B PLUS VS. A MINUS

June 23, 2017
A secret society judges (photo from encyclopediasatanica.wordpress.com)

A secret society judges (photo from encyclopediasatanica.wordpress.com)

Inside the catacombs, we professors graded our architecture students. The Ancient Order, Secret Society, Illuminati, covert handshakes and all—I was there. Inside.

Community and convention center for San Francisco, my graduate school thesis project (photo by Anthony Poon)
Community and convention center for San Francisco, my graduate school thesis project (photo by Anthony Poon)

Grading the student’s work is no easy task. I can track attendance, for example, but how do I assign a letter grade to a design for a hypothetical city hall? Is the project attractive? Is it supposed to be attractive? Is it functional? How do I rate function? What is good architecture? Yes, I can see that there are enough restrooms, but is the overall design a great one?

Al Pacino as an evil lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate, 1997
Al Pacino as an evil lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate, 1997

If I were to give a student a B plus, can I justify my decision against the student’s family lawyer questioning why the project was not an A minus? An accusatory attorney might seek damages for how I ruined the student’s chances of a getting into a good graduate school.

Scary stories aside, this one grading session in mind was innovative and for the most part, effective. We graded as a group, not as a solo teacher handing out evaluations while in pajamas at his home office.

At this thoughtful school, five teachers arrived with the work of their dozen students. Roughly sixty grades were to be given out in a period of eight hours.

Here is the catch. Each teacher proposed the grade for his or her own student, and the other four teachers would have to agree. If grading something creative and subjective was difficult enough, we now had to agree as a group of authority figures. When ego and territory come into play, battles ensued

Gearing up for a turf battle in Warriors, 1979
Gearing up for a turf battle in Warriors, 1979

“You call that an A?” questions teacher one to teacher two. Teacher one declaring, “Look at my student’s work. This is a true A.”

Teacher three, “That certainly is no A. That is barely a B plus, damn it!”

“Are you insinuating that I only have B and C students?” defensively and insecurely teacher four screams.

Teacher five, “My students are better than yours!” Meaning: I am a better teacher.

Do you deserve this? (photo by Anthony Poon)
Do you deserve this? (photo by Anthony Poon)

This continues for a whole day. In the end, if we can all agree, the assumption is that the grade is fair. Or is it?

At times, the most aggressive teachers had the most A students, simply because the other teachers were worn out from the onslaught and debate. Perhaps, the meek teachers ended up with C students only because they were out-negotiated and intimidated?

High school for Boston, my second year graduate school project (photo by Anthony Poon)
High school for Boston, my second year graduate school project (photo by Anthony Poon)

Each educator wanted to walk out with a proud collection of A and B students. But the sad reality is that there are also C and D students, as well as complete failures, an F. This was a different kind of deliberation. A tragic one, actually. For our group to all agree that a student should fail a class, is disheartening.

Student Activities Center, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Anthony Poon)
Student Activities Center, University of California, Los Angeles, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Anthony Poon)

At the end of the day, not a bad idea at all: to evaluate a student’s creative work as a group. Coming from various backgrounds—some of us solo entrepreneurs, mom-and-pop architects, corporate directors, or theorists—we teachers of architecture participated in a forum of examination and understanding. In the typical world of arbitrarily evaluating talent, I applaud our roundtable and believe that we have served with passion, conviction, and fair-mindedness.

© Poon Design Inc.