Final grades in the two classes I taught this semester are due tomorrow. I dislike giving grades, partly because the Honors program in which I teach tries to wean students off reliance on grades as a measure of self-worth (training them to look to their own self-assessed learning outcomes rather than pestering the professor for quantitative measures of where they stand in the class), and partly because it's nearly impossible to communicate to students through the impoverished medium of the grade.
A few years ago I read this article about how professors try to use grades to send various messages to students. Try harder. Come to class more often. Do another revision. Thanks for the effort. You have potential. You're in the wrong major. Stop wasting my time. The very same letter grade is supposed to mean "even though your scores average a D, I know how hard you worked, so here's a passing grade!" to a student in one seat, and "even though your scores average a B, you slacked your way through this class demonstrating just how little you cared, so here's a C" to the student in the next.
How can a single letter carry all that communication? And how can we feel confident that what we mean to say by the grade is what students (and their parents, and financial aid committees, and graduate schools) will take out of it?
Grades are poor channels for carrying such complex messages -- nor do the reasons for the grade tend to survive the immediate context of the moment of grade-giving, although the grade itself persists for years on transcripts, affecting all kinds of processes.
I wish I could stop giving grades. But my institution demands it. I'm stuck with this five-fold (no pluses or minuses in our system) scale that is supposed to sum up the learning that occurred in my classroom. Tomorrow morning I'll make the semiannual compromises and suffer the nausea that comes from distilling my students into this attenuated set of outcomes. Pray for my soul.