Reflections on Teaching I: Grading is Symbolic Violence

Teaching Bourdieu is unpleasant. The phrase “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” is one of the worst articulations of a great idea ever. His discussion of “symbolic violence” is equally (which is to say, not very) straightforward. Symbolic violence is:

Violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity…through a set of fundamental, prereflexive assumptions that social agents engage by the mere fact of taking the world for granted, of accepting the world as it is, and of finding it natural because their mind is constructed according to cognitive structures that are issued out of the very structures of the world.

We are subject to symbolic violence when we see our own domination through the eyes of the dominant—as something that is deserved, natural, or just.

Grading is symbolic violence. What we teach is the outcome of past struggles. Some ideas make it into our classrooms, others don’t; some skills are rewarded, others aren’t. Defining what counts as an “A” is an act of power, but it is power that is enacted invisibly. And the students are complicit in their own subjection because they play the game, assuming grades are fair and objective measures of their talent. They’re right to think so, precisely because they live in a world where talent is your ability to get the “A.” It’s a classic, hopeless Bourdieusian trap.

This may seem hyperbolic, but this semester, the way social inequality manifests itself in the classroom was just too glaring not to take stock. I was, after all, a white male instructor teaching a class of forty-one that had—literally—a single white male from a syllabus that was composed almost only of readings from white males. While I think the claim—which many Berkeley students are well-primed to make—that we can only learn about race from an author of color, or gender from a woman, is pretty facile, it was nonetheless obvious that my students were struggling to assimilate knowledge that they knew was, on some level, not their own.

And so, with a bit of prodding, I changed things up a bit. I threw in some extra theorists, an awkward lecture on intersectionality, an extended class on Fanon and Said (who had been brushed over in lecture). More than that, though, I pushed my students to critique the theorists. I did my best to create a class where we analyzed the underlying assumptions and broader implications of social theory, rather than reiterated definitions and key concepts from lecture. I don’t want to oversell myself, but, halfway through the semester, many students who had seemed detached before had plugged in. And on the exam, it showed: their essays abounded with examples and extensions and critiques that never would have occurred to me.

Except that’s not what I was grading them on. I had a key, provided by the professor, for the essays. Multiple choice questions brook little interpretation. Lest I offload all the blame, in the end, my habitus is still that of an upper-middle class Princeton kid. And so I sat down to grade, and imposed the standards of good work I’ve been taught to value—analytic precision, clear exposition, accurate interpretation. When it was all done and I tallied up my eminently fair and objective spreadsheets of participation points and paper grades, my heart sank. I had taught my students one thing, and tested them on another. Maybe they’ll realize, or maybe they’ll see the As and Bs and Cs as honest measures of merit.

9 months ago, writing about the end of grade deflation at Princeton, I certainly didn’t see this that way. The playing field at an elite institution like Princeton, I convinced myself, was level enough that grades really did reflect some mixture of talent and effort. But at Berkeley, I can’t not see it: the way certain students struggle with my insistence that papers include an “argument,” while others conjure A papers the night before because, well, they’ve been doing it for a decade. The way some students breeze through the readings while other struggle in a language that is not their first. The tiredness of the students working three jobs when I ask them to recall a concept from a few weeks ago.

If grading is so violent, why do I do it? Perhaps because, when I see other GSIs using inflated grades to make up for the disadvantages imposed by an under-resourced public school, I can’t help but think they’re—in the long term—rendering those public diplomas worthless. Or maybe, I convince myself, teaching students to write, read, and talk like the dominant group might help them claw their way into it. Or maybe I’m just a coward. Teaching is a mind-fuck.

One thought on “Reflections on Teaching I: Grading is Symbolic Violence

  1. It’s a little complicated to change a grading system when you’re a GSI and have a rubric to follow. But I think the acts of resistance performed by other GSIs would not make public diplomas worthless: they’d make them more worthwhile – “public.”

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