Receiving bad marks can be a painful experience, but are they always justified? Thabo Huntgeburth argues bad marks tell us more about the state of higher education and intellectual diversity on campus than the individual quality of the student.
Bad marks have varying effects: for some students they are a sign that the teacher did not understand them, for others they represent proof of one’s own inadequacy. Both of these reactions have their justifications. They point to the interplay of structure and individual: ie the marking scheme (structure) and the student’s work (individual). And, while I used to subscribe to blaming myself (the individual) for bad grades, on closer reflection I tend now to the structural explanation. Specifically, our experiences of receiving bad marks are linked with ideological reproduction within the university and wider neoliberal social structures, something I want to explore here by drawing on my own and fellow students’ experiences.
Full disclosure, over the past academic year I have been consistently disappointed with my grades. Thus, I cannot claim neutrality vis-à-vis my chosen topic. However, I want to convince you how theory can – more objectively – make sense of my experiences and those of other students.
The most striking experience was the observation of a clear negative correlation between personal effort and mark: the more work we put into our essays, the worse the mark. Moreover, feedback on our essays was recurring: insufficient arguments, too complex. Sometimes, feedback appeared to not even refer to the points we made, but rather looked like unfair interpretations of them.
We would receive harsher criticism and worse grades when we followed our own academic interests.
But maybe, I hear you argue, we are just not fit for academic writing, our essays did not live up to the rigorous academic standards of our institutions. This is the tough-truth argument I used to tell myself. However, taking a scientific approach, my fellow students and I identified a pattern to this feedback: it was when we reached outside the syllabus.
In short, we would receive harsher criticism and worse grades when we followed our own academic interests to a different school of thought. Conversely, when we navigated our argument as closely as possible around the intellectual realm of our teacher, or the core readings, then we would be rewarded: we received the best grades when we were most disappointed with our work.
Caught in cognitive frameworks
Taking this perspective on grading helps to challenge the idea that we should seek the cause of bad grades in ourselves. I want to introduce the concept of cognitive frameworks I found in organisation theory (in a paper that was on none of my syllabi). Cognitive frameworks describe how individuals develop “cognitive shortcuts”, when they think deeply about particular subjects, and how people find it much easier to understand and develop ideas they are already familiar with.
For example, because I work on analytical philosophy, when someone tells me that a particular policy is unjust, because it violates Rawls’ Difference Principle, then I immediately understand what they mean and can respond accordingly. Disconcertingly, the tendency to understand and adhere to familiar approaches, rather than unfamiliar ones, stems from thinking long and deeply about one topic. This developed set of theories and concepts, which are coherent with each other and are based on shared fundamental assumptions, I want to call ideology.
Teachers have limited time to thoroughly engage with unfamiliar theories and concepts
The heart of the issue then is that academics have “shortcuts” only for the ideologies they engage with most. Real effort is required to engage with unfamiliar ones. However, at present, academics tend to be ever less able to make this extra effort. They are busy – preparing teaching materials, responding to emails, filing grant applications, providing and responding to performance documents, engaging in their own research, and then also reading and grading dozens of pages of students’ essays.
Anyone seriously listening to the demands of academics on the picket lines this year should know how stressful their job is. In such an environment, teachers have limited time to thoroughly engage with unfamiliar theories and concepts in their own research, let alone those their students employ. Our work can thus appear obscure, unclear, controversial. Unfamiliar material is inconvenient and encountered with more suspicion and less tolerance. Ultimately, students learn to remain within the syllabus and the teacher is not engaging with radically divergent ideas: ergo, ideological reproduction.
Marketised higher education
A similar observation was made – from the other side of the classroom – by the late David Graeber when he described how increased bureaucratisation of the university leads to a reduction in creative thinking. More specifically, as academics have to permanently track their performance, fill in forms, and apply for grants, their time to engage in more laborious creative thinking is reduced.
What is efficient teaching? The number of students passed, or our intellectual development?
Graeber attributes this stifling bureaucratisation to neoliberal reforms. Something that is ironic, as these reforms claimed to reduce bureaucracy via market mechanisms. However, does the idea of market efficiency make sense in a non-market environment such as the university? What is efficient teaching? The number of students passed, or our intellectual development? How do we measure intellectual development?
The uncertainty about appropriate indicators, the difficulty of measuring them, and the absence of any mechanism that maximises them results in a plethora of performance measures seeking to simulate market mechanisms. This charade of efficiency in academia, according to Graeber, creates a bureaucracy that devours the time of academics. Similarly, it is this same neoliberal bureaucratisation that eradicates the space that academics could have to engage with our thoughts when they are are more challenging and unfamiliar to them.
Further, this stagnation of creative thought functions also to stabilise the social system we are living in. Put differently, this neoliberal bureaucratisation eliminates our capacities to exceed our cognitive frameworks and challenge the status quo. As such, they are the same conditions that create the misapprehension, and thus bad essay marks.
An obvious critique of this stabilisation theory is that there are indeed many radical academics, such as Graeber was. Thus, you might argue that this does not benefit a neoliberal order. However, such an argument would ignore the relative marginalisation of radical thought. This may seem like a drastic depiction, inviting the question: if the situation is really so bad, why is it not critiqued more? The answer to this is: it is!
The recent strikes of our teachers showed us how bad their situation is. But, in contrast to their lived reality, the ideological dominance of neoliberalism makes us think that this is the best – “most efficient” – system there is, because it employs market principles. A belief that is, again, shaped by the dominant neoliberal cognitive frameworks: ideological reproduction, welcome back old friend! Finally, the losers of this system, ie those who receive bad grades, or who do not receive research grants, are blamed for their failing. The rejection of their ideas is blamed on their individual intellectual deficiency, rather than a structure that systematically sorts out their creative or radical thoughts.
It’s not your fault
So, the bad marks that me and my fellow students received, despite our efforts to produce creative intellectual work, is an indicator of ideological reproduction. This ideological reproduction is due to the established cognitive frameworks of our teachers that may not have the capacity to engage more thoroughly with divergent ideas. This lack of capacity, in turn, is produced by a neoliberal university that fosters the reproduction of the societal status quo.
Should we then be disappointment in ourselves about our grades, or should this disappointment be directed towards our neoliberal society? These pressures are hardly unique, but they are deeply felt, by myself, my fellow students, and our striking teachers. Therefore, reader, if you also feel too inferior, too stupid, or too intimidated to share your ideas, let me say: it’s not your fault!
This post was awarded runner-up in the LSE HE Essays in Education Blog Challenge in June 2022 in the student category.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.