The Subjective Grade -- Do Teachers Give "Fair" Grades?

If you think that your instructor is giving you more or fewer points than you feel that you earned on an assignment -- you may be right.

I work as a Teaching Assistant (TA), and in my years of grad school (as well as occasionally during my work as an undergrad) I sometimes need to grade the work of students. Generally, I enjoy it, but depending on the type of grading needed, it can also drive me crazy.

I've been in many types of grading situations. I have been given complete autonomy over grading some assignments. I have had instructors tell me that I am grading too strictly. I have had other instructors tell me that I am grading too leniently. I have read essays out loud to a blind instructor who then told me what to write and how to grade. I've placed exams into a mystical magical grading machine and had the decision taken completely and literally out of my hands. And in all of these cases, except arguably the last one, there is a frustrating amount of subjectivity in the grades assigned. In other words, room for points to be given that aren't deserved, and room for points to be taken away undeservedly.

It can be something as simple as how bad the student's handwriting is, which determines how far into the essay question the grader can get without becoming frustrated. It can depend on what order they grade the papers in, depending on whether they begin to feel more or less lenient at the tail end of a day of grading. It can, of course, depend on the relationship that is built with a student. It can even depend on how much time is given to complete the assignment of grading the assignments.

Subjective grading can be reduced somewhat by using "blind" grading procedures, where the grader doesn't know to whom the work belongs. Another way to reduce subjective grading is by using a grading rubric that is both thorough but also practical to apply. But at the end of the day, the grade given is to some degree up to chance.

Maybe that's a good thing when the system would give an undeserved grade and the grader can intervene to prevent injustice from the cold hard numbers. But more often than not, the subjectivity of grades seems to be a disservice to students.

What do you think? Is blind grading too impersonal? Do you find subjective grading useful for rewarding students who deserve it?

A Lack of Imagination -- Aphantasia

As a cognitive psychologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the brain works. It was shocking, then, when I recently learned that there is something in my brain that doesn't work. Specifically, that I am extremely lacking in my ability to generate mental imagery, a condition called aphantasia.

The most incredible part is that I made it this far in my life without realizing that the way that people describe mentally imagining (e.g., scenery, colors, memories, etc.) is a literal visual experience. I'm not sure how it hadn't occurred to me previously that the way that I mentally list things such as the colors of objects or events that happened is not the "normal" way of accomplishing these tasks. Apparently, because the experience of these mental states (moving pictures or lists of events for memories, for example) is a very subjective thing (perhaps even classifiable as a type of qualia), discovering that the way that you do it is different from other people takes some seriously frustrating discussion.

For me, it happened during a graduate course. We were discussing mental rotation, mental "zooming in", and other cognitive tasks such as imagining colors. I became increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, I interrupted the discussion to ask some questions along the lines of "But you can't really imagine colors, can you?" and "Surely this is all metaphorical, like, imagining traits of colors?" and "You actually see where something is in space when you imagine it?". But no, it turns out, as indicated by my lifelong navigation troubles, that when people claim to be imagining mental maps of spaces that they were accomplishing something that I had never quite learned to do.

This discovery led to me feeling really weird for a couple of days, and several discussions with friends as we tried to piece together how it is that I accomplish tasks that the average person uses mental imagery for. I also found out, now that I was paying attention, that my ability to use mental imagery isn't completely absent, just very impoverished. For example, when I am tired (e.g., just waking up) or asleep, I can do some basic visual imagining like other people apparently always can. I also believe that my abilities are improving, slightly, through exercising them -- whenever I walk through a building these days, I do my best to imagine what the map looks like. It takes a serious level of focus.

If you are interested in reading more about this, there are some recent articles such as this one:

Or check out this video from SciShow that explains how recent the naming of this condition was:

Like a Cat on an Infinite Waterslide -- Shallow Interactions

I've always felt challenged when attempting to keep my small talk small by a part of me that doesn't enjoy the "good, you?" and "fine, yourself?" conventions. I find myself wrestling with a twirling, maddening, urge to say something else entirely. I'm not sure to what extent my experience with this overthinking of small interactions is shared by others, but my guess is that it's a common thing uncommonly expressed (except perhaps here, in the safety of the net).

A typical strategy I find myself using when confronted by an unexpected small conversation is to say the first thing that pops into my head, which is typically supremely silly. The other day it was "Oh, you know, same as usual, just fighting crime in a dangerous city." Another day it was "The work never ends, I'm like a cat on an infinite waterslide."

What's interesting here is that I'm not sure whether I am being more or less authentic than the person who responds to a shallow platitude with just another shallow platitude. Am I more, or less, distant from my speaking partner when I make a joke instead? I'm not sure.

What I can say for sure is that the sheer abundance of shallow interactions navigated in the span of a single day makes me crave the deeper ones. The ones that twist into dark tunnels under the surface until they suddenly pop back out into the light, like whitewater rapids. But those come around so much less frequently, and must be spent wisely -- which is perhaps why sometimes, I find myself attempting to convert shallows into deeps.