Grade Your Beef, Not Our Worth

The “prime” issues concerning problematic evaluative systems in creative undergraduate curricula.

Here’s my beef with grades: they’re distracting. In artistic fields of study, grades prove more harmful than beneficial because they are heavily subjective. Grade point averages are valued above quality of product. In art-driven fields, where the product is the centerpiece, this is extremely detrimental. Art education is supposed to cultivate and spur the seeds of creativity, not water them down with subjective evaluations of your worth. Speaking as a student in Virginia Tech’s graphic design program, more often than not students’ capabilities are limited when their minds are oriented towards getting an “A” on a project rather than testing new strategies. Because when you test new strategies and go where you’ve never gone before, there’s a higher chance of failure.

But, why is failure considered such a bad thing? In fact, students should be encouraged to fail. By failing, we learn from our mistakes. By failing, we shed bad ideas to reveal the good. By failing, we arrive at the more successful solutions through trial and error. There’s a malevolent expectation to consistently put forth the best work possible and astonish professors with great design — but, we are amateurs. We aren’t here to impress. We are here to grow. And, growth doesn’t flourish in success — it feeds on failure. The goal of learning should be emphasized over the initial product. If we are expected to produce great design at the very commencement of our careers, where does that set us on our path to progression? Mistakes should be welcomed and encouraged amongst new students, not condemned.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beef is graded according to two methods of evaluation: yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat and quality grades for flavor. I see this as a dual system of objective grading (a quantifiable amount) followed by a subjective grading (opinion-based). Surprisingly, this dual-method of grading is not entirely different from the evaluations generally received by artists. Critics tend to critique art by first evaluating the amount of technical refinement in a piece, or it’s value according to certain objective artistic standards. Then, they assert their opinions about whether they like or dislike the piece. In other words, they subjectively assess the “flavor” of the art piece.

This is where the problems arise: professors in the artistic fields have wildly different creative palates and preferences. Case in point, this very semester I had two professors assign identical résumé design exercises, to which I submitted the same exact document. While I wasn’t intending for it, the résumé served as a sort of control for the experimental results I now offer: both design professors viewed the same résumé, but gave contradictory feedback about revisions to receive the best grade (because that’s what matters most, right?). One said the type size was too small. The other said it was too large. One said I needed to include more color, the other said it was too distracting. Can you see how this loose systematic grading is frustrating to students, especially when such subjective assessments are what future employers will see as a reflection of our academic performance?

David Bowie, one of the most influential creative minds of recent generations, once gave some profound advice to “aspiring artists”:

“Never play to the gallery…. Never work for other people in what you do. Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society…. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.”

Too often, our grades are lowered by opinionated viewings of our work. And, too often, we deem those opinionated viewings superior to our own instinctual drive.

This is an extreme hinderance to our art education for a few reasons. First, the point of art is subjectivity, and democratically so. When you strip art to a certain letter grade of worth, it becomes standardized and loses the creative freedom it is so often celebrated for. Secondly, a single professor’s taste prevails over our performance, reflecting how well we adhered to their preferences by the lone letter they denote to our projects. An “A” becomes a sort of seal of congratulatory approval: “Congrats! You nailed my design aesthetic on the head!” while a “B” or “C” becomes a sympathetic foreboding: “Better luck next time.” Not only does this hinder the creativity of students, but it unknowingly forces us into cookie cutter approaches to design. We learn what our professors like and dislike, and refuse to stray from that norm for the sake of sparing any jabs at our GPA. This is the most dangerous thing you could possibly teach design students. In fact, this is the most dangerous thing you can teach just about any student.

Understandably though, where so much of the work is subjective, there is an importance to implement some type of system for students to gauge their improvement. I propose that there is a focus on formative assignments with periodic summative assessments. These summative assessments should be placed at the middle and end of the semester, like midterms and finals in other majors. In the current art curriculum, students jump from one graded project to the next; why don’t we make these projects formative? Take the grades away––or assign grades based on completion. These formative assessments will still provide students with all the knowledge they need to be productive in the classroom: (1) an understanding of where they are going or what a desirable outcome looks like, (2) the ability to determine where they are in reaching those goals, and (3) what they individually need to do to reach those goals.

Come midterms, there can be a review of the student’s portfolio work to ensure they are improving at the projected pace and staying on track with the desirable growth rate. This one-on-one portfolio feedback with professors will also allow students a security in their work, knowing that they are progressing on pace with their peers. The process can be repeated at the end of the semester in the time slot allotted for final exams (which are currently not used by design classes, since there are no finals) to assess the student’s entire output of work and assess what they learned through accompanying visual evidence. This revised structure, along with the regular classroom critique of each peer’s work, will provide students with the same amount of learning without the pressure of grades penalizing quality of work.

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Our best creative moments occur in moments when we have no expectations because we feel the ease of freedom in pursuing explorative measures. Students are more driven, motivated, innovative, and excited about their creative work when it is something they are genuinely interested in or passionate about, rather than pursuing those cookie cutter, standardized solutions to problems.

Assign grades to beef, not our worth.


Amy Borg is currently enrolled in Virginia Tech's undergraduate program where she is studying Graphic Design and Professional and Technical Writing. You can follow her creative works on Behance or Medium, or you can connect with her through her personal website, https://amyborg.myportfolio.com/.