Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed, Why I’m Easy: On Giving Lots of A’s, by Gary Laderman (Emory):
I love giving A’s to students, maybe even more than they love receiving them. In my religion courses over the years, I’ve acquired a reputation as an "easy" teacher, and I love that, too.
In this age of grade inflation, student entitlements, skyrocketing tuitions, and rampant anti-intellectualism, my wallowing in the pleasures of giving out A’s as if they were $100 bills might seem like ammunition for the enemies of higher education and the professorial life. In the face of that charge, I have only one response: I’m tenured.
But seriously, I do have a master plan, and there is a method to my mad generosity. Most of the students in my courses are in the wonderful age group of older children becoming young adults, 18 to 22 or so. They are mostly privileged and well off, though increasingly diverse on all fronts: class, race, ethnicity, gender, international, and so on.
Something else most all share: They are on drugs, either prescribed or not — and I’m including the legal drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, vapes, and so on). They are also in the midst of serious existential struggles — around identity, family, self-worth, purpose, direction, and so on. You remember that age, don’t you? I certainly remember my own troubled path at their stage. Some say it’s much worse these days, as rising suicide rates would suggest.
So part of my plan is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do. Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses on "orgo" (that’s organic chemistry, I think), microeconomics, American politics, brain and behavior, marketing, and other preprofessional touchstones in the intellectual and practical training of young people who really have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they choose their majors.
Ironically, as important and central as their majors may be in the students’ future trajectory, what they encounter in religion courses may prove to be even more valuable to them as adults.
I want my courses on religion to go down easily and smoothly, to be both entertaining and effortless — a nice break from their other courses, which are sober, regimented, and demanding. Yet what can be more difficult to teach than religion and spirituality, two of the more subjective notions that feed off of absolutism and unassailable Truths? True, it is not as complicated as learning brain surgery, but it’s not as simple as Bible study, either.
What is it I expect students to learn from my courses? Is there any substance in the material? And how are students assessed in a meaningful way?
Those are questions that get to the heart of why I’m easy, and that challenge the monumental shifts that have taken place over the past few decades, transforming higher education into a corporate enterprise, and college teaching into quantifiable tidbits that miss the point of learning completely. A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+. I have reached a point where those designations are irrelevant to what I try to do in class and what kind of "learning" I seek to achieve. And let’s face it, students understand a B as some kind of total failure and humiliation — especially when, if I may say, it comes in one of their humanities courses. ...
[M]y course enrollments have risen to 200 or so, a nearly unwieldy number especially when going through the motions of testing and grading. Don’t get me wrong: I know grades are important and can determine the life course of young, eager students, yada, yada, yada.
The truth is, you really have to be an idiot to get a B in my courses, since a top priority for grading is that students show up. That might seem easy, but I assure you, even that is difficult to ensure in these big classes. In addition to participation — which truly does have real-world application, since we all know that 80 percent of life is showing up — and keeping up with the reading and the class assignments, the other major factor in final grade calculation are the multiple-choice tests. ...
My goals as an easy professor aren’t really politically subversive, and I don’t see myself as some kind of lefty prof trying to brainwash conservative religious kids to rebel against their parents, their church, and their God. In fact, most students today tell me they do not affiliate with a particular religion. They tend to be quite tolerant but generally ignorant of religious differences or religious studies as an intellectual enterprise. They are, much like me, trying to learn about life and the meaning of it all. And that requires, I think, a different sort of teaching strategy — one aimed at getting students to value the deeper purposes of education.
In the past few years, more and more students have met with me and expressed gratitude simply because my courses have been so refreshingly different from their other classes. The students are pre-business, pre-med, pre-law, and so on, with tight schedules and little room to take a course for — dare I say it? — pleasure. But the word is out about my attempts to rock their boats and provide an intellectual free space for learning about and teaching me about what matters most in life.
The best compliment I have ever received was from a pre-business Korean student who somehow managed to take three of my courses. I asked for an honest take on my reputation, and he told me: "Your classes are the easiest, but I also learn the most."