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March 12, 2010 3:36 AM   Subscribe

Relative to other schools, public-commuter and engineering schools grade harshly.... [This] may help explain why undergraduate students are increasingly disengaged from learning and why the US has difficulty filling its employment needs in engineering and technology.
posted by twoleftfeet (114 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Or, you know, students could actually put some work in, and not expect an A for showing up.
posted by SansPoint at 4:00 AM on March 12, 2010 [13 favorites]


Does that explain why students from other countries in US engineering schools do so well?

(And WTF is a "public-commuter" school?)
posted by DU at 4:14 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is funny that people talk about grade point averages as if they were a useful comparison outside of the individual classes - we all know about teachers that are easy As or give just about everybody a C right? But are people so concerned about their grades that they would opt out of sciences / engineering just so their GPA would be higher?

My bafflement at all this probably is related to my complete failure in all academic pursuits, but it seems really dysfunctional that people would be avoiding classes just because they would bring their grades down - because theoretically these would be the things you have the most to learn from, right?
posted by idiopath at 4:17 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


(And WTF is a "public-commuter" school?)

A "public-commuter" school is a community college; no on campus housing, just classes. There's some evidence that grade inflation hasn't affected engineering schools or community colleges as much as other schools.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:19 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


One can read that second graph as a measure of relative difficulty as well: Engineering courses are simply more difficult than Humanities and Social Sciences. Duh.

As for the first graph, grades vs time: the trend was expected but the shape of the curve is interesting.
posted by AndYouWillKnowUsByTheTrailOfBread at 4:24 AM on March 12, 2010


This is not a US-only phenomenon. Certainly all over Europe, and probably elsewhere in the world, engineering is considered a tougher proposition for undergraduates than some humanities courses. It is for this reason that Dilbert jokes about nerds being led by art history majors who enrolled in college to spend their time looking at pictures of scantily-clad ladies generally translate rather well.
posted by Skeptic at 4:24 AM on March 12, 2010


Engineering schools grade more harshly? Anyone who went to a major university with an engineering school could tell you that. If you fuck up your bridge design, the bridge collapses spectacularly. If you fuck up your analysis of agricultural shifts under Merovingian rule in the 8th century, well, you'll be a little embarrassed. If anyone notices.

As Dilbert said to the children on career day, the goal of every engineer is to retire without having been blamed for a major catastrophe.
posted by Justinian at 4:33 AM on March 12, 2010 [30 favorites]


(And WTF is a "public-commuter" school?)
public school= Publicly-funded (i.e. state school)
commuter school=a large majority of the students do not live on campus. Few dorms and/or 'school spirit' activities. They're often found in large metro areas that can draw students still living at home.

They're usually 4-year schools, not community colleges.
posted by theclaw at 4:36 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Grades are an arbitrary scale just because the class is harder doesn't mean the grade mapping should be different. The issue oddly is one of human perception scientists and engineers believe they should be as harsh as possible and so they are, irrationally.
posted by Rubbstone at 4:37 AM on March 12, 2010


This is an interesting topic, but there are some serious problems with the empirical methodology in the link.

The biggest issue I see is the selection of students into majors. Say someone knows that they aren't the best academically, they may well choose a science or engineering major because even with a low GPA they can find steady employment, whereas with a humanities major that might be more of a problem. Then science and engineering fields will tend to have lower GPA because of the students that choose those classes, not because of different standards. I am not saying this is necessarily how things actually work, just that it is an obvious problem with these types of simple comparisons.

There are also issues with selection of students into schools. If students favor private schools then the best students (based on their application materials) will all go to private schools. Controlling for SAT or selectivity does not solve the problem. You need to identify students who were offered admission at both a public and private school, and compare their GPAs. This would control for the selection by the admissions committees, but dealing with the student's decision might be more complex.
posted by thrako at 4:40 AM on March 12, 2010


the US has difficulty filling its employment needs in engineering and technology.

Is this really true? I know lots of engineering/mathy/techy recent grads who can't find jobs. You always hear people saying that there are not enough technical people in the US, but it's not like anyone is hiring either.
posted by bluefly at 4:41 AM on March 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


As Dilbert said to the children on career day, the goal of every engineer is to retire without having been blamed for a major catastrophe.

My favorite version of this is the (QFT) joke: "What's the difference between doctors and engineers? Doctors only kill people one at a time."

Canadian engineers wear iron rings as a reminder.
posted by availablelight at 4:41 AM on March 12, 2010 [13 favorites]


the US has difficulty filling its employment needs in engineering and technology.

Talk to my friends who are laid-off-and-still-looking civil engineers, mechanical engineers, and IT specialists.
posted by availablelight at 4:43 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


This also reminds me of an anecdote in college. In order to make "Renaissance men" out of us uncouth engineering students, we were required to get some credits from another, non-technical faculty. I chose "International Politics II". I was already surprised enough to be accepted into that course before having attended "International Politics I", and I was even more surprised when I noticed that the course basically consisted of a rather mediocre weekly discussion of the news. Then, at the end of the course, the professor summoned from among the class the two engineering students (me and a girl). He was clearly worried.
"This is very awkward, you know. Your faculty insists that I give you...er...an exam. I'm really not used to that sort of thing, you know." The "exam" (something which he truly uttered as a four-letter word), ultimately consisted of some small talk in his office. He asked us how high we'd like to be graded, and we both got As. Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.
posted by Skeptic at 4:50 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the last semester of my senior year in engineering school, the famously hard nosed professor teaching a course in "professional development" gave me a 'D' for my efforts in a period when most of the rest of my class was coasting to the finish line of their college careers. Over thirty years later, I've finally come to accept the wisdom of his action which implanted in me the importance of trying just as hard at the end of an endeavor as in the beginning.

I still hate that prick.
posted by digsrus at 4:51 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Engineering courses are simply more difficult than Humanities and Social Sciences. Duh.

I'd like to see you navelgaze on Being and Time for sixteen fucking pages and then go talk about Sartre for an hour in French without actually having read Sartre, Mr. Math and Science dude!
posted by Pollomacho at 4:56 AM on March 12, 2010 [10 favorites]


It is funny that people talk about grade point averages as if they were a useful comparison outside of the individual classes - we all know about teachers that are easy As or give just about everybody a C right?

At least in my experience it was a fairly systematic phenomenon that Engineering courses were harder to get a good grade in than humanities courses. For example, in the typical engineering course, the exams would be purposely difficult to the point that the highest grade anyone would get out of 80 students would be something like 70 out of 100 points, and they would always be graded on a curve. Add in the fact that these courses generally had some of the smartest and hardest working students in them, and it was relatively easy to get a C even if you knew the material well and put a lot of effort in.

For the average humanities course, in contrast, the exams would often be multiple choice covering material that was known in advance, so that getting 100% of the points would be relatively easy given a decent amount of studying. And those courses were generally not graded on a curve, so simply paying attention to the lectures and doing the reading would be enough to get an A, even if everyone else in the class had also learned enough to get that grade.

That's all anecdotal information from my particular experience at my particular school, and I definitely took more engineering courses in general than humanities courses, but it was often my experience that courses that people in other majors pointed to as their most difficult were relatively easy compared to even the lowest level engineering courses.

But are people so concerned about their grades that they would opt out of sciences / engineering just so their GPA would be higher?

There tends to be a lot of pressure from a lot of different directions to maintain a high GPA in college. For one thing, most people get a degree with the expectation that it will help them get a job after they graduate, and these days an undergraduate degree is the bare minimum and it's hard to make it to an interview if you have no experience and a low GPA.

Even during college there are reasons why having a low GPA can have consequences. My roommate, for example, needed financial aid to be able to pay his tuition, and when he dropped below a certain GPA his financial aid got cut off. Even after he switched to a different major outside of engineering, his GPA from the engineering courses that he had flunked out of kept him from meeting the minimum requirements, and he eventually had to take a semester off and take some courses at a community college instead. On the other side of things, I was in an honors program that I had planned my course-work around, and I would have been kicked out of that if my GPA, and especially my in-major GPA, ever dropped below a relatively high standard.

I think top engineering programs are keeping their grading standards higher than other programs on purpose, too. At my university, the engineering department had the lowest acceptance rate for incoming students, and many of the first year courses were notorious "weed out" classes that were very difficult for most students. I think all of that sent a message to students that if you aren't able to perform at a very high level then you shouldn't be in an engineering program.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:02 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


As Dilbert said to the children on career day, the goal of every engineer is to retire without having been blamed for a major catastrophe

Or lawsuit. We have a $200 million one in the works against us right now.

Also, Ive been working in NYC for 5 years and have yet to have an American in my department, or at least one whos not a second generation immigrant.
posted by freshundz at 5:07 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


A "public-commuter" school is a community college

No, they're just referring to schools with a majority commuter student base. For instance, my school, Portland State University, is a commuter school. There's under a couple thousand on-campus housing units but over twenty thousand students. Now, it's a bit skewed because it's in downtown Portland and there's a lot of students that live a block away from their classes but are in private housing, but it's still a commuter school. They're referring to these, compared to say, a place like UO.
posted by floam at 5:08 AM on March 12, 2010


I went to an Engineering School. The school offered engineering degrees, hard science degrees, architecture, and also had a "School of Management" which seems to be popular with this type of institution.

To give a sense of scale, when the architecture students burnt out they switched majors to civil engineering. The folks that got in on sports scholarships (they give those at engineering schools?!) were mostly in the Management School, but to be fair there was one hockey player and one football player in my Aero program.

The only class I ever was forced to take pass/fail was a humanities class, a photography course that I thought was going to be a lot more hands on than it was. Turned out to be an "art appreciation" style course, and the professor and I disagreed about how art should be appreciated. This type of course is really hard for an analytical mind -

Prof: "What does this line tell us about the tone of the photograph?"
Me: "It tells us... that there is a wall behind the subject?"
posted by backseatpilot at 5:08 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


It depends on the engineering school you go to, I guess. I went to a middling Canadian engineering school. There were bullshit courses. Software engineering, for instance, consisted of multiple choice questions of the form: "Are you against virtue? (Y/N)". Anybody with a brain could have passed the test without taking the class.

It is true that there are bullshit classes in the humanities. But there are also hard classes where, if you don't keep up with the (copious) reading, you'll sink. It's also true that in the humanities there are usually no "hard" prerequisite like you have in math or engineering, and that the difficulty of a class depends more on the prof than on the number at the end. This means that my only 400-level class in French lit was actually easier than the two 300-level ones I took.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:11 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I'm glad that the people who design the bridges and buildings I use are held to a high standard.

That said, in Literature, we've been told that our enrolment is down because we grade too hard, too. Successful students can take a biology or a physics course and do very well, work hard, and earn an A+, whereas in the humanities we're often told we don't use the "full spectrum of grades." The truth is, it is just hard to give somebody that high of a grade on an essay if they don't know how to use a comma correctly, or they clearly didn't do any research, so much as find some random sources and pepper the paper with a quotation here and there.
posted by synecdoche at 5:26 AM on March 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Math/Science courses are way easier, you just have to read the textbook and do the problems, and go to three or four days of class per quarter. For the humanities you usually have to actually go to class at least once a week to pass; that's way more time away from video games and partying.

Seriously though, there's no trouble finding engineers, there's trouble paying what they are worth. People in management often can't seem to stomach the thought that analytical skills have real value, and should be paid accordingly. It doesn't help that most technical types aren't tough negotiators. If it weren't for H1B visas making the field so much cheaper, they'd be paying enough that plenty of people would want to do technical careers, and plenty of out of work 'overqualified' people would be getting hired at a realistic salary.

Or maybe they'd just have another wave of outsourcing and poor project control. Probably that.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:30 AM on March 12, 2010


Pollomacho I'd like to see you navelgaze on Being and Time for sixteen fucking pages and then go talk about Sartre for an hour in French without actually having read Sartre, Mr. Math and Science dude!

Actually, any engineer can do that (especially after some booze). It's listening to him that would be hard (painful, distressing).
posted by Skeptic at 5:30 AM on March 12, 2010


You know what pissed me off? When I got Bs in the shlock humanities courses we all had to take, where my papers were perfect but the hippie dippie prof didn't feel justified in giving an A to something that contradicted her opinions.

At least in the real courses there is an objective measure of reality.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:31 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow. No offense if the authors are here, but that article is bafflingly terrible and I'm astonished it made it through any sort of peer review.

As is obvious, it completely disregards any measurement of mastery of material or anything else related to learning. It wouldn't be THAT hard to find half-assed proxies for this; just use general GRE / subject GRE / MCAT / GMAT etc averages and postgraduate testing participation rates. The author's statements assume that students are doing more or less the same work at all institutions and getting worse grades at commuters schools. My own sense is that if all work were graded the same, students at commuter schools would have far lower grades than they actually do. Differences between the modal student, and their work, at different kinds of institutions is immense.

Then there are the little things. Their histogram isn't; that's a kernel density plot. And so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:32 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Relative to other schools, public-commuter and engineering schools grade harshly..

Or relative to other schools, public-commuter and engineering schools grade properly. There is little room for the grade inflation seen in the humanities. Calculus is done correctly or is not.
posted by three blind mice at 5:34 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.

I'm not a Poli Sci major, but somehow I'm guessing that your experience was really, really out of the ordinary.

That said, obviously engineering degrees are going to be tougher. It's just a hard subject and it's important to weed out shitty engineers. It is a problem at my school that most engineers have to drop out of the honors program while everyone else can stay in it - I think if grades shouldn't be inflated, programs like that should be adjusted to compensate.

Then again, do you need an awesome engineering GPA to get a job (when people are actually getting jobs) the way you might need a 4.0 in Poli Sci to keep up with grade inflation? I've always thought not, but feel free to correct me.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:35 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Film at 11.

Engineers believe that value is always a quantity. Nothing complicated about that.

They would, however, be wrong.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:36 AM on March 12, 2010 [9 favorites]


He asked us how high we'd like to be graded, and we both got As. Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.

That's okay. This one time I read a book by this guy who was an engineer, and it was full of weird Velikovskian nonsense and other claptrap, and ever since I've had trouble mustering any respect for engineering graduates.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:38 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Does that explain why students from other countries in US engineering schools do so well?

I just skimmed that article, but I don't see that graph. Is that a personal observation? As a graduate from a top-ranked engineering college (who knows people who graduated from a variety of engineering colleges), students from other countries in US engineering schools seem to do no worse and no better than their US counterparts. My one observation is that they have a higher motivation to avoid dropping out and are really GPA-focused (lower GPA == harder to get a job == expired workers visa).
posted by muddgirl at 5:42 AM on March 12, 2010


My own sense is that if all work were graded the same, students at commuter schools would have far lower grades than they actually do.

Why?
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:44 AM on March 12, 2010


That said, obviously engineering degrees are going to be tougher.

That's not entirely true.

It's true that engineering programs require a lot of math, and many students find math difficult. But many students also don't find math particularly difficult, and a good portion of those students are, outside of math, mediocre or worse. I've met many a student who can do differential equations but is otherwise as sharp as a sack of wet mice.

And it's certainly true that engineering programs generally require a higher course load, so you're busier.

But I've known plenty of engineering students who were plugging along doing unspectacularly but not badly and who just plain weren't that smart, and who spent a lot of time drunk and rarely attended class.

There is little room for the grade inflation seen in the humanities. Calculus is done correctly or is not.

There's immense room for grade inflation in math-based courses in how much partial credit you award for wrong answers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:49 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


It seems like "a shortage of xxx" (engineers, programmers, pilots, whatever) usually means that wages for doing xxx have yet to collapse, and "we're having trouble filling these jobs" usually means that management is unwilling to pay the going rate.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:51 AM on March 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


... Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.

Good thing the professor didn't ask you if your personal experience constitutes data, because then you might have gotten an A-.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:52 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah put me in the column of people that want to only drive over the bridges of the engineers that didn't get a degree through extra-credit and curves.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 6:03 AM on March 12, 2010


Why?

Many of them are smart enough but poorly prepared for college-level work, and many of them are just plain not very smart. There are good students in these schools -- people who for one reason or another can't or won't leave the area to go to college, mostly. But there are also an awful lot of students at schools like this who didn't get into Flagship State U, and didn't get into Regional Residential State U, and only got into We'll Take You With A Pulse And A Tuition Check State U. Or students who either out of necessity or because they don't know better trying to take a full load while working full time, which just doesn't work very well.

And at many/most schools, it's just not acceptable to fail everyone, even if they did failing work, and someone's going to get an A, even if nobody did A work.

Since this thread has anecdotes, back in grad school I taught introductory American politics at NC State, and I wrote my exams, which were mostly fill in the blank or give me a one or two word answer, so students averaged around 70. So I show up at a third-tier public mostly-commuter school in Texas and teach their equivalent of that course. I figured that students there were unlikely to know and contact NCSU students for the old exams, so I pretty much just re-used an old exam for their first exam. Class average: 35. A large part of it seemed to be that students there were simply unable to deal with an exam that wasn't multiple choice.

Anyway, during the time I was there, I must have had something like 3000 students pass through that course, as it was required. And I can tell you pretty confidently that if I had applied the same standards to the students as I did at NCSU, not to mention Duke, that I would have failed 50-70% of them. As it was, I usually failed about 20-25%. I can't tell you the number of failing students who'd ask me whether they should buy the book or other questions that made it clear that they were just not prepared to do actual college work.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:05 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I majored in computer science, which is not engineering but also has a reputation for harsh grading. The grading actually wasn't that harsh -- it's just that the material is hard for a lot of people. It seemed like half the class failed the intro courses, not because the graders were being picky or demanding too much but because half the students could not complete the assignments. They had plenty of help -- there were tutors and fellow students willing to go over a concept again or even look over some code -- but they just couldn't do the work.

You just can't make an engineering major easy enough for the average college student to get As and Bs in without turning out graduates who aren't fit to be engineers.
posted by callmejay at 6:05 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


A friend of mine missed her chance to get into med school after her first degree because she majored in biochemistry instead of biology or chemistry and the biochemistry dept. at our school had a much harsher grading scheme than the others. Engineering students can be proud of their tougher time of it if they like but it would be better for them to actually try and fix the disparity in grading if they want to compete for slots in other second degree programs against people from easier majors.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:07 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, there is just so, so much question begging in that article, starting with the idea that GPAs are essentially exogenous to the student.
posted by PMdixon at 6:07 AM on March 12, 2010


... Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.

ROU_Xenophobe That's okay. This one time I read a book by this guy who was an engineer, and it was full of weird Velikovskian nonsense and other claptrap, and ever since I've had trouble mustering any respect for engineering graduates.

l33tpolicywonk Good thing the professor didn't ask you if your personal experience constitutes data, because then you might have gotten an A-.

We are touchy, aren't we? It isn't like other data points had done much to change my opinion. Anyway, I'd like to know what motivates anybody to study Political Science, other than:

a) An inclination to tell other people what's good for them (aka "leadership"); and
b) being simultaneously too lazy for management school.

(Also, ROU_Xenophobe, you raise an interesting point: I can't muster much respect either for many engineers when they start talking outside of their subjects. I studied next to plenty of "idiots savants", and I may well be one myself. The curious thing about political scientists is that I have trouble finding one whom I can respect when the subject is politics.)
posted by Skeptic at 6:17 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have graded at an elite American private university, and I have been graded at a public-commuter university.

In the humanities, the expectations at the elite university were higher -- the readings were often longer and more difficult. However, this does not mean that the students did all of the work. The only time the students did most of the reading was when the amount was similar to that which was assigned at the public commuter school.

Grading at the elite school was seriously inflated. The A work was truly exceptional; the high A- work was excellent. But the low A- work usually should have received a B, the mid-to-low B work should have received C's, and so forth. That is, they would have received Bs and Cs at a commuter school.

The pressure to grade inflate came from students through evaluations and through direct complaints. But they also came from the faculty in their expectations for grade distribution.

Grade inflation was not a problem across the whole university. Philosophy, notably, had a strict and well enforced grading policy, as did economics. In both deprtments, the support for this came from the tenured faculty.

Only tenured faculty can actually do anything -- if they want to -- to stop grade inflation.

And they should -- grade inflation hurts students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it hurts the students who "benefit" by giving them an inflated sense of their mastery of the material.

All teachers want their students to do well -- but we are doing them a disservice by reducing our ability to evaluate their progress. They can't tell when they are getting a bit better because their grades are already so squished in.
posted by jb at 6:22 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's immense room for grade inflation in math-based courses in how much partial credit you award for wrong answers.

Though to get partial credit, you had to at least have started doing something right. As long as the TA isn't playing favorites, the measure is reasonably objective, in the same way as gymnastics judging or restaurant health inspections.

Considering that math classes are usually graded on a curve anyway, what you really have is a measurement of students against each other, not necessarily how much they understand, with the assumption that teaching ability and student ability remain constant from semester to semester. Which is, of course, the reason engineering schools aren't as afflicted with grade inflation.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 6:25 AM on March 12, 2010


three blind mice wrote: "There is little room for the grade inflation seen in the humanities. Calculus is done correctly or is not."
Too glib, I think. A class full of bad-to-mediocre calculus students can still be "curved" into a distribution that goes all the way from F to A -- with As going to students who occasionally did calculus "correctly". Grade inflation is pretty much independent of actual student performance; this has to do with the myriad of issues that ROU_Xenophobe brought up.
posted by secretseasons at 6:28 AM on March 12, 2010


Engineers believe that value is always a quantity. Nothing complicated about that.

You're thinking of MBAs.

I still all these years later chafe at the memory of a particularly ineffectual high-school science teacher, who assigned a big paper months in advance. The weekend before it was due, I scampered to complete it. Monday morning I walked into class and handed it to him; he seemed puzzled, bu accepted it.

On Friday, he announced, "You know, folks, that big paper was due on Monday... if I don't start seeing them next week sometime, I'm going to start thinking about taking off some points."

This story stands out for me because I hated that guy so much, but it was not really atypical. My Big 10 college career was largely similar.

Americans have made every endeavor an act of 'consumption'.
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:29 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Though to get partial credit, you had to at least have started doing something right.

No, you don't. It is physically possible for an instructor to assign partial credit merely for effort if they so desire.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:33 AM on March 12, 2010


ROU has excellent points -- obviously, as a teacher he has had a wider view to commuter universities than I would have as a student.

That said, grade inflation at elite universities is real and it is a problem. The average grades in Philosophy and Economics were in the B's where I was grading; the average grade in History was an A-, and other majors took History classes to improve their grade point average. Unless you want to argue that history majors are just naturally smarter, or that one gets smarter from learning more history (and I will not argue with either point), it's clear that there is a problem with grading in that department.

The work isn't easier, nor are the expectations subjective. But the expectations are not as clearly articulated by the faculty as they could be and those who grade -- primarily graduate students -- were given almost no teacher training on how to articulate the problems with student work.
posted by jb at 6:35 AM on March 12, 2010


The best thing about kids freaking out over their grades is that most people will never be asked for their transcript once they leave school. Hell, I've been in the workforce for over 15 years, and none of my employers have even asked for proof of the degrees I list on my resume. I could be a high school dropout for all they know.
posted by you just lost the game at 6:37 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I'd like to know what motivates anybody to study Political Science, other than:

a) An inclination to tell other people what's good for them (aka "leadership"); and
b) being simultaneously too lazy for management school.


I realize that you're just trolling, and honestly not particularly well, but for the benefit of anyone else who might wonder:

An interest in binding collective choices made under resource constraints. And an interest in how different rules or systems for making collective choices influence the path from individual preferences to binding outcome.

But most people who study political science do so because they're stupid morons with ugly faces and big butts and their butts smell and they like to kiss their own butts, you're right.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 AM on March 12, 2010 [16 favorites]


I'm curious why the harsh grading creates a lack of American engineers. While I was an engineering student we were often treated harshly by some of the professors but I've heard stories that professors in India are worse and nobody is talking about the lack of Indian engineers.

Perhaps engineering is less appealing in the US when one can make a quick fortune in finance.
posted by redyaky at 6:41 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Say someone knows that they aren't the best academically, they may well choose a science or engineering major because even with a low GPA they can find steady employment, whereas with a humanities major that might be more of a problem.
I don't know about that, but I have noticed that students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be attracted to "practical" majors. For instance, first-generation college students are much more likely than kids whose parents went to college to want to major in something like accounting or engineering that leads directly to a job upon graduation. And since there's a lot of research that shows that first-generation college students get worse grades at least in their first year or so, that could account for some of the grade disparity.

I don't think it accounts for all of it, though.
posted by craichead at 6:44 AM on March 12, 2010


My favorite version of this is the (QFT) joke: "What's the difference between doctors and engineers? Doctors only kill people one at a time."

My favorite version of that joke came from Professor Wang, whose exuberant lecture voice was one of his best tools for trying to keep his sleepy MechE students awake in morning classes. "When doctor screws up, one person dies. When engineer screws up, thousand people die! Everybody dead!!!"
posted by roystgnr at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2010 [11 favorites]


It appears that sometime in the 1950s to 1960s, the major purpose of grading at colleges and universities changed from an internal measure and motivator of student performance to a measure principally used for external evaluation of graduates.
If the grading is done on a curve, grade inflation doesn't happen. College and university teachers who grade on curve are often subject to coercion from peers and administration. Complain about grade inflation and become an instant pariah.

They switched from internal to external feedback at the same time as the post-secondary system vastly expanded to absorb the baby boom bulge. Industrially speaking, the loss of quality with expansion of scale shouldn't be a surprise.
posted by warbaby at 7:02 AM on March 12, 2010


But are people so concerned about their grades that they would opt out of sciences / engineering just so their GPA would be higher?

Yes, absolutely.

Given the choice between being magna cum laude in psych or sociology or 75% percentile in physics or engineering, a lot of people choose the one that'll get them the higher GPA.

And I'm not sure it's even a particularly irrational decision -- if you're not hell-bent on going into a particular discipline, a lot of employers look harder at your GPA than at your major. I know of some companies (mostly big firms who hire a lot of college grads right out of school) which even tie initial compensation packages directly to GPA or graduating percentile, and don't care much about majors beyond whether they're a B.S. or B.A.

If you know you want to actually work as an engineer or a physicist, then of course it makes no sense; but if you're like most students I've met, who only have a very vague idea of what they want to do and will probably end up working in a field only peripherally related (at best) to their major on graduation, given the effect that first-job starting salary has on career earning power, it might make sense to go the GPA-maximizing route.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:02 AM on March 12, 2010


In what class do engineers learn to become elitist, dismissive jerks? I'm asking because I see we have some A students in here.
posted by mpbx at 7:04 AM on March 12, 2010


I went to an engineering school, and still vividly recall my first O-chem exam: the class average was in the high 30s.

So, yeah, hard grading. I later encountered a young woman who had graduated from a college that was then called "Our Lady of the Elms", a woman who told everyone she met that she had a 4.0 average in college. So, yeah, I'm ready to believe that different colleges have different grading standards.

Anyway, to move beyond personal anecdotes, the thing I was struck by in the article was the steep grade inflation during the '60s. The draft was part of this: at the time, America had a wacky, explicitly class-based system that handed out draft deferrals to college students.

Now, you can say all you want about "60's liberalism", and moan about declining standards, and all of that - but I went to college in the '70s, and heard from two different professors that - back during the days of conscription - they simply refused on principle to give out "F"s.

Because they did not want the young man's death in Vietnam to be on their conscience. "Score high or die."
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:08 AM on March 12, 2010 [11 favorites]


Well, in the US, they always say do what you're good at. I was desperately afraid of failing and thought if I picked a subject I could do really well in, I'd at least seem like a great catch to grad schools and future employers, and fool them into hiring me.

It worked!
posted by anniecat at 7:11 AM on March 12, 2010


My undergrad was in Film Studies, which was about as hippy-dippy as you could get, and I quickly grew disillusioned by the subjective nature of the grading. I was frustrated that there didn't seem to be any "right" or "wrong" answers, which took all of the satisfaction out of getting good grades and, in my mind, devalued the education I was receiving.

What I wish I'd understood then was that humanities courses are less about getting the "right" answer than they are the process of developing your critical thinking skills, which in my case they certainly did. Whether this was worth $--,--- is certainly debatable, but the issue isn't as straightforward as self-hating humanities undergrads would have you believe.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:13 AM on March 12, 2010


synecdoche: "Successful students can take a biology or a physics course and do very well, work hard, and earn an A+, whereas in the humanities we're often told we don't use the 'full spectrum of grades.' The truth is, it is just hard to give somebody that high of a grade on an essay if they don't know how to use a comma correctly, or they clearly didn't do any research, so much as find some random sources and pepper the paper with a quotation here and there."

Successful students can work hard, and earn an A, in nearly any course. That's why they are successful students. Anyone who has ever tried to grade science writing knows full well that your comment about essays applies equally to writing in the sciences or in the humanities. In fact it's often harder to do scientific writing, because it's a different type of mindset and grammatical rules coupled with an entirely alien vocabulary (to a new writer, at least). The truth is, it's very hard in the sciences to give anyone a good grade if it becomes clear that he or she is simply parroting back facts, but does not understand the framework the facts support. If students can't apply the knowledge to solve new problems, they aren't going to make it. I can't tell you how many times I have given students examples in class, then presented them with a test problem asking them to solve a problem nearly identical to the examples - changing only one or two details - only to see a large percentage of them get it wrong, and then blame me for asking them about something they "didn't study" before in class. It's depressing, frankly.

Grade inflation is a problem. Student entitlement is a problem. These problems are not going to be solved by making science and engineering schools easier. If science were easy, we wouldn't be having national debates about whether climate change or evolution are real.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:20 AM on March 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


We'd be debating the reasons, and the mechanisms maybe, but not the facts.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:20 AM on March 12, 2010


You know what pissed me off? When I got Bs in the shlock humanities courses we all had to take, where my papers were perfect but the hippie dippie prof didn't feel justified in giving an A to something that contradicted her opinions.

At least in the real courses there is an objective measure of reality.


As a former instructor in the humanities, current tiny ecommerce company IT generalist, and lifelong contrarian, can I just emphasize how thrilled I always was when someone wrote a paper that contradicted my opinions?

The sorts of students who said things like this were usually smart sci/tech kids who rather aggressively didn't care about the material. Their grammatical, correct but shallow, knocked-together-in-two-hours-and-it-shows essays deserved the B minuses and C plusses that they received.
posted by Kwine at 7:29 AM on March 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


One of the things that is interesting about the link is the absolute lack of any transparency around grading standards. i wonder if it's another free market thing? Do other countries have some sort of national grading standards or are we talking about a US problem?
posted by Xurando at 7:30 AM on March 12, 2010


My own anecdotal experience largely mirrors ROU_Xenophobe's. The less-selective schools I have taught at tended to have a higher proportion of students who were ill-prepared, both academically and socially, for college. The more-selective schools have not only tended to have students who were better prepared, but these students were also the ones who would complain more if you gave them the grades they actually deserved. Explaining to them that *because* they are at a more-selective school, the standards are therefore higher did not, in my experience, work. So I totally understand the impetus to inflate grades, because helicopter parents and invective-filled emails get tiresome after a while.

I've never had a single student at my current university, a public-commuter school, complain about a failing grade.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:43 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now, you can say all you want about "60's liberalism", and moan about declining standards, and all of that - but I went to college in the '70s, and heard from two different professors that - back during the days of conscription - they simply refused on principle to give out "F"s.
My friend's mom had a professor who decided that the principled thing to do was to have two grading scales: one for men and one for women. The men were ranged between A and C, and the women were ranged between C and F. That way he could have the appropriate spread without threatening the men's draft exemptions.

The whole system was deeply screwed up.
If the grading is done on a curve, grade inflation doesn't happen.
That's true, but sometimes correct evaluation doesn't happen, either. Especially in small discussion classes, sometimes the students either lift each other up or pull each other down. Sometimes you also get a group of either very motivated or very unmotivated students who all deliberately take the same class. I've had classes where most of the class did excellent work, and I've had classes where most of the class did pretty terrible work.
posted by craichead at 7:44 AM on March 12, 2010


I used to tell this anecdote to senior high school students about the difference in grade standards at the big name engineering university I was at:

You're given a calculus assignment. Ten questions, each of which takes around 10-15 minutes of work to complete (proofs and solving systems of pde's, for example). You answer eight questions correctly, misplace a negative sign on question nine, and make two major blunders in theory on question ten.

Grade in high school: no points for question 10, partial credit for question 9. 8.5/10.
Grade in university: ten possible points, three mistakes. 7/10.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:55 AM on March 12, 2010


When I went to engineering school, the bane of our existence was not necessarily the engineering courses per se, but the courses you had to take in engineering, science, or math, outside of your department. In general, the professors who taught these classes seemed to be the ones that their respective departments thought they could spare to teach a class or two to outsiders -- the professors may have been brilliant researchers, perhaps, but generally mediocre-to-poor teachers.

There was a professor who taught the entry level physics class (required for basically every kind of engineer) who somehow gave multiple choice tests where people did abominably bad. As in, the tests were multiple choice with four choices for each question and the average would be around twenty to thirty percent. There was one guy I knew who literally just answered "C" for every question on his scantron and left within ten minutes, and wound up with a grade that was better than probably fifty percent of people in the class. All of them were curved upwards to a C-average eventually, but looking at your first exam and seeing that you got a 25 is not exactly encouraging.

In my intro-level chemistry class, during the final exam, a guy across the aisle from me sat down, opened his test, and started looking it over. As he was reading through it, his eyes grew wider and he started manically flipping through it, finally screaming "FUCK!!" at the top of his lungs as he tore it apart and threw the pieces on the ground around him. He ran out the door, with the professor standing bewildered at the front of the class.
(As it turned out, the guy had an A in the course and didn't even need to take the exam -- he was basically just screwing with everyone else. The experience was sort of terrifying, though.)

Class size seems to make a big difference too, and I guess at my school class size roughly correlated with where you were in your degree. As you progressed, classes got smaller and smaller. But for the intro level classes, there were sometimes as many as 1000 students in a class, broken into two or three sections and held in the largest auditorium on campus. It would seem to me that any kind of grading other than blunt, objective multiple-choice grading without any room for partial credit or subjectivity would be completely impossible. Even if the professor had an army of TAs, it would still take weeks to grade even simple assignments.

The thing is, and at least this was true for me in mechanical engineering, as you specialize and get past the weed-out classes you sort of settle into classes that are much smaller and all interrelated and taught by professors who are actually interested in teaching you (if you're interested in learning), your professors are able to view your work more subjectively and give you as much credit as you deserve on assignments. It was my experience that towards your junior and senior years, your GPA would increase significantly unless you had been just barely sliding through before.
posted by malthas at 8:32 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was accepted into an enineering school and transferred to Arts & Science in July....before I even I showed up. My best friend still bemoans the paper I got back from a prof (in my major, English) which said at the top, "You failed to defend you thesis. A-" Style over substance, baby!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:55 AM on March 12, 2010


Best I can tell, this is what the paper did:

Looked at the incoming SAT scores of the students, then looked at their grades in college. They then plotted the grades as a curve based on their deviation from their "expected" grades based on their SAT scores. Engineering schools had lower grades. Public communter schools have a heavier (but not stunningly large) "low grade" contingent.

It's not that difficult: engineering schools cover very difficult material and have harder grading standards. Public commuter schools are going to cater to a different set of students with different academic background of preparation than flagship public universities, even equalizing for SAT scores.

Plus, in engineering grades matter less. You are still going to get a good-paying engineering job with a B-/C+ average. If you went to someplace like Georgia Tech, CalTech, or MIT, many prestigious graduate schools are going to look favorably upon your undergraduate research experiences as well as the quality of the school when considering you for Ph.D. programs, even if you didn't get all As. Med schools and law schools are going to weigh your LSAT and MCAT scores fairly heavily, much more so than if you got all As in political science.
posted by deanc at 9:08 AM on March 12, 2010


I tell my students (humanities/social science) at the beginning of every semester that they can get a high grade for being brilliant or for busting their ass, just like in real life (where I tend to think busting your ass counts for a bit more, actually). I do give a lot of As, but I can defend them, because I explain exactly what you have to do to get the A even if you can't grasp all the ideas perfectly. I hate the mystification of talent as an essential quality. If you work to your potential, you deserve a high mark. Students start from different places. It's my philosophy, as long as there are still grades, which I actually think are unnecessary anyway.

My students tend to bust their asses no matter how smart they are as a result of my policy. I collect evidence of hard work as well as evidence of quality work. The two are usually, of course, closely related.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:12 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is an interesting topic, but there are some serious problems with the empirical methodology in the link.

The biggest issue I see is the selection of students into majors. Say someone knows that they aren't the best academically, they may well choose a science or engineering major because even with a low GPA they can find steady employment, whereas with a humanities major that might be more of a problem. Then science and engineering fields will tend to have lower GPA because of the students that choose those classes, not because of different standards. I am not saying this is necessarily how things actually work, just that it is an obvious problem with these types of simple comparisons.


I looked at this problem for my undergraduate thesis, and found fairly strong evidence that grade differences are not explained by selection effects. In fact, there's some support for the proposition that weak students sort out of sciences / engineering, because grades in those disciplines communicate more information.

If you're a weaker student, all other things equal you want to be in a discipline where everyone gets the same grade, because you can conceal your type. Separating equilibrium.
posted by grobstein at 9:40 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ever since I've had a lot of trouble mustering any respect for Poli Sci graduates.

A large part of it seemed to be that students there were simply unable to deal with an exam that wasn't multiple choice.


I had no idea this is how school worked in the US. I've had conversations with American Poli Sci grads and found it odd how much of their knowledge seemed to revolve around "the founding fathers" and how little had any relevance outside the USA or even in general terms (in terms of overarching theories, ideologies, etc). Even proofread one of my sister's exes 4th year poli sci paper (U. Mass), and it was like something out of a Canadian high school senior civics class. I thought he was just going to fail or something, not that this was indicative of the caliber of the course.

At any rate, if the descriptions in this thread are true, I would hope people think long and hard about their decision to pump $30,000 a year into these schools for an "education."
posted by Kirk Grim at 9:44 AM on March 12, 2010


Anyway, I'd like to know what motivates anybody to study Political Science, other than:

a) An inclination to tell other people what's good for them (aka "leadership"); and
b) being simultaneously too lazy for management school.


Wow what an uninformed opinion. I got a BA in polisci with concentrations in conlaw and international relations because I was going to go to law school.

I never did, but my understanding of foreign political systems was invaluable in my overseas development and mission work. Maybe I should have majored in biology - I'm sure that would have helped me come to a greater understanding of NAFTA and its implications for Mexican farm owners.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:25 AM on March 12, 2010


Yeah, there are lots of interesting topics in political science (which is a big field where different programs can have wildly, incompatibly different focuses). But -- as with many fields -- undergrad work can be pretty silly.
posted by grobstein at 10:28 AM on March 12, 2010


Maybe engineering teachers grade as if it's an exact measure of something, while humanities faculty see grades as part of a complex social phenomenon.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:36 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


At any rate, if the descriptions in this thread are true, I would hope people think long and hard about their decision to pump $30,000 a year into these schools for an "education."

Public commuter schools cost a damn sight less than $30K. The primary costs of public commuters schools are living expenses (which you have to pay anyway if you want to live, and so aren't really a cost of school) and the opportunity cost of foregone income. Tuition and fees are (usually) negligible compared to those.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:38 AM on March 12, 2010


Yeah, there are lots of interesting topics in political science (which is a big field where different programs can have wildly, incompatibly different focuses). But -- as with many fields -- undergrad work can be pretty silly.

You, sir, are dangerously near the point of "Press Button For Long-Winded Angry Rant."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:40 AM on March 12, 2010


ROU_Xenophobe:

Sorry if I misunderstood, up here in Canada we don't seem to have quite as many categories of school. There was pretty much just college, university, and technical institutes when I graduated high school.

We also often hear horror stories here about American tuition fees being in the $30,000 range, while the most expensive programs in Canada tend to be less than $15,000 per year (for programs like dentistry) and the average is usually around $5,000 per year for undergrad programs. That includes the high-end, high-profile, well-respected schools as well as the ones like I went to.
posted by Kirk Grim at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2010


But the expectations are not as clearly articulated by the faculty as they could be and those who grade -- primarily graduate students -- were given almost no teacher training on how to articulate the problems with student work.

This was my experience in grad school (history). I was one of two assigned graders for an intro freshman European history course handling half of the essays as a first-semester grad student. I got essentially no guidance from the professor teaching the course, and when I got hold of the other student who was grading in the class, who had been a grader the previous year, to ask for help, he mostly wanted to know how I'd gotten his phone number. I fumbled my way through grading papers and exams with no idea what I was doing. I eventually worked out what the curve was sort of supposed to be and did my best to grade to it within the general constraints of the class.

I have no idea whether my grades were inflated or not, but I don't feel like I was a competent grader, nor do I feel like I did a lot to improve student essay quality for the people I graded. It was a lowlight of my grad school experience.
posted by immlass at 10:56 AM on March 12, 2010


One of the differences between degrees like engineering and accounting and other undergrad degrees is that most undergrad degrees aren't meant to be "professional" degrees. If you major in engineering, once you graduate you can go to work at an engineering firm. That may be changing, as there's some push to make a masters the minimum qualification to be a professional engineer. But a BS in chemistry will maybe get you a job as a lab tech, and a BA in psych won't get you anywhere near a position as a therapist.
posted by electroboy at 10:58 AM on March 12, 2010


This story stands out for me because I hated that guy so much, but it was not really atypical. My Big 10 college career was largely similar.

I was a graduate student, and had a class where the prof revised everyone's grade upward after the end of the semester because he had so many students complain. As a student who'd gotten an A on the non-revised scale, I felt pretty well cheated, yeah.

On the other hand, the very best educational experience I ever had was at a college that didn't assign grades. Students planned their semester's work with their advisor and carried it out, and both student and advisor wrote narrative evaluations at the end of the term about what worked, what didn't, what was strong, what were weaknesses, and so on. It was actually challenging to me because I'd spent so long at institutions where less-than-my-best got me an A or an A-; stepping outside the grading system, you had little incentive to do less than your best work, if that makes any sense.

Or you could consciously decide to do less than your best--for one long paper I had to write to graduate, after it had been through a couple of revisions my advisor had pointed out some remaining weaknesses. I asked her if it was good enough to be accepted as-is, and she said yes, and since it was not in my main area of interest, I was able to say, "Ok then, I'm done with it," without any harsh penalties.

For the record, in my academic career I've attended (in order):

1. One of those commuter schools discussed above, but as a resident student.

2. A second-rate state college.

3. A nationally-ranked flagship state college (where I got my BA).

4. Another of #3, where I got an MA.

5. The no-grades college, where I got an MFA.

So I have a pretty wide spectrum of experience.
posted by not that girl at 11:04 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry if I misunderstood, up here in Canada we don't seem to have quite as many categories of school. There was pretty much just college, university, and technical institutes when I graduated high school.

A public commuter school is either a college or university (depending on whether you mean the Quebec or not-Quebec sense of college; college and university are almost synonyms in the US).

A public commuter school is public in that it is owned and operated by the State, as opposed to some private nonprofit.

It's a commuter school in that the overwhelming majority of students already lived in the metro area and commute to class rather than living on or near campus and away from home.

That's all. In Canada, just about all universities are public. A public commuter school might be someplace like U of T-Scarborough or U of T-Mississauga, though I'm not familiar with them and they could be strongly residential.

In 2008, average tuition at public universities in the US (for state residents) was *googles* about $6500.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:25 AM on March 12, 2010


"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States."...

I know some engineers who break into six figures, and think in some metro areas, an average one even might, but I'm pretty sure that nationally the average one doesn't.

Meanwhile:

"Consider someone ... of high IQ and drive ... going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year...

"Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric...

"A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm, a judge, or a professor at a law school supplementing her $200,000 per year salary with some private work."

I took enough classes from other fields to know that just because you're not doing natural sciences or engineering doesn't mean that it's a cakewalk. But none of these classes ever touched the difficulty of some of the 100/200 level physics classes I took... in fact, I'm pretty sure the only class I took that was harder than my freshman electromagnetism class was a graduate-level math course in matrix analysis.

The cost-benefit analyses isn't the only reason to go to college or pick a field, but I don't think engineering and the natural sciences come out very well. The difficulty of the subject matter and the harsh grading means that such a choice is not optimal for the actual experience of going to school. And the limits on earning power mean that such a choice isn't optimal for increasing earning power. The only thing left is if you really like solving engineering problems, in which case, more power to you.

Like Greenspun, I like to ask myself what we'd do if we really cared about this:

1) Harsh Grading? There's only two ways to go with this: softer standards (bad, bad idea) or better instruction and a more nurturing program (difficult to implement).
2) Middlin' financial rewards? Higher compensation for engineers and technical talent so they're on par with what you see for doctors, lawyers, and business leadership (but who will voluntarily pay for such higher compensation?).
3) Interest in the field itself? I don't know what you can do about this, but to the extent that this is a nurture vs nature issue, providing kids with exposure to the field and somehow mitigating social pressures against technical interest might help.

I guess we make various half-measures at #3. Policymakers rarely touch on #2. This article is one of the few that I've ever heard at #1.

Also like Greenspun, my conclusion is that we don't really care about this.
posted by weston at 11:56 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


My name is Wittgenstein and I have grade inflated.
When people with high pass rates keep their jobs and those with low pass rates lose them, a very clear message is sent to instructors. And, I do teach Calculus. I agree that it's harder to inflate grades in math than it is in some other subjects, but I can guarantee you it is happening every day.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:57 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


strong>BrotherCaine: "People in management often can't seem to stomach the thought that analytical skills have real value, and should be paid accordingly. "

Damn. They never mentioned that before...
posted by sneebler at 11:58 AM on March 12, 2010


"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States."...

The problem with that often-linked article is that it assumes your first preference is a job in academia and working in industry is for losers who couldn't get tenure.
posted by electroboy at 12:07 PM on March 12, 2010


I know some engineers who break into six figures, and think in some metro areas, an average one even might, but I'm pretty sure that nationally the average one doesn't.

Meanwhile:

"Consider someone ... of high IQ and drive ... going into medicine. This person would very likely be a top specialist of some sort, earning at least $300,000 per year...

"Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic, going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric...


What? How do you think you get "fast track" at a company "such as" General Electric? You think you get an MBA? No, you get an engineering degree, bust your butt at $70k for a couple years and network network network.

So yes, "engineers" don't make that much money compared to, say, managers. But managers, by and large, were once engineers.
posted by muddgirl at 12:11 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't recall taking any multiple choice exams in my Poli Sci courses. Perhaps in the initial introductory courses - that is, the courses everyone had to take, regardless of major - but in the courses comprising the actual Poli Sci curriculum (at my supposedly "third tier public commuter school" in Texas)? Nope. The exams were more along the lines of, "Here's a subject you weren't expecting. Give me 10 pages. You have 45 minutes." I used to tell people that, if I learned at least one thing as a Poli Sci major, it's that your median nerve can only take so much.

Well, that and analytical thinking skills. Not like anyone ever needed those, though.

Of course, written exams = subjective grading, so, as long as you had your shit together, pulling at least a B was easy enough. Was that grade inflation? Perhaps. Was it a cakewalk? Not really. Consistently having your shit together ain't as easy it sounds - especially for an undergraduate. But it's something worth learning if you expect to survive in the Real World™. Perhaps that's the more important thing when all is said and done. I'm pragmatic like that, though.

Nowadays, I work with a bunch of rocket scientist engineers who graduated from top schools with near 4.0 GPAs. I write, negotiate and manage the multi-million dollar contracts that keep them both busy and gainfully employed. They seem to appreciate having me around.
posted by jal0021 at 12:36 PM on March 12, 2010


that they can get a high grade for being brilliant or for busting their ass, just like in real life (where I tend to think busting your ass counts for a bit more, actually).

No it doesn't. Being good-looking, rich, and popular is what really counts in real jobs that your students get after college.
posted by anniecat at 12:38 PM on March 12, 2010


How do you think you get "fast track" at a company "such as" General Electric? [...] [Y]ou get an engineering degree, bust your butt at $70k for a couple years and network network network.

In my experience, you get an engineering degree, get promoted laterally several times as different departments realize you don't have a head for figures, and slouch upward toward Babylon.
posted by Rat Spatula at 12:46 PM on March 12, 2010


get promoted laterally several times as different departments realize you don't have a head for figures

Given that most of us have taken three semesters of calc, differential equations, linear algebra and a few discipline specific computational classes, you don't often see an engineer that doesn't have a head for figures.
posted by electroboy at 12:53 PM on March 12, 2010


Grading has always been a conundrum for teachers. At least at a college or university there's an expectation of excellence. You are there, not forced to be so, and presumably can be held 100% accountable for your performance.

When you are a teacher in an inner-city high school, you are acutely aware that your students are battle-scarred. I taught Freshmen and I felt that if I could engage them, and reward them in increments, that perhaps they would be encouraged and WANT to do well, versus contributing to the self-fulfilling, "I suck at school", prophesy.

Are grades a carrot or a stick? It's an interesting question when dealing with children. Do you demoralize a kid by successive bad grades? SHOULD you do so?
I had two criteria for getting a good grade in my class:

1. Did you show up, be moderately respectful, do the work, and try like hell? Then here’s your good grade.

2. Do you have mastery of the subject such that if I give you a good grade that you won’t embarrass me in another class?

Number 2 was for the Seniors who were trying to get their shit together and graduate. An 18 year-old in a class of 14-year-olds is a pathetic thing. I completely and totally understand why you’d prefer to hang out in the parking lot and read in your car. No problem. You prove to me that you can read and write at the Freshman level and I’ll pass you. Also, since you speak fluent Creole, can you talk to that table of girls back there and explain the assignment to them. Thanks, I really appreciate it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:02 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just finished an MS at a public-commuter school. Unfortunately for me, my education was almost completely financed by Teaching Assistantships, so I'm pretty familiar with some of these issues. My own anecdata suggests that the conclusions drawn in the linked piece are mostly wrong.

First of all, it bears mentioning that I'm the product of two very different educational environments: a selective private liberal arts college for my BA, and a public commuter school for my MS. The public commuter school was in a large state, and I wouldn't say that it was one of the better regarded institutions in the network of schools.

The main problem with my view is that the article didn't seem to make any effort to control for the quality of student found at the different type of institutions. Since more selective institutions have students who are better than the national average, is it surprising that their grades are better than average? Shouldn't we expect them to perform better than a group of students at a less selective institution?

This isn't to say that grade inflation doesn't exist. It does, and frankly, it existed at my public-commuted school more than at the private liberal-arts college I attended. As a TA, I was often responsible for most of the grading in courses I TAed. My experiences were pretty close to ROU_Xenophobe's. The labs were easy, and the students did poorly. In a typical lab section of 25 kids, I had maybe 1-3 kids who were bright-they made connections quickly, engaged with the material, and demonstrated a reasonably grasp of the subject. There were usually 4-10 more students whose work was competent but unspectacular. And below that was everyone else. Anyway, I don't want to bean plate this too much, but it sometimes felt that only half of the class or thereabouts got the grade they deserved. The few at the top really deserved their A, the few at the bottom really deserved their F. In between, it felt like everyone got fudged upwards a bit.

Another thing that ROU_Xenophobe said that rung true was there were plenty of bright kids who were poorly prepared, and plenty more who just weren't bright. That alone isn't too damning, but generally, the students were fairly lackadaisical about everything. People seeemed to think that mostly attending class was enough to get good grades. I got the impression that VERY few people actually did the assigned reading.

All in all, I didn't feel that my public-commuter school graded harder than my private liberal-arts college. Almost certainly, it was the reverse.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 2:29 PM on March 12, 2010


Should read "the main problem IN my view..." gah.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:05 PM on March 12, 2010


The problem with that often-linked article is that it assumes your first preference is a job in academia and working in industry is for losers who couldn't get tenure.

I don't see that assumption in the article at all. Not only does Greenspun touch on the topic of the relatively competitive salaries for industrial science related occupations, he seems to hold the general opinion that University life is a great passtime but a poor source of income. He also seems to have pretty much lived his life that way.

What? How do you think you get "fast track" at a company "such as" General Electric?

Get a finance degree and work for GE Capital, which holds more than 2/3 of GE's total assets. An MBA might work as well.

I suppose GE still designs and maybe even makes a few things as well as run a massive finance arm, so perhaps there are still some opportunities for engineers here and there as well. I've certainly met engineers in executive positions before. But in that context it's generally a remarkable thing, because they're a relative rarity there compared to people from other backgrounds.
posted by weston at 3:06 PM on March 12, 2010


"Engineer" is also pretty broad. As a programmer I fall under that general umbrella, but things are pretty different for us than many other engineers. Degrees are somewhat important (but not essential at most companies --- realistically though they certainly help), grades are pretty irrelevant. We are still hiring in general, and it's still really hard to find good candidates (vast, vast majority are rejected).

(At my engineering school, there was definitely no grade inflation, and I'd be at a huge disadvantage if my grades were directly compared to students from many other universities --- but it's really never come up. The only time an employer has ever asked for my transcript is my current one, 10+ years after I left school... so I doubt my B- average made much difference).
posted by wildcrdj at 3:06 PM on March 12, 2010


ROU -- all of the University of Toronto campuses are commuter schools. Actually, all three universities in Toronto are commuter schools. Toronto is just so big that even when universities draw a lot of students from away, the majority still are local and often live at home to save money.

And that maybe sums up what is so very different about American and Canadian universities -- the University of Toronto is certainly one of the top-ranked research institutions and (depending on the program and the campus) can be one of the more selective universities. But it's a massive commuter school, with a few residences attached (and the rezzies ignore the commuters and the commuters ignore the rezzies).
posted by jb at 3:43 PM on March 12, 2010


I've been teaching math for a while to undergraduates. I've never curved grades---if by this you mean forcing grades to be normally distributed, so that some students must get As, some students must fail, and everyone else is distributed along a bell curve. My colleagues don't grade like this either---even at the big state school I TAd at (although, of course in the big lecture sections there, the grades were pretty normally distributed, but they weren't forced to).

I'm currently teaching at a state university after having taught at a small liberal arts college, and one of the most striking differences in the student population is that here, failing just isn't that big of an issue for students. Having difficulties? No worries, just retake the course. Maybe a couple of times. And stop showing up to class, but never actually bother to withdraw (and therefore fail: it's not my problem that you don't have your act together). It's very strange.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:46 PM on March 12, 2010


Are there any non-commuter college/universities in Canada? In Montreal, UQAM doesn't have residences, and the other three have small ones with mostly foreign students. There might be more resident students at Bishop's, but all the other universities in Quebec are commuter schools.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:52 PM on March 12, 2010


All teachers want their students to do well

I'm not trying to start an argument but, in my experience, this is flatly untrue. I've had a lot of instructors who didn't get a crap one way or the other and I've also had to take classes with instructors who deliberately tried to screw students over. But, thanks to the tenure system, these people are untouchable no matter how badly they perform or unethically they behave.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:09 PM on March 12, 2010


You don't often see an engineer that doesn't have a head for figures.

I admit that I'm a programmer, not a real engineer; my continuous-math background stopped just past differential equations (there was an EE course on probability that kicked our asses good and hard; the class brain regularly set the curve at ~70% on our exams).

But I meet programmers without a head for figures all the time, and frequently in management positions.

Studying and working hard is great, but at many companies, if Fred's ass has been in his chair 18 months longer, then Fred gets the promotion. Grade inflation is real, and it's infected the workplace.

Which brings me to the point I really want to make; the managers I complained about, the ones who want to quantify everything? Their inability to understand that certain things can't be quantified is a direct consequence of their poor quantification skills.

I can't even count the number of programmers I've met who had a Big Idea, like writing software to automatically trade stocks or foreign currency. One intelligent-seeming individual who, following twenty-five years of programming, picked up an elementary physics textbook (after I insisted) because he was convinced he could unlock the secret power of steam to break the first law of thermodynamics and cool his house in Mexico without electricity.

My father* blames it all on the electronic calculator, and I'm inclined to agree with him. My heavy-handed rhetorical posturing, let me show you it:
He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.
On two occasions I have been asked, – "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
I realize this all sounds ranty as hell, like I'm sitting in my cubicle in the company basement, agonizing over my high-school physics paper fiasco and plotting how I'll win back my stapler, but I speak from a position of relative material success due to some good fortune; I'm a case study in drifting upwards. Give a kid three squares a day, a stable home life and the right kind of school district, and it's not too terribly hard to get where I am.

What really offends me is how little effort counts for in the real world. An analogy much like you'd find in some dumbass management book just occurred to me: E=mc2, where E is effort, m is just being born in the right place, and c is some huge fucking number that increases over time. Most of the kids around me drifted up too, simply because there wasn't anything stopping them from doing so. It's really rare and truly awe-inspiring to meet someone who really did lift themselves up from Serious Problemtown. And it's correspondingly frequent and soul-deadening to meet yet another entitled jerk, who's never really wanted for anything, but is damn sure he's tired of paying taxes so Mexican welfare transexuals can take our jobs. Those guys, the "personal responsibility" guys, are always the motherfuckers who start packing up at 4:45 so they can be in their car at 5:01.

*A real engineer whom I'll always feel I've disappointed by choosing discrete mathematics
posted by Rat Spatula at 5:24 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Are there any non-commuter college/universities in Canada?

Wilfred Laurier, UofWaterloo, Western, Queens, Nippissing, Guelph -- and that's just the Ontario ones. And lots more, in Ontario and out. Universities in small places, without a large population to draw from.
posted by jb at 6:25 PM on March 12, 2010


I guess at that rate Sherbrooke would be considered commuter too; most people live off-campus, but the university is the #1 employer in town.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:35 PM on March 12, 2010


Are there any non-commuter college/universities in Canada? In Montreal, UQAM doesn't have residences

Residential in the context of "commuter schools" doesn't mean "lives in dorms or other official university residences," but only "lives close to the university and not at home."

So, yeah, there are lots.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:30 PM on March 12, 2010


Everybody always thinks their major is the hard one, and all the majors they didn't take were a cakewalk. What are people trying to prove with that reasoning? Like anyone gives a shit what your grades were once you've graduated (except for further education etc). Half the time, they don't even care what your degree was, let alone major, let alone grades.

If you're the cream, you'll rise to the top, grades or no grades.
posted by smoke at 7:42 PM on March 12, 2010


I am currently going through Google's employment application process. They definitely ask for your GPA and sometimes request transcripts. My understanding is that they want to see transcripts if your GPA was low. I'm 30 and my recruiter indicated that my GPA was still important. It's not just for recent graduates. (But the joke's on them—I didn't complete my degree.)

No other tech company I've worked for has ever asked for my GPA. (I write software.)
posted by ryanrs at 9:02 PM on March 12, 2010


worked for applied at
posted by ryanrs at 9:05 PM on March 12, 2010


Grades are an arbitrary scale just because the class is harder doesn't mean the grade mapping should be different.

Utterly and totally false, Rubbstone. Grades are used to determine merit-based scholarships, desirability of employees (especially as new graduates, but really throughout one's career), and of course graduation itself. They are the opposite of arbitrary: they are the quintessential scale of student success.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:27 PM on March 12, 2010


I haven't yet read the thread, and thus don't deserve an A, but I know at my engineering college we were rather proud of the lack of grade inflation.

Of course, it was a bit of a bitch for people trying to get into grad school, but I felt like I earned the grades that I got and they meant more for it.
posted by flaterik at 9:30 PM on March 12, 2010


They are the opposite of arbitrary: they are the quintessential scale of student success.

I think the general complaint is that they're assigned arbitrarily and then interpreted as quintessence.

Which I largely agree with. I mean, I'm an "engineer" and my eternal grinding-axe is that physics class I mentioned.* I don't think one field of study is necessarily harder than another; it's all about how much both the student and the teacher are in love with the subject; teachers that can tell you "I once heard about a book you should read" are infinitely more valuable than teachers who regard themselves as the necessary stopping point.

See also: The decline of the apprenticeship.

*oh physics... how I thought I loved you... I made you a black poster with my crayons about poetry... why did you spurn me?
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:42 PM on March 12, 2010


I've taught several quantitative courses (biostatistics, quantitative genetics) to undergraduates in the animal sciences at two different land grant universities, both with Research I designations. There is tremendous variation among students, particularly between the pre-veterinary crowd made up primarily of students from urban/suburban backgrounds and the students from rural backgrounds. The former are -- in my experience -- much more aggressive about seeking high grades, which is certainly driven by the low admission rate to veterinary colleges. Many of the students from farm background intend to return to their home farms, and the grades per se are not of critical importance. Please note that this is NOT a statement about the relative intelligence or ability of the two groups. I had very good students and very poor students from both populations in about equal numbers.

What always shocked me was the poor background all students had in mathematical thinking. In a lecture introducing linear regression I rearranged the familiar algebraic equation y = mx + b as y = b + mx and immediately lost half of the class. I accept that I as the instructor that when that happens I've failed to do my job well. But it certainly is a challenge to imagine how that material can be presented in a simpler manner.

In my own experience as an undergraduate and graduate student there also was a lot of variability within and across departments with respect to grading. My undergraduate endocrinology course was graded very gently, while physiology of reproduction was quite tough. This variation seemed to me to reflect individual instructors much more so than the inherent difficulty of the subject.
posted by wintermind at 8:28 AM on March 13, 2010


Surely, you mean you rearranged the equation from Standard Form to Slope-Intercept Form (which, still, not good, but...); you can't possibly mean that half your class was confounded by commutivity?
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:58 AM on March 13, 2010


I don't see that assumption in the article at all.

Did you even read the article? It's all about becoming a tenured professor. The only point industry is mentioned is in one of the appendices, and as an option after you've been denied tenure. His argument against being a scientist in industry seems to be that you could make more selling real estate, which isn't particularly true these days.
posted by electroboy at 2:19 PM on March 13, 2010


Did you even read the article? It's all about becoming a tenured professor.

The likely trajectory of someone attempting to become a tenured professor is arguably Greenspun's main narrative focus, yes. But you said:

"it assumes your first preference is a job in academia and working in industry is for losers who couldn't get tenure."

And this is not at all the article's point.

If anything, what Greenspun is trying to tell you is that academia isn't all it's cracked up to be. Rather, it's often brutally unkind to even some of its brightest prospects. Meanwhile, the economic rewards it offers even to those who run the gauntlet successfully aren't that great, particularly when you consider (a) the investment you put in up front and (b) the kind of rewards you'd be more likely to receive if you put that investment elsewhere. He's not saying academics rule and everyone else is a loser. He's saying that science is generally a choice that ranges from suboptimal-ROI to outright losing outcomes for both academic and industrial tracks.

The only point industry is mentioned is in one of the appendices, and as an option after you've been denied tenure. His argument against being a scientist in industry seems to be that you could make more selling real estate, which isn't particularly true these days.

Nowhere in the article does he label industry as an option for people who somehow flunk out of the academic track. He's addressing the question of whether or not the rewards are greater in industry, and his conclusion is that the economic ROI is still poor relative to other professional options (among them real estate).

He also speculates that industrial science is also lacking in some of the rewards of participation that come with other jobs, among them academia. That might be where you're getting your reading, but from the way he generalizes those rewards, and from his comparison to the problem of choosing specialties in medicine (a field he's clearly championing as a winning choice), and most particularly, from his generally critical attitude about the way the academy rewards its prospects, I think it's pretty clear that this isn't particularly about academic snobbery.
posted by weston at 2:19 PM on March 15, 2010


I'm not sure Greenspun knows much about academia or industry. He doesn't offer any real statistics on salary, spins a bunch of fictional anecdotes, overestimates the time it takes to complete a phd and generally offers a bunch of unsupported opinions about a career he's never had.
posted by electroboy at 8:35 AM on March 16, 2010


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