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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Let's have report cards that matter

Updated: 3 days ago

A person with short hair snuggles with a tiny kitten
My report card now includes snuggling with kittens (Image: ©C.R. Garramon)

I recently visited my grandmother and my parents (the latter still in my childhood home). My high school graduation announcement rests in a frame on the wall in my old bedroom. It's also the end of the semester, and I just posted final grades.

All that has me thinking about report cards.

We don't really give out report cards in college anymore [1], so there's nothing like that to hang on the wall today. But, if we did, very little of what matters would be documented in those report cards. We could only tell students whether they met the single standard of "success" conveyed by an A or B. There's no nuance to that. Those letters on a single sheet of paper (or screen, let's be real) can't account for a student's contributions to classroom community, growth as a member of society, effort, etc. The vacuum of meaning in those grades persists even if we use alternative grading or ungrading schemes.

We can't be surprised that these means of judgement are narrowly focused. They are akin to "standard" tenure packets sent to external reviewers/letter writers. If we are going to measure people's impact in the world, affected through their roles as academics, we have to "count" more than papers in "big" journals and CV activities prescribed by the bean-counting attempts at our university. [2]

Even if you're not on the tenure track (for example, I'm a non-tenure-track professor of practice), most academics still go through annual review processes akin to T&P. Some of these processes see us receiving a short letter from our chair and dean, accompanied by a list of colleagues' comments. All this might as well be a report card.

Though mine is not a novel take, I've become increasingly adamant: our report cards for academics should include a lot more categories. These categories should be relevant and meaningful, whether reviewed by our department colleagues or external peers, by upper admin and hiring committees or grant reviewers. Here are some categories I'd add:

  • the goals and outcomes we document for our teaching

  • our efforts to get better at teaching and mentoring

  • the actual impacts of service we do in our department and for our university (not "just" the more-prestigious society service)

  • our work to continually learn and develop as a scholar (rather than sidelining professional development as only needed by the "unwashed masses" of non-tenure-track faculty/staff)

  • an accounting for both (a) our hopes and dreams that include our lives outside our job and (b) things we've done that matter beyond our job.

In this latter category, my report card would have very little on it this semester, despite however much I attempt to maintain harmony between all aspects of my life. This semester, I did a massive amount of overwork. So much so that all my spring projects, if completed this year, would equate to eighteen years of my job description. It has been utterly unsustainable (and mostly self-inflicted/initiated).

Finally, in late April, I stepped away. I went offline and went home to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday. And, now, I am ending the semester with several important items added to my report card.

  • Soothing a baby kitten that had never been held before.

  • Sketching the iconic mountain on our skyline, while my mom napped beside me and the characteristic, local wind dried the limber pines from the morning rain..

  • Doing a lot of dishes..

  • Planting tulips with my Dutch mama.

  • Picking out a wrench and a hay rake as mementos of my inventor grandpa (who passed away last fall).

  • Digging up some of my grandma's rhubarb crowns, to break in the garden at my new house (we moved last week!).

  • Birdwatching and deep convos with my dad.

How does all this relate to your work in academia?

Well, it's the end of my semester, and it's probably close to end-of-term for you. So, keep in mind that you're already doing good and important work. If it feels at all possible, please make time in the coming months for the dimensions of your life that are too-often invisible yet so important. I'm wishing for you your version of kitten snuggling and tulip planting.



[1] Come to think of it, I didn't get a physical report card at all after graduating from high school. From my first semester of freshman year in college, my grades were reported electronically. So, certainly, our students today aren't seeing anything like the hard-copy report cards of yore (and my childhood).

[2] Right now, the required form-CV at my university doesn't even have space to document most of what I do. Indeed, preliminary results from a recent study of mine suggests most of my colleagues feel there's no mechanism to demonstrate the parts of their work that actually has an impact.


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