Academics Anonymous: A case for anonymous grading at Amherst by Logan Seymour ’19


It seems odd that a college which has just opened an office for diversity and inclusion, one which makes such concerted efforts to combat discrimination, has not yet implemented a system of anonymous grading. Setting aside one particular idealism of a liberal arts education—a haughty presupposition that grades do not really matter anyway and that they do not adequately reflect the potential or virtue of a student—and meeting the cold eyes of fellowship requirements or postgraduate applications, one is struck by an alarming fact: grades matter.

At least they do for some people (of course, if they really do not matter, that says nothing about the student  except that they are probably more mentally stable). There is an even more optimistic assumption that higher education is an area where merit remains free from petty influences or interclassroom clout. This simply is not the case. How, then, must we ameliorate the distortion of perception which imbues these cases, which may manifest itself in unfair evaluation? Anonymous grading offers many solutions. I write with an assumption of grading when it comes to essays, particularly in the humanities, simply because the weight of subjectivity plays a larger role in evaluation in this field, and it is less quantitative than, say, a statistics exam; however, I am aware that bias does exist in STEM courses as well, and I advocate for anonymous grading across the board. Simply put, anonymous grading most adequately and fairly accesses the merit of a work.

A bold assertion: professors are people, too. However contentious this may be, this metaphysical fact guarantees that they are subject to the same social and psychological biases which affect the judgement of everyone else. In an ideal world—one a liberal arts school endeavors to produce—these effects are negligible. However, as noted, this is not and cannot be the case. From a professor’s perspective, as from any other’s perspective, a person’s work is really a function of that person, a reflection of their personality, of their gestalt, and analysis of that work could not possibly be severed from analysis of their overall identity. That the ‘background radiation’ of another’s personality would not enter into the grading process is simply unbelievable. This means that every comment in class—especially, I’d imagine, any vehement disagreement (which certainly should be encouraged, although one may shy from engaging in contentious discussion if it should affect his or her grade)—every visit to office hours, every previous work submitted, and all other niceties of a person in relation to their professor factor into each mark down each page. This is not the fault of the professor, of course. But to deny this is happening is to deny human nature, and we have conceded the professor’s hominid status already. Why shouldn’t we then implement the easiest solution to remove this bias?

Anonymous grading not only keeps the judgement of a student’s work neutral, but also it improves the student’s work. Once perception of unfairness is removed, however present it may or may not really be, the student can no longer perceive his or her feedback as unfair. If we admit that the students, with the exception of the rather simian trudge through finals week, are also human too, their reception to feedback will undoubtedly be altered based on what they think the professor thinks of them. And not only will they be more willing to embrace criticism of papers—which will engender a deeper appreciation of feedback and thus improve their writing—they will also be more inclined to take risks, both in written work and in class discussions. There is much less desire to dissent or to challenge a professor if it is thought that the grade will be subsequently affected because of it. Again, whether or not these factors actually affect grades is almost irrelevant—it is about removing the psychological implications of it being an option.

An objection that most often arises in pedagogical forums which discuss the issue of anonymous grading is that this method precludes much of the pre-grading feedback which may improve drafts of the work. How could you discuss with a student their work without knowing it is theirs? But there is no reason that student concerns, questions, or comments could not be submitted anonymously with a draft of the paper, allowing for the same general development seen in face-to-face interaction. (Of course, this assumes a draft is allowed in the first place, which, if not, begs the issue of why undergraduates should be expected to submit a work without the same professional feedback of, say, a professional.) Anonymous grading does not prohibit this process.      

If nothing is lost by either side, either by the professor or by the student (and if much actually stands to be gained instead), the question becomes simply: why not? A campus which has so effectively embraced and promoted diversity and inclusion, and by extension fairness, should strive towards equality in all aspects of the college, both in the students and in their work. After all, isn’t merit a large part of what we sublimate when we protect from discrimination in judgement? A person’s output, especially in academics, shouldn’t be given or not given value based on their identity, character, or otherwise. All the information a professor should need is on the page. Amherst needs to take steps in order to ensure that there is no chance that a student, and not their work, is graded.

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