Making the Grade

It ain’t rocket science.

But a few friends — BUSINESS WEEK veterans Rob Hof, Rick Melcher, Bill Symonds and Lauren Young — graciously helped to keep me and my students flying this past semester. They provided reality-checks on one of the toughest chores a journalism teacher faces — grading.

Grading is a knotty affair. What’s the difference between an A- and a B+ piece of work? More to the point, does anybody give a C in these painfully grade-inflated days? One student came to me all wide-eyed and indignant saying she had never gotten a B+ before, wondering why I would do such a terrible thing to her (turned out she was not telling the truth, as another prof advised me).

The problem is that judging journalistic work, like any piece of writing or creative effort, is subjective. A friend used to say there are three things no man can to do to another’s satisfaction: poke a fire, make love to a woman, and edit a newspaper. With rockets, they go up or they don’t. With journalism, the measures are less tangible.

So, we at Nebraska ask outside colleagues to evaluate samples of student work. Sometimes, the real-world folks agree with our judgments. Often, they don’t. In either case, it’s good for us and the students. For me, the outside comments have been a bracing slap in the face, a helpful sense of how smart readers and editors will treat the student work. (The outsiders review the work samples after we have graded the papers, after the course is over and the student grades are in. The reviews serve chiefly to keep my perspective straight.)

A few pieces I graded highly came in for some helpful heat. One, about the rise of homelessness among families in Lincoln, Neb., buried the nut graf atop page four, Rick Melcher said. And he complained that the story “loses focus” despite the “great, moving examples.” He rated it only satisfactory in reflecting news judgment and use of interviewing skills and said the
writing needed improvement.

Interestingly, Bill Symonds agreed that the piece would “benefit from a good editor.” He said the writing “needs to be cleaned up.” But Bill rated the news judgment as outstanding and gave satisfactory ratings on interviewing and writing. His summary: “I liked this story a lot.” He said it was “well-researched and generally well-written.”

So, even the outsiders will often view things differently. Smartly, it turns out, but differently.

Like the others, Rob Hof warned that he was using BUSINESS WEEK standards to judge the undergrad work, fretting that he may have been overly critical. But high standards — real-world standards — are just what I wanted. One of the problems in academics is we lose touch with what the field demands. Euphoric at what seems like good work compared to some really poor stuff, we give A grades to pieces that in the outside world may be mediocre.

Rob was tough on a piece that compared recruitment of athletes with recruitment of grad students. He said it needed improvement in news judgment and focus, as well as writing. He rated it satisfactory on interviewing and research skills. “Overall, the issue of academics vs. sports in universities seems a little tired, and the arguments presented by the academics seemed especially old and not very sophisticated.” Ouch!

Lauren Young, too, took a strict line on a news story about a controversial downtown development effort. She gave satisfactory ratings on news judgment and interviewing skills, but said the writing needed improvement. “Everything is in the piece, but the articles needs stronger, more active language to sing,” she said.

A couple other colleagues are still mulling the student work. I’m eager to see what they have to say.

These outside judgments, which at first struck me as a strange and repetitive thing to pursue, are hugely helpful. If nothing else, they’ll stiffen my spine to give out more Cs when appropriate. It’s better that students know what the world would really think, even if that means awkward conversation with those who’ve never earned anything less than an A.

My thanks to those who helped out, and I hope I can call on you again.


10 thoughts on “Making the Grade

  1. As somebody who reads the work of student journalists frequently (that of my interns) I'm always suprised at just how talented most of them are right out of the box. We get most of our interns from Medill, and that may be a testament to the kind of education they get there, or the kind of learning that took place during previous internships. Whatever it is, it's working…I certainly don't remember being as skillful or polished at their age as these young people are (my memory of the 70s is that it was, as far as I was concerned, one big grammatical error). All this came to mind very recently for me when I had an intern (not from Medill) who just couldn't do anything right…I remember thinking that after five years of interns, how surprising it is that I'm just now encountering one who was completgely out of her element. I'd be curious to know what other people think is the best way of handling such an intern. I tried everything–detailed instructions on what's expected of her, in depth evaluations of her work, assigning her to work with other reporters, and ultimately just rewriting her work so she could see how she should have handled the story. But I still feel like I let her down, and that she ended the internship not having learned much at all. Any thoughts would be welcome.

  2. Lou, a colleague and I struggled this year with a problem student who just couldn't handle the writing part of her assignments. She had a hard time in writing classes before ours and fared poorly in the text portion of our multi-media class.
    But she had the good sense to switch to a broadcast emphasis, where she felt she could perform better. As it turned out, she did pretty well on a final project where she opted for a video piece instead of a writing piece. Sometimes, I think, students just need to find their niches. It may be that the multi-media age provides students with more options and our role is to challenge them in all media, but let them find their strongest suits.
    It's an odd bit of back-to-the-future. When I was working as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, we did a swap in which one of the print folks on the business reporting staff switched places with a local TV reporter. The TV staffer seemed quite good on the air, but her written work turned out to be choppy and constipated. Too many short sentences, too little substance. She had found her niche and it wasn't in print.
    The Net may give students more options nowadays. I say encourage a student like that to explore other parts of the BW/Bloomberg empire.

  3. I'm glad to hear I wasn't too harsh. Although the truth is that my professors at Medill were incredibly tough, which is basically how my editors at BW treated my copy. So I think it is best for your students to get real-world feedback, rather than operating in that academic bubble. My two cents…

    Lauren Young

  4. Joe — I'm an adjunct professor at DePaul and Loyola and I have to say that grading papers on context is very tough as you worded so well. One thing I share with my students is that I tell them I will grade them on answering the question "why?" — as in: Why is this sentence important? Why did you write this? Why should I care about this?

    That's not a perfect solution, but it does get them and me more alligned.

    On an unrelated note, I'm glad to be keeping up with your scholarly work via your blog. Happy 2010 to you.

  5. Allan/Dan,
    Thanks for your comments. It's helpful to see what standards folks in different schools use for grading. A colleague in journalism at another school has a handy rule of thumb: he gives As to pieces that could run virtually unedited in a good magazine or newspaper. Bs go to pieces that need substantial editing but still would hold up, while Cs and below go to others. Most of his students, he says, get Bs.
    It's true, as Dan suggests by way of his link to the NYT story, that "real-world" grading that ignores or seeks to correct grade inflation may disadvantage students in grad school applications. But, if people plan to make their careers in journalism, they'll face real-world editors first who don't much care about grade-inflation but will demand quality work. Most grad programs in journalism want students to work at least a couple years beforehand. And a tough grade is a way of helping people improve, I think.
    Thanks again for your comments.

  6. Joe, thanks for your response above, it was very helpful. Unfortunately, the intern I wrote about is long gone, but I really hope she tries to find her niche. As you suggested, it may be that print just isn't it. I also agree that tough grading is the good thing. If good fences make good neighbors, then good, tough grading makes good journalists. When I was in school, I had a journalism teacher (I still remember his name right down to the middle initials: Michael F.X. Grieco) who had an unusual grading scheme. No A-F for Prof. Grieco, no he graded on a 26 letter scale. If he thought your paper was great you got an AAA (kind of like an S&P bond rating, except this actually meant something) and if he hated it you might get a ZZZZZZZZZ (the lowest grade you could get, and not coincidentally, the sound he made when one of your papers put him to sleep). And when he graded your papers he actually used a red grease pencil…I think he was convinced that it made the bad grades (and I got a few) hurt just a little bit more. In a perfect world, every would-be journalist would have their own half-mad, grease-pencil brandishing teacher…somebody very much like Michael F.X. Grieco.

  7. Lou, I told the "never-had-a-B+" student that I had the benefit of many Bs in my life. They and even lower grades can be helpful kicks in the pants. Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Louis,

    You must have gone to Montclair State. MFXG was my j-prof, mentor and adviser, too. What a guy.

    Dave Levine, MSC '71

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