Joey took “Introduction to Sport” for a lot of reasons. It was on the list of suggested courses. It fit into his schedule. The professor, Dr. Nicely, was famous for being interesting, great to students, and easy. His friend Rocko had taken it last year and swore up and down that he’d only had to go to class about five times all semester and got an A. What could be bad?
Joey showed up. This prof was pretty cool. He showed videos of athletes and explained which ones were being exploited and which ones were using the system (not too many). He obviously loved teaching, and the hour went by pretty fast. The kids in the back of the room spent most of the time on Facebook and YouTube or texting about their afternoon plans, and some slept. What could you expect, in such a dark room? Who could stay awake?
The quizzes were online. Joey took the first one and bombed, but he took it again and did better. Janie J was next door and offered to take it for Joey. Janie J—that’s what they called her—was really smart, and had taken “Introduction to Sport” last year. She loved helping out the guys. Without even concentrating, she got all the questions right.
This was going to be a sweet semester. When he didn’t have too bad a morning, Joey could go listen to this entertaining guy talk about his favorite subject in the world, and it was usually fascinating. When he had had a rough night, he could just sleep in. He might try to do his own quizzes, but there was always the insurance policy of Janie J who could help him out. What’s not to like?
* * * * * * * *
Katie couldn’t sleep. Her mind was filled with words like socioeconomic stratification and dependency and postcolonialism. For a girl from Kansas, this was heady stuff. Last year she took classes that were a lot like high school—chemistry, Spanish—but this year she was discovering that there were invisible forces operating all around her and that it was not just an accident (or a result of hard work) that her family had four shiny cars and two houses, while some poor kid in Haiti was barefoot and chronically ill. She was worried about how she would talk to her mother when Mom raised the question of a vacation in the Bahamas. Katie was considering going to help build a school in Haiti instead, but it would ruin Mom’s plans.
Besides, Katie was in love. She had fallen in love with the idea of writing passionate position papers that built on strong statements from these amazing books she’d been reading. Her role model, Dr. Justice, never seemed to waste a second of her time. She seemed to have read everything in the world and knew it all without having to look it up. Katie didn’t call it a “crush,” but she knew that she wanted to be more like Dr. Justice than like Mom. Even the really hard reading was worthwhile and she did all of it, because in class she never knew which would come up in the discussion.
Dr. Justice had read her first paper and given her comments, then met with her and showed her how to revise it. After three of these short papers, Katie thought she was getting the hang of this kind of writing and actually liked it. She loved going to “Introduction to Development Theory.” The time flew by, and the eighteen students all seemed to care about what they were learning. She had never had an experience like this before. In high school all the goody-goody students cared about was brown-nosing and getting A’s. In all her other classes, everyone seemed to do as little as possible. But in Dr. Justice’s class people even read extra things. It felt important, like it could make a difference in the world. And for the first time in her life, Katie not only wanted to make things better but thought she might be figuring out how this could happen.
Joey and Katie both got A’s in their classes. Joey read about 30 pages, and Katie read about 3,000. Joey took 15 quizzes and a final exam, and wrote a four-page paper. Katie wrote 15 weekly position papers and four more substantial papers, each with two drafts that received comments from both the professor and fellow students, and ended with a 15-page research project. Joey enjoyed the class and learned some important things about how to analyze the role of sport in society. Katie’s life was transformed by the class. Both learned, both succeeded, but there were some substantial differences.
What role did grades play in their class experience? Did grades motivate these students? Did they encourage cheating? Hard work? And what does the trace of that experience in the black-and-white letter on the transcript tell us? Is one A deserved and one a sham? Should we urge all professors to “give” fewer A’s? In Dr. Nicely’s case, we certainly could make that case. What about the professors like Dr. Justice who inspire all their students to do great work, and then help them attain the skills needed to do it?
These are not easy questions, and they go to the heart of what we—students, faculty, administrators—are attempting to do in higher education. We have to answer that fundamental question before we focus on the bald outcome.