There are students who will wrangle for every possible point, and like the proverbial penny-pincher, I suppose these inveterate wranglers wind up richest in the end. “A point here, a point there, and before you know it, you’re talking a whole a whole letter grade. And, you know, that G.P.A isn’t going to raise itself.”
I never knew students wrangled points until I became a professor. I was one of those acquiescent fools who thought grades were carved in stone, not butter; and I did not in any case suppose that a professor would melt under the blowtorch of my pilpul. If I disputed a point, I supposed the professor would laugh at me. And if I objected to his laughing, I supposed the dean would have a good laugh too.
Now I know the only ones laughing are the wranglers after they have caged a few more points.
After many years of brooding over wranglers (not to mention fearing their knock at the door), I have devised a watertight defense against wrangling. I call it democratic grading, and under the aegis of democratic grading, I will never have to defend another test question. Here is how it works.
Democratic grading allows the class to select the correct answers to test questions by treating their answers as votes. Take, for instance, this question:
1) What is the name of the great river of Africa, famous for its regular floods, that empties into the Mediterranean Sea?
Under the old autocratic grading system, I would, of course, indicate (c) as the correct answer on the exam key. In doing so, I would, naturally, presuppose definitions of words such as “Africa,” “famous,” “regular,” and “empties.” An audacious point-wrangler would, therefore (and just as naturally), deconstruct my autocratic argument by questioning these presuppositions.
This wrangling student would point out that the Indian subcontinent was once part of Africa, so only narrow presentism excludes it as an African river. He would observe that the Ganges is sacred to Hindus, that Hindus are very numerous, and therefore it—the Ganges—might justly be called the more famous of these two great rivers of Africa. As for the regularity of flooding, he would demand to know how regular an event must be to be counted as regular. And finally, he would ask me to prove that clouds, those great distributaries in the sky, had never once emptied waters that had been Gangetic onto the broad bosom of the blue Mediterranean.
Well, I’m done with this pilpul. From now on, a class vote will decide the meaning of words and the correctness of answers, and the test itself will be the ballot in this vote. If a plurality of the students choose (d), for instance, Madagascar will be democratically correct. Rather than presupposing definitions of words, I will henceforth accept that every question can be construed in such a way that the answer the students democratically elect is the correct answer. After all, I will have objective evidence that a plurality, perhaps even a majority, of the students construed the question in just this way.
I expect the wranglers will be dumbstruck, perhaps even nonplussed, by the irresistible democratic authority of answers chosen in this way. Whatever pilpul they might cook up will be inexorably overruled by the democratic pilpul of the class. Against this democratic authority, there can be, of course, no appeal. If there is an aggrieved minority who answer (c), for instance, and they try to defend their answer with an appeal to books and maps, it will be my duty to tell them that, most students do not understand those books and maps in that way.
In addition to sparing me wrangling over points, democratic grading has the added benefit of teaching students that social truth is more important than ontological truth. With luck, it will teach them that ontological truth is a chimera, and that the correct definition of truth is “what most people think.”
The chimera of ontological truth causes nothing but trouble because it encourages antisocial and undemocratic behavior. If you consider the example of exam grading, it is obvious that the chimera of ontological truth is nothing but ideology. The ideology of ontological truth legitimates elitism by maintaining that a minority can be “correct.”
You may think that I have overlooked the possibility of students conspiring to answer all multiple-choice questions (d). I have anticipated this conspiracy, and will scramble answers, so that “Nile” will be answer (a) on one test, but answer (b), (c) or (d) on others. When a student sits chewing his pencil over this question, he will not, therefore, try to remember what he saw on a map or read in a book, because he will know that ontological truth is a dangerous chimera. He will, rather, try to guess what his classmates are thinking and conform his mind to this general will.
And that is, after all, what democracy is all about.