What is called grading? On the ontological structure of academia

The academy is in crisis. Adjunctification, outcome assessment, online learning, for-profit universities — all of these things have been decried as challenging the very foundations of the academic enterprise. Yet no one stops to ask what that foundation is. We have forgotten about the question of the being of academia. We must put ourselves in a position to ask it afresh, so that we can begin to sketch out the ontological structure of academia. (Here I limit myself to institutions of higher education — lower levels present different, though not unrelated, problems.)

Let us start from the assumption that the academic enterprise is a type of professional practice. Academics never achieved the clearly “professional” status of doctors and lawyers — and our ontological investigation may disclose the inner necessity of that failure — but that status remains an indispensable point of reference. Part of being a professional in the modern world is obviously being certified by the state to undertake some kind of activity in an authoritative way. Anyone can give medical or legal advice, but that does not make them a doctor or lawyer. Further, there are some aspects of being a doctor or lawyer that only “work” if the state certification is present. Not just anyone can write a prescription or rightly demand attorney-client privilege.

Broadly speaking, the aspects of professionality that require state certification to be effective are performative speech acts that the state has empowered the professional to undertake. This puts us into a position to ask: What are academics empowered to do? Certainly anyone can teach, and learning can and does take place outside the bounds of a set curriculum or institution. Similarly, anyone can conduct research, which is a task undertaken systematically by a variety of governmental agencies, corporations, and “think tanks” that make no claim to being academic institutions.

Just as with the other professions, what sets the academic apart from any other teacher or researcher is the power to perform a legitimate speech act — in this case, the performative speech act of grading. What we add to the learning process that cannot be gained in any other way is the system of grades, credits, and degrees. And this, incidentally, is why academics have never been professionals in the full sense that lawyers and doctors are. No professor is a “free-standing” grader who can start a private grading practice. Their authority to grade is contingent on their affiliation with an accredited academic institution. That institution can and often does delegate the authority to grade to people without what might be regarded as full academic qualifications (grad students, true adjuncts who teach a class reflecting their area of non-academic expertise, etc.). Such practices might call into question the legitimacy of academic certification, but the people so empowered are in fact so empowered. The grade of a grad student or a businessman who teaches one class or an exploited adjunct is a grade.

A similar structure holds for another performative speech act that is closely akin to grading: peer review. Again, an academic is not empowered to authoritatively review other academics’ writings unless that power has been delegated by a recognized academic journal. I might present my article to a journal with a dozen reader reports that I have commissioned myself, but that would not constitute peer review in the recognized sense. Here the power structure is much less defined, however, because the state has generally not taken an interest in certifying academic journals — it is content to allow academics to handle such matters among themselves, even when the state provides funding for certain types of research. This still holds true in places such as the U.K., where the state has been concerned to measure and direct academic research more firmly than the U.S. has done. While the state expresses a greater confidence in certain journals than in others, that confidence is still (at least ostensibly) based primarily on the relative reputation of journals among academics.

[Added: The traditional structure of academic employment follows the same broad outlines as well. The granting of tenure is a judgment on the part of relevant members of the academic institution that the candidate is worthy of permanent employment at the institution. Even if everyone in the world agrees that someone is qualified, what matters is the decision on the part of that person’s own institution. The same holds if the person is a total clown — if their institution judges them to be worthy of tenure, they have tenure.]

The authority to grade is necessarily vested in a broader institution because the goal of grading is to put together a series of credits and qualifications that will add up to something called a degree. A degree that relied on the word of only a single professor would not be credible. That is not, however, because a single professor cannot have the requisite knowledge to adequately assess every subject area. At Shimer College, for example, there are faculty members who have taught every course in the core curriculum, which makes up 2/3 of a student’s credits, and it does not seem to be a stretch to say that those faculty members would also be capable of offering a suitable range of electives commensurate with the remaining required credits. Though it would almost certainly never happen in practice, it would therefore be theoretically possible for a Shimer graduate to take classes with only one faculty member. Parallel situations can be imagined at other institutions as well.

No, the reason that a degree from a single professor would not be credible is that the degree comes from the institution and not the individual faculty member. The institution is structured in such a way as to require the consensus of a good number of its individual members before granting a degree. This is equally true of universities that base degree completion on comprehensive examinations rather than the accumulation of individual credits. While universities doubtless try to delegate their grading authority based on knowledge, the reason an academic’s grade counts is not because that person knows the most about the subject, but precisely because they have been authorized to teach and therefore grade a given course.

Yet surely, you may say, grading is based on knowledge? Our ontological investigation suggests the foundation is elsewhere. After all, anyone can learn anything at any time, yet that does not — taken purely in itself — entitle them to graded academic credit in the subject area. What grading certifies and assesses is the student’s performance of a series of academic ritual practices. Traditionally, those rituals include class sessions at recurring intervals, some combination of lecturing and discussion, and some type of written work. All aspects of the performance are graded, and those grades are somehow compiled to reach a final grade for the entire course, which then counts as credit toward the final meta-grade called a degree.

The practice of grading certainly legitimates itself by means of a claimed correlation between grades and knowledge, but that relationship does not need to hold in order for a grade to be a grade — any more than a doctor’s prescription has to be the best remedy in order to be fillable. Considered strictly ontologically, a grade reflects an authorized academic’s assessment of a student’s performance in a certain academic ritual at a certain time and place. I may get an A in physics and then forget everything over the summer, and my grade remains my grade. Similarly, I may get a D in physics but later in life come to a profound understanding of the subject — even so, my grade remains my grade.

There is no necessary relationship between knowledge and showing up to a certain number of class sessions, or satisfactorily completing an exam on a given day, or any other traditional academic ritual. A good professor will certainly try to make grades and learning correlate as much as possible, just as a good doctor will try to really heal people and a good lawyer will try to give the best legal advice. Yet the only necessary relationship is that between the ritual and the grade. And in the last analysis, the only ritual that is absolutely necessary is the academic’s own ritual process of submitting and certifying grades. The professor may choose to give grades based on non-academic factors (bribes, sexual favors, personal affinity), just as a doctor can write prescriptions for reasons unrelated to legitimate medical treatment. A good university will have processes in place to prevent those abuses — but unless and until such processes are undertaken, the corrupt grade is the student’s grade, simply and solely because it is the grade given by the authorized representative of the academic institution.

When viewed in this way, the academic enterprise can seem to have very little credibility. It appears to be purely self-referential and self-authorized — what it adds to the process of learning is finally not a promise of deeper or more permanent understanding, but simply the fact of having taken place in the academy. On the ontological level, the academic enterprise is a self-grounded practice of assessment and certification that, in the last analysis, certifies the fact that it has certified something. Yet just as in the other professions, its performative acts are legitimated by an outside standard to which they aspire. It’s just that the standard in the case of academia, namely knowledge and understanding in the broad sense, is inherently less well-defined than in the case of law or medicine. The development of “majors” and the proliferation of specific departments and programs can be viewed as an attempt to give greater definition to the sphere of academic certification — but the ever-growing range of majors and programs only serves to testify to the inherent undefinability of that sphere.

With the ontological structure of academia in mind, we can see that the contemporary situation of the academic enterprise is characterized by two contradictory impulses. The first is the attempt to reduce the academic enterprise to the function of knowledge-transmission by downplaying or even eliminating the qualitative element of the performative practice of grading. Outcome assessment, for instance, creates a parallel system alongside grading that attempts to measure student learning in an objective and quantifiable way. Meanwhile, MOOCs claim to offer the benefits of an elite university education to the masses. What undercuts both practices is that they have no claim to cultural recognition and legitimacy. Even assuming that an outcome assessment process is rigorous and accurate to the uttermost extent, it is not and never will be the same thing as the system of grading that culminates in the granting of a degree — and it is also obvious that learning through watching filmed lectures, however edifying and informative they may be, simply is not the same thing, ontologically speaking, as completing a college course.

The second impulse is the demand for ever broader academic certification. We see academic credit being granted for creative pursuits, for service work in the community, for internships — all activities that have their own goals and sources of legitimacy and yet have come to be viewed as appropriate objects of academic certification. Since academic certification has no set content, this impulse makes sense in a way that asking for a medical opinion on one’s service project or attorney-client privilege to discuss possible changes to one’s novel would not. Yet it threatens to make academic certification meaningless insofar as it would have no particular sphere to call its own. An academia that is empowered to certify everything is empowered to certify nothing in particular.

In short, we as a culture are demanding at once that academia cut out the element of qualitative performative certification in order to devote itself entirely to the ever more effective transmission of knowledge, and yet at the same time we are asking its blessing for an ever-increasing number of activities that have no direct relationship to traditional academic practices or pursuits. Yet the academic enterprise only exists in the tension between its ritual practice and the production and transmission of knowledge. The full achievement of either goal would mean the end of academia as a distinct practice — in either case, it would certify nothing, either by giving up its claim to certification or by extending it so widely that it becomes effectively meaningless.

This outcome is precisely what a clear view of the ontological structure of academia can help us avoid. With a confident grasp of that structure in hand, the academy can make informed decisions about whether, for example, outcome assessment can help us to refine our practices to bring grading more in line with learning or online educational models can be pursued with integrity. It can more clearly determine whether and how it should extend its practices of certification to non-traditional areas with an eye toward meeting social demands while remaining true to its own sources of legitimacy. And finally, it can help individual academics to approach with greater confidence the institutions that depend on their labor for legitimacy and to better understand their own conflicted relationships with those institutions, particularly in their present forms.

In short, if we can attain a greater grasp of what the academic enterprise is, we can begin to see how the contemporary situation might disclose a horizon of an authentic future of academia, a way for it to undertake necessary transformations without destroying itself either through pure quantification or through an overextended claim of qualification.

17 thoughts on “What is called grading? On the ontological structure of academia

  1. “Yet surely, you may say, grading is based on knowledge? Our ontological investigation suggests the foundation is elsewhere. After all, anyone can learn anything at any time, yet that does not — taken purely in itself — entitle them to graded academic credit in the subject area.”

    The fact that not anyone who has learned something is a claimant for a grade certainly doesn’t mean that the giving of the grade isn’t based on the knowledge or abilities of the person who is a claimant for a grade.

  2. Adam,

    So the qualitative ritual and the certification are the dyad that drives academic practice? Stuffy liberal arts school with all ritual but little useful certification, or MOOCS with all certification but no ritual, are bad?

  3. No! The ritual and the certification are the same thing. You can’t eliminate the qualitative, performative aspect of the certification. The dyad is between the ritual/certification and the actual learning and knowledge.

  4. I worked hard on reading, I wish Adam would be clearer. It’s finals here, and I thought the attention heroic.

    I meant that he qualitative ritual is the knowledge, but I can now see that to be a poor, poor choice of words. Cue *finals* and *back to grading*.

  5. It is not man that certifies, but much rather certifying that encertifies man… In the university, the essence of certification re-turns into the certification of essence… (Is there a Heideggerese generator somewhere online?)
    Seriously though, you seem to be looking at university from an academic standpoint (not surprisingly). You assume that knowledge/understanding is the basic goal of the institution, with the rituals and grading as a sort of necessary supplement that makes it possible; but I think for most postsecondary students it’s the ritual that is fundamental and knowledge is only to be temporarily acquired as needed to perform the rituals adequately. The point of university for most students is to certify that you can perform more or less arbitrary tasks with minimal supervision and are therefore fit to be employed in an office. (This might be another reason why there can’t be a single-professor degree: being able to operate within a faceless institution is one of the job skills certified by the university.) So the trend towards certifying everything makes sense for the university as a part of the broader trend of identifying work and life. If eg. your physical fitness affects your employability, then universities should offer certification for it. (I haven’t heard of this yet, but I expect it’s not far away.) Maybe things are different at small schools like Shimer, but this how things were at my alma mater of 30,000+. So I think you’re right in saying that the extension of certification to everything would destroy academia as such, ie. as an institution that is also related to the transmission of knowledge, the cultivation of intelligence, and the pursuit of research, but I don’t think it would necessarily destroy the university as an institution: the university would simply become a clearinghouse for certification.

  6. The ritual-certification aspect is definitely a “dangerous supplement,” and you’re right to point out that economic demands are creating a lot — though I’d say not all — of the push toward ever more “stamps of approval” from the university. Yet I don’t think it’s hopelessly naive to assume there’s some relationship between academia and knowledge. Even if it is observed ever more in the breach, the presumed relationship is the basis of academia’s social prestige. That’s why the university is trusted with giving “stamps of approval” in the first place.

  7. I guess what I’m wondering is why you feel that the institutional combination of teaching/knowledge and ritual/certification is worth preserving. It seems to me that maintaining the relationship between academia and knowledge means acting as the marketing department of a credential factory. “Come to X College, alma mater of Famous Professor Y and Distinguished Scientist Z!” From the administration’s perspective, the professors and serious students serve the same purpose as the football team. Is there any reason academics should continue to lend their prestige to institutions that have made it very clear that they are not interested in teaching or learning? (Other than the fact that they get paid to do so of course.)
    As you said, teaching and learning don’t require a classroom, curriculum, etc. There are lots of academics prophesying the demise of learning because of MOOCs and the like, but there’s nothing stopping them from renting a room at a community centre and giving lectures for free. (I’m talking primarily about low-resource fields like the humanities. Particle physics and molecular biology are harder to do on your own.) As teaching and learning become less and less possible in the academy, doesn’t that make non-academic venues more and more necessary? The popular “discover philosophy” type of classes have generally been done as a sort of New Age/self-help session, but it would be possible to offer intellectually rigourous philosophy classes outside of the academy, wouldn’t it? Introduction to Early Modern Philosophy, $20/week, 7:00-9:00 Wednesday nights.
    I’d also like to point out that the professor’s power to certify students depends on the administration’s power to certify professors. Being a guy who know a lot about physics doesn’t have the same prestige as being a professor of physics. Surely this is an important reason why academics don’t just abandon ship and pursue teaching outside of the academy, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the flow of prestige goes both ways: certification without knowledge is empty, knowledge without certification is useless. How do two inherently prestige-less social functions generate prestige by being combined in a single institution? A problem in the logic of social concepts.)

  8. Adam, you write that “Part of being a professional in the modern world is obviously being certified by the state to undertake some kind of activity in an authoritative way”.

    That’s certainly part of it, but it’s only part of it. At least as historians study professionalization, there are other aspects that are equally important. For instance, professions are organized into self-regulating bodies. Which is to say, that only doctors can certify someone as a doctor (even more: develop the criteria), and doctors are the judges when a doctor is held to have violated their professional duties. And these functions are part of the (presumptive) expertise of professions: only doctors are qualified to decide upon what doctors need to know. Similarly lawyers. Expertise is self-regulating, adheres to standards, is organized in professional organizations, etc.

    In this understanding, what are professions are not academics as a whole, but the various disciplines: historians, biologists, economists, etc, are the groups who set up criteria for and judge the work of their peers. And only certification by the relevant group can make you one — you can’t get a Ph.D. in mathematics from linguists or vice-versa.

    I don’t have the time or mental space right now to tease out the implications of this, but I think your conception of both the ontology of academia and your focus on grading might be dislodged using the above as a lever. (I also think your concession that non-academics can and do give valid grades is also a key one here.)

    Stephen Frug

    (who, I believe, gave you some twitter input on this piece, yes?)

  9. Stephen, The state certification is not the core of my argument. I use it as a way of getting at what is socially regarded as distinctive about each profession — it’s a starting point, not an axiom. And I don’t think that the AAR certified me as a scholar of religion — it was my institution as a whole. You get a PhD within a given department, but it’s a PhD from that particular school. There’s a mutual legitimation between the disciplines and the university, certainly, but there aren’t free-standing disciplinary organizations that give certification outside of universities.

    nonmanifestation, The question of why to keep the certification aspect at all is a good one, and it’s certainly not self-evident that we should. I suppose part of it is a certain conservatism on my part — why throw away a social institution if there’s nothing there to take its place? There’s a lot of great stuff that only the academy makes possible, even for the humanities, which a group meeting at Barnes and Noble would not make possible. But I also have a sense that the certification aspect is always going to be with us to some extent. There will always be a demand for easily legible credentials and for trusted authorities who can grant them. The question is whether we want those things to be useful and credible to the extent possible, or if we’re content to let them become total bullshit. And I say this as someone who’s been on the receiving end of the disconnect between certification and work, given the gap between my less prestigious degree and the above-average amount of academic writing I’ve done — somehow the latter is almost never enough to make up for the former.

  10. And Stephen — I’m not seeing any Twitter feedback on this piece. Are you thinking of when you answered my question about whether a recommendation was a performative? I’m sorry if you feel I should have credited you — I hereby do it now.

  11. You can’t get a Ph.D. without a university to house the department, but you can’t get a Ph.D. without a discipline, and those are organized cross-university. For that matter, the university as a whole gives law & medicine degrees too. But I don’t want to insist on the discipline as the key factor (although I think it is). Mostly what I’m suggesting is that there is a set of multiple criteria used for talking about professionalization, and that you seem to be taking too limited a view of it.

    Oh, and yeah, that twitter was a comment about the performatives. Less a cry for credit than a defensive reaction to your plea that people read you seriously (trying to show you I was at least minimally serious). It was a silly comment & I apologize for it.

  12. The fact that doctors and lawyers have entrusted a significant portion of their certification process to the university only supports my point. And I’m not “taking a view” of professionalization as such — like I said before, I’m taking that as an initial approximation, a first hunch. I go on to say why academics are not professionals in the full sense, and it’s precisely the need for an affiliation with a particular institution that is the reason for that.

  13. Isn’t the question really ‘what is this thing called academic credit?’

    It happens to involve grading, typically, but getting credit for what you’ve done happens all over the place (as you note, and as is quite obvious). Certifications. Internships – which are, in effect, informal certification programs. You are certified as someone who was an intern at such-and-such a place for 6 months, so you are a good bet to get a paid job at a place like it. College is kind of like a 4-year internship. (Obviously in other ways college is not like a 4-year internship.) Does the presence of grading, along the way, make academic ‘internships’ distinctive? Would a college that taught courses and granted degrees that people accepted as ‘credible’, but didn’t give grades, fail to be academic?

    Make a list of terms that involve relationships that are a bit like going to school and getting grades and then a degree:





    volunteer work

    taking a job because you think it will let you get a better job, once it’s on your resume

    hang around with a bunch of people for a while, establishing yourself, credibly, as someone who can do a certain sort of thing

    making a portfolio of your work

    doing something and putting it on the web, where people can see you did it, with the intention that people will come to think of you as a person capable of producing that kind of thing

    There are lots of ways that people can do things for a while and, for them, the (employment, earning) value of doing these things for a while largely consists in the fact that other people will then know they have done these things for a while, which will convince other people they can do such things.

    Note, by the way, that most of these things that are kind of like getting grades aren’t speech acts, per se. And the ones that are aren’t performatives. The model is more Gricean than Austinian. You do something, knowing that other people will draw reasonable inferences about it. Implicature, not illocution.

    You write: “what sets the academic apart from any other teacher or researcher is the power to perform a legitimate speech act — in this case, the performative speech act of grading.”

    In fact, this is something that sets academics together with every storefront taekwondo school and boy scout troop. The performative capacity to confer colored belts or patches or pieces of paper . It does not follow that, for purposes of mapping the future of academia, academics should be thought of as more like boy scout troop leaders than they are like people who might be teaching academic subjects online, only not for credit.

    It strikes me that the bottom line is not grading but credit, which is basically a way of saying: credibility. Academia has an edge in the credit market, at present, largely via a grading model. And the question is whether MOOC’s, or some other model, are going to start horning in on that, transforming the whole business, even if they can’t, hence don’t, ‘grade’, traditionally. Grading is one way of establishing academic credibility. The question is: are there others that will eventually compete, credibly?

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