so far off” the guideline that it would be difficult to restore the recommended curve. An unnamed audience member then stood and questioned whether Reed’s campus had a “shared understanding” of “what the grade means.” This faculty member suggested that the ideal distribution policy “essentially makes the grade a ranking,” and stated that the question of whether this was appropriate, or whether grades should measure “a certain amount of learning,” should be a larger discussion for the faculty. 

Professor of Philosophy Mark Hinchliff objected to the characterization that the college hadn’t been close to the recommended distribution for “thirty years,” noting that, while still not matching the recommendation, grades had been significantly closer to the 25-45-25 pattern prior to the pandemic than they are now. “First there should be a discussion,” Hinchliff said, “rather than to just say let’s do away with it.” 

Associate Professor of Mathematics Zajj Daugherty described her reaction as “really shocked” that AdComm had “jumped” to proposing the policy be removed completely, rather than opening a “community discussion about our values.” Another audience member referred faculty to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published that morning, which discussed the issue of grade inflation, and proceeded to suggest the existence of a “disciplinary bias in the way this plays out,” before saying that “major shifts” occur without such policies in place. 

Another unidentified audience member stated that they were “excited to see us eliminate this as a policy,” and further said that “I have never seen grades as an opportunity to rank my students.” However, they nevertheless made a motion to send the proposal back to committee, which would then hold a wider discussion with faculty. There were some ayes in response to this, but also strong nays, and the motion did not carry. A second, similar, motion was then made, but Professor Monnin interjected, raising concerns about AdComm’s ability to host a wider faculty discussion about grade issues. Monnin noted that AdComm’s primary purpose was to “align policy with practice,” not to workshop new policy. “It’s always a great thing to have a discussion,” Monnin said, “but I’m not sure that’s our role.” A motion was then made to amend the current motion into a new motion to send the proposal back to the Committee on Academic Policy Planning (CAPP) rather than AdComm. This final motion passed unanimously, and the proposal was sent back to CAPP. 

Meanwhile, CAPP brought forward a proposal to promote “more equitable faculty workload distribution.” Before beginning their presentation, the committee passed out blank notecards on which faculty members could write feedback, alongside printed copies of the proposal itself. (The Quest requested, and was given, a copy of this second document, which we will reference partially below, and publish in full online.) The proposal details five “paths” of faculty workload: Standard Path, Heavy Thesis, Heavy Teaching, Heavy Advising, and Heavy Service. Each path specifies different levels of responsibility for teaching, advising, thesis advising, and faculty governance, and different faculty would presumably pursue different paths. The table printed on page two of the provided document was as follows.

Standard PathHeavy ThesisHeavy TeachingHeavy AdvisingHeavy Service
TeachingTeach the equivalent of 5 courses per year (note that different departments define what constitutes a course differently)Teach the equivalent of 4 courses per year (note that different departments define what constitutes a course differently)Teach more than 5 courses per year; department adjusts offerings so faculty member can teach one fewer course the following year. Does not apply to faculty who opt to teach a MALS course or senior symposium for pay. Teach the equivalent of 5 courses per year (note that different departments define what constitutes a course differently)Teach the equivalent of X courses per year (note that different departments define what constitutes a course differently)
Thesis MentoringOver the course of 3 years, advise an average of 3 thesis students per semesterOver the course of 3 years advise an average of 4+ thesis students per semester.Over the course of 3 years, advise an average of 3 thesis students per semesterOver the course of 3 years, advise an average of 1-2 thesis students per semesterOver the course of 3 years, advise an average of 3 thesis students per semester
Academic AdvisingAdvise X number of academic adviseesAdvise X-Y number of academic adviseesAdvise X number of academic adviseesAdvise X+Y number of academic adviseesAdvise X+Y number of academic advisees
College-wide serviceServe as a member of X committees, or Chair 1 committee or compartment; Serve on up to 2 search committees per yearServe as a member of Y committees, or Chair 1 committee or department; Serve on up to 2 search committees per yearServe as a member of Y committees, or Chair 1 committee or department; Serve on up to 2 search committees per yearServe as a member of Y committees, or Chair 1 committee; Serve on up to 2 search committees per year; possibly on one of CAPP, CAT, Admin, AFACMembership on CAPP, CAT, or Admin, AFAC + Chair of any of the following: department, TT search committee, CAPP, CAT, Admin

CAPP emphasized that this plan was only a draft, because “it’s going to take time and effort to do this right.” CAPP representatives also admitted that this plan needs to “find a way of accounting for workload,” which it has not done yet. CAPP then distributed blank notecards to the faculty, and asked them to discuss in small groups and fill out their notecards with their responses to four questions: What did we miss? What is a strength? What is a challenge? Do you think an approach like this will help you/your department or not?

CAPP then asked for a non-binding vote of enthusiasm to assess faculty feelings on the idea of the committee “continuing to work on a really comprehensive policy like this,” rather than pursuing the current policy of granting course releases to faculty with six or more thesis students. The vote revealed majority enthusiasm for CAPP to continue to work on a comprehensive policy, although there were some dissenters who voted to maintain the current policy of course releases. Nevertheless, the majority carried, and CAPP will continue to pursue a comprehensive policy.

Also presenting for CAPP, Professor Monnin brought forward a proposal to make it easier for students to access their grades, in compliance with FERPA requirements that students be given access to their records and grades. An unnamed faculty member raised concerns about the proposal, saying that, while they could see some good outcomes, this change would “further reduce points of contact between faculty and advisees,” which worried them. Another audience member responded that, “the world is 24/7, and [the registrar’s office] is only open 7.5 hours, five days a week,” noting that high school students have granular access to their grades in real-time. They argued that this proposal would be a good way of “balancing” Reed’s culture of deemphasizing grades with students’ expectations of access. An unnamed faculty member asked if it would be possible for a student’s advisor to get an email notification whenever a student accessed their grades, to which registrar Jason Maher responded that, while this had not been discussed, it was certainly a possibility. A final motion was then made and passed with overwhelming ayes. 

Sustainability Coordinator Rachel Willis presented to the faculty the work her team has been doing on campus over the last year. Willis is currently working with a team of 11 students, each of whom are leading independent projects. Willis described her team’s work as not only a sustainability initiative, but a year-long leadership program for students. “A lot of the students that I work with talk about climate anxiety and climate grief,” Willis said, “and this is a chance to direct projects in the community where they live.” In more concrete goals, Willis’ sustainability team has diverted more than 1,500 lbs of potential waste in the swap shop so far. “Anyone, not just students, but anyone, can come to the swap shop for what they need,” Willis said, “They don’t need to bring or swap anything.” Meanwhile, Willis emphasized the work of two students who served as caretakers of the community garden over the summer, a space that Willis hopes will soon include a pumpkin patch. Willis’ team also conducted a waste audit on campus trash, and found that the current waste contamination rate is 17%, a figure they hope to reduce. 

Professor of English and Humanities Michael Faletra encouraged students participating in the upcoming thesis parade to keep to the great lawn in order to minimize “the amount of champagne that ends up in offices on the first floor of Eliot.” 

Presenting for the Appeals and Review Committee, Professor of Greek, Latin, and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Humanities Nigel Nicholson brought forward a proposal to change the procedures for “a very specific situation in CAPP elections,” namely special collections with one or two open seats. Currently, it is possible for fourteen to sixteen candidates to run for a single seat in such elections, a situation Nicholson described as a “bad elections process,” as it could allow a candidate to get elected with a comparatively small fraction of voter support. Nicholson’s committee proposed to halve the number of candidates put forward in such special elections, nominating only one candidate from each division and then two additional candidates, instead of two candidates per division and four additional candidates. “Basically,” Nicholson said, “it should make it much clearer what you’re voting for.” No questions were raised, and the motion passed with overwhelming support.

Meanwhile, CAPP had approved a slate of new courses, and brought them to the faculty for final approval. The full slate was approved with overwhelming support from the faculty. 

Professor Monnin brought forward another proposal for CAPP, this time on changes to the thesis submission process. The new changes are intended to accommodate increasingly digital submissions, and removed the fees for weekend and summer extensions, which were assessed to be inequitable for economically disadvantaged students. The possibility of an “incomplete” was also removed, and will now be considered a summer extension. An audience member raised concerns about the difference in time offered for summer and winter extensions, but nevertheless, the motion passed with strong approval. The new changes will apply to this year’s thesis submissions.

Associate Dean of the Faculty Tamara Metz offered updates on the Academic Success Committee’s proposed changes to the academic advising process, thanking the 17 faculty who responded to a survey her team had distributed, but suggesting that this was too few responses from which to draw meaningful conclusions. Metz also indicated that an open forum had taken place but that there had been no attendees, and stated that the motion made by the faculty at a previous meeting, “while strong, was not terribly illuminating.” It was unclear which of the four bullet points faculty were responding to, Metz said, especially since “some of them were contradictory.” The committee, Metz said, was therefore left with “a very mixed picture” of faculty views. “We’re going to continue working on pre-registration advising changes,” Metz said, “whatever solution we propose next will come to the faculty for your approval.” 

Metz’s team is also developing an assessment mechanism for advising at Reed, which they will be sending to CAT for feedback. Metz assured faculty that they will have a chance to weigh in on “the survey we are developing” soon.

Finally, Vice President and Dean for Institutional Diversity gave a brief presentation on her team’s work, which was cut short by time limits on the meeting. Esposito thanked all faculty who had submitted grant proposals to the social justice research education fund and stated that results would be emailed out that day at 6:00 p.m. Esposito also highlighted several events that have recently or will be taking place on Reed’s campus, including Multicultural Graduation and Community of Color Dinner Recognizing and Celebrating Inclusive Excellence. With that, faculty gave closing words and concluded the meeting.

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