Paper Trail


Grades. Is there a more difficult and dangerous topic for students? We all know we don’t go to school for grades – we go for an education. Right? Well, easier said than done.

As a professor, I have to give grades, and I take them seriously. Ideally, they should be of no surprise to the student. That’s my goal, anyway. Students should feel, looking at their grade, and reflecting, that they were understood to be working hard -or not, succeeding -or not, and meeting expectations -or not. A tough grade, or a great grade, should expose the truth, and be the final lesson. It isn’t the lasting impression, however. Years later, I don’t remember grades. I remember the person’s character. A grade is all business – it’s not an assessment of the person themselves.


How scary then, to be reminded publicly that ex-students remember those truths – sometimes forever. At Rhode Island School of Design, we write paragraphs to explain our written grades called Student Progress Reports, so there’s a paper trail. In today’s world of interrconnectedness, the private truths that I’ve written can float out there and can pop up at any time. One just did. I was filled with terror on first glace.


Lucky for me, it was in the form of a compliment*, from my high-profile, ex-student, Clara Lieu on her popular blog. She’s now a columnist for the Huffington Post and an influential teacher in the foundation department at RISD. She got a great grade and report from me that semester ( which is not a surprise to those who know her). It could just as easily been a terrific and/or famous ex-student with a not-so great grade. That’s happened, too. We can’t all be terrific all the time. There are bound to be classes that don’t go as hoped, and unfortunately, the grade is a reflection of that.

For me, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t give grades for written grades. Spelling and grammar could kill me.

*”When I took Fred Lynch’s class over Wintersession in 1996, I was a complete wreck. I had a miserable experience in the fall semester of my sophomore year, and decided to switch into the Illustration department. Fred’s class was the one requirement that I had to make up in order to change majors.  I had no idea what to expect, and at the time, I didn’t even really know what illustration was. I didn’t feel confident about switching majors either.  A friend of mine switched and I followed him because I didn’t know what else to do. Fred’s class turned out to be a pivotal moment in my time at RISD.  His class was refreshing, exciting and highly stimulating.  I didn’t know that group crits could be so challenging, and yet have me laughing throughout.  I couldn’t have asked for a smoother, more inspiring transition into the Illustration department.”

Illustratons by Honore Daumier (1808-79)