Fashion Education’s Complicated Relationship With Grading

This last stretch of the spring semester finds some students beginning
to sweat over how to raise their final grade, while their instructors send
urgent follow-up emails reminding them that their performance so far hasn’t
been up to standard. Both parties are strategizing, arming themselves for
the prospect of conflict ahead.

Being a design professor instructing the next generation to work within
our creative field comes with an ever-increasing list of responsibilities.
There are the overarching macro challenges that the next wave of
talent is tasked with such as reflecting inclusivity and diversity in their
work, and addressing issues of sustainability. when grading, it is the micro which tends to preoccupy instructors acutely aware
that there are too many fashion graduates and not enough job opportunities
to accommodate them all. Certain scores are more easily calculated than
others, testing students on their awareness of the market, price points,
competitors, stores in which their product might retail. But how to score
creativity? What is the future of fashion? How unique is a designer’s point
of view? These are the agonizing questions that might make an instructor of
fashion envy those who teach languages or mathematics, subjects in which
right and wrong answers appear more clearly defined. One plus one equals
two, but in fashion we might ask if the student in her approach to pattern
cutting or draping can find a way to make one plus one equal three. Why?
Because it hasn’t been done before, of course.

Student teacher privilege

For the most part it is a privilege to be immersed in youthful
creativity, engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the creators of tomorrow,
on a joint expedition in pursuit of originality. But grading is when the
dialogue becomes very one-sided. What the professor says goes is the
general thinking. However grading is not always so clean-cut despite how
transparent I might attempt to make the syllabus and criteria. Some
students believe they can negotiate or bargain for a better last-minute
deal, looking for hairline cracks in the most monolithic rubric. I have
awarded top grades to students who have worked diligently and submitted
everything asked of them, yet I won’t remember them or their work beyond
the semester because in the grand scheme of things they were forgettable. I
have given mediocre or poor grades to students whose point of view was
special, who exhibited moments of pure brilliance, who were eager and
curious, but who didn’t get everything together by deadline. Yet they have
remained in my mind. And it is not always the A+ student whom I would
recommend for a job.

I’ve read that millennials, with their inherent sense of entitlement,
are obsessed with grades, snowflakes looking for gold stars, but in less
cases than expected I’ve found this to be true. Those who do obsess tend to
be the students who fear failure, lapsing gently into a coma of formulas
over experimentation, thus sacrificing any opportunity for growth. They
choose performance goals over learning goals not realizing that a future
employer will never ask what grade they earned in their Design Studio II
class. Ultimately it is the uniqueness of their graduate portfolio along
with the internships on their resume that are the criteria the industry
will use to evaluate them as potential hires. In my experience the majority
of students respond to being pushed out on a limb. But a wider
understanding must be in place: risk taking can simultaneously drag down
your grade point average while elevating your standing in an instructor’s
estimations. But in these times of school fees spiraling skywards, the
pressure for students to succeed can choke this budding creativity, and
parents can undermine the learning experience further by equating top
grades with the value of the education they’re shelling out for: A+ means
they’re getting the most bang for their buck. Then there are the bragging
rights associated with having a child who is an A student.

Students grading instructors

In a transactional role reversal, instructors are also graded by the
students. While student reviews are designed as an opportunity to let the
school know what works and what doesn’t in an end-of-semester survey ( the
student must circle responses to a list of statements with options from
Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree and space for additional comment
underneath) covering everything from facilities to faculty, some students
can see it as an opportunity to lash out personally at an instructor who
has given them a poor grade. Multiple poor reviews mean the instructor will
be taken to task. It looms as a threat over every instructor’s performance
and can even tinge the student/instructor collaboration with something akin
to bribery. I often wonder how those professors of our youth who we recall
with fond respect for being brutally direct in their criticism, “tough but
fair,” but “hard graders” would fare under today’s system.

Grade-obsessed students will inwardly reason that a path of least
resistance which guarantees a good grade is the smartest option all round.
Their focus is on short term goals which avoid challenges. But what of the
student who has demonstrated significant personal progress throughout the
semester but still has a ways to go? Those are usually the ones that make
an instructor’s work especially gratifying. Does reducing their progress to
a letter or number inhibit their motivation to continue? Meaningful
involvement with a subject, and an unconventional approach over superficial
memorized methods, will bring about industry change-makers of the future.
But they might not merit an A.

An alternative to grading

There have been movements to abolish the grading system amid criticisms
of it being outdated and not conducive to getting the best out of our young
people. But traditional grading of A through F is still deeply entrenched
in our education system although a general Pass/Fail award exists in some
programs. Education expert Alfie Kohn who Time magazine describes
as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on
grades [and] test scores,” describes grades in his book “Punished By
Rewards” as “relics from a less enlightened era.” Even back in 1969, a
group of Law students at Harvard published a report in which they argued
that, “Grades create a status hierarchy with few winners, but many losers.
The current procedures are unjustifiable at a time when the school is
attracting so many highly-motivated, well-qualified students. As the ones
who stand to lose by this system, we want to see it changed before we
experience the unhappy effects of it.” Here we are half a century later
living through a period in which all of our past methods and customs are
being scrutinized. As fashion schools attract more creative talent than
ever before, one question appears more urgent than ever: Is it time for an
upgrade to grading?

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is an educator and author of Silk for
the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos author’s own

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