Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Blackman: Law Professors Quietly Oppose Pass/Fail Grading

Following up on Monday's posts:

Josh Blackman (South Texas), Law Professors Quietly Agree With My Post on Pass/Fail Grading:

Blackman (2020)"I was just steamrolled by my faculty on this — almost everyone but me joined the copy HARVARD-STANFORD train."

Yesterday, I published a lengthy post about grading for the Spring 2020 semester. I knew the post would be unpopular in certain quarters. First, many professors have long opposed grading on a curve; I criticize a deeply-held position. Second, many students will oppose my position. The bulk of the class falls along the middle of the curve. They would stand to benefit from a pass/fail grading system. Students at either tail-end would be harmed from a pass/fail mandate. Third, some people may view my position as insufficiently compassionate. Fair enough. Empathy was never my strong suit.

But I knew that my post would resonate in other quarters. There are some professors who vigorously oppose the pass/fail movement. They are less likely to publicly state their views for the three reasons I mention above, and others: they do not wish to alienate their colleagues. But they privately messaged me.

One professor wrote, "Just saw your article on law school credit/no credit grading and wanted to let you know that you nailed it. I was just steamrolled by my faculty on this — almost everyone but me joined the copy HARVARD-STANFORD train." Another wrote, "Great stuff. We are trying to stick to our guns, but it is getting increasingly hard." A third wrote, "The University informed our law school that we could not have a pass/fail option. We can only do all standard grading or all pass/fail. Seems pretty stupid to force us into that choice, but there we are." And so on.

I am not optimistic my position will prevail at law schools nationwide. But I hope my post gave some voice to professors who can respectfully dissent.

Tenure, in theory at least, is designed to insulate faculty members from pressure, so they can take unpopular positions they deem correct. I routinely write on controversial topics without concern to how I will be received by my colleagues. I am fortunate. But on many faculties, peer pressure serves as a natural limit on tenure's autonomy. Fighting over any particular faculty governance issue can strain relationships going forward. This crisis, too, shall pass. Current students will graduate, pass the bar, and maybe attend a few alumni events. Most of them will never step foot in the building after they graduate. Deans come and go. (The average tenure for a law school dean is about 3 years.) But the faculty remains. Conflicts from today can simmer for years to come.

Your position very well may be "steamrolled." My recommendation: ensure that any changes sunset automatically, and the normal order reverts in the Fall of 2020. Any future debates about grading should be held in calmer times, not during a calamity over Zoom. (By the way, my Zoom tutorial has over 4,000 views. Check it out if you need some help.)

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@Mike Perry,

The top three law schools all have pass/fail grading systems for years now, and one of them has had it for decades now. I guess meritocracy is just for the little lawyers. The important students can get by on their institutional cultural and social capital.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 29, 2020 11:59:11 AM

I'm glad to know this. Pass/fair cheats talented, hard-working students and rewards sloth. That's not how a law school creates good lawyers.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry, medical writer | Mar 25, 2020 5:13:03 PM