Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stop Saying "Socially Constructed": "The Social Construction Of Grades" Edition

link

Here's the simple rule:

Never, ever use the term 'socially constructed' or its cognates.

It's a phrase that's worse than meaningless. It typically decreases the clarity of what you are saying--and thinking. If you have a thought at all, then it can be expressed much more clearly in different, clearer language. And sometimes the attempt to say what you actually mean will reveal to you that weren't sure what you meant, or that you had no real thought at all...

The article on the other end of the link is a frivolous thing. There's no reason to get cranky about it...  Behold, a summary:

Grades. Amirite?

Or, less snarkily:

Students want high grades even when their work isn't good.

And that's true. I'm not sure why we need another post on this...but, hell, I guess you can see this sort of thing as part of a discussion, and the same thing can be discussed many times. So it's all good.

Thing is, "social construction" has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the paper.

This is, actually, one of the common uses of 'socially constructed'--it's a kind of verbal tic. It doesn't mean anything, people just throw it into their writing. It's almost a stylistic element or somesuch.

Though the title of this piece is "The Social Construction of Grades," the only reference to "social construction" comes here:
I can't be that off the mark. But apparently, average work on my watch is another educator's version of excellent work. And the subjectivity is confusing to the students (and sometimes to their parents). 
The real issue for me around grades is that students have no other intrinsic motivation that some socially constructed meaningless label assigned at the end of the semester.
And 'socially constructed' can be dropped out with basically no loss of meaning:
I can't be that off the mark. But apparently, average work on my watch is another educator's version of excellent work. And the subjectivity is confusing to the students (and sometimes to their parents). 
The real issue for me around grades is that students have no other intrinsic motivation that some meaningless label assigned at the end of the semester.
OTOH, the author seems to mean that standards for grades are somewhat (note: somewhat) vague and variable. That's true, but has nothing to do with anything that can accurately be described by the words 'socially constructed.' If you mean that standards for grades are vague and variable, then say that they are vague and variable. If you mean that they are largely arbitrary, then say that they are largely arbitrary. In short, whatever you mean, say it. But none of the actual ideas you might want to express will be expressed by phrases like 'grades are socially constructed.'

Look, it's not a federal case, but it's really frustrating to see this kind of mind virus floating around. This silly phrase is always either (a) eliminable without loss of content or (b) a positive source of confusion.  So there's never any good reason to use the ridiculous phrase.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, I think that you're missing the point here. Social construction exists, and if you're unclear on the definition don't just write it off. When someone tells me grades are socially constructed, I understand what they mean. It's not just black and white like you try to make it. Grades are both vague and largely arbitrary, but that doesn't describe the process of how we, as a society, created the notion of "grades." It's neutral. It's not supposed to be 'good' or 'bad', it just is.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That just isn't right, A.

If you mean that grades are (completely?) arbitrary, then say so. They *aren't*...or anyway, it's academic fraud if they are *completely* arbitrary...

The problem with "socially constructed" isn't that you can never, ever puzzle out basically what it means.

Rather, the problem is that you *have* to puzzle out what it means in each case. It's used in at least ten (by my count) very different ways. These ways often contradict each other.

This is to some extent just sloppiness, but to a large extent its a result of the simple and stupid fact that some people just find the term too sexy to resist, even though it adds nothing, makes simple ideas seem complicated, and conflates completely different phenomena.

Also, for the record, you're conflating (a) vagueness, (b) arbitrariness, (c) alleged social creation of the very idea of grades and (d) alleged social determination of individual grades.

All this can be spoken of clearly. And if we DO speak about it clear, we get a much more clear and accurate picture of what's going on than we get if we try to explain it all in terms of the bullshit quasi-concept "social construction."

8:04 AM  

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