Academic Grades: Who’s the Audience?

The etymology of words fascinates me. Knowing where words come from allows us to see word evolution over time; or, etymology can provide a richer understanding and definition of a word we take for granted. Such is the case with the word audience.

For many people, the word audience means a group of people to be entertained. But etymology teaches us otherwise. Here is the etymology of audience:

late 14c., “the act or state of hearing, action or condition of listening,” from Old French audience, from Latin audentia “a hearing, listening,” . . . ” from root *au- “to perceive.”

Meaning “formal hearing or reception, opportunity of being heard” also is from late 14c.; that of “persons within hearing range, assembly of listeners” is from early 15c. (a member of one might be an audient, 1610s). . . Sense transferred by 1855 to “readers of a book,” by 1946 to “viewers of television programs.” Audience-participation (adj.) is recorded by 1938 in reference to radio.

Thus, audience has everything to do with the consuming of a message. Entertainment is one consequence of being in an audience. I would argue learning is much the same way.

I started rereading Richard Butsch’s book titled The Making of American Audiences. Dr. Butsch, an emeritus professor of Sociology from Rider University noted in the 19th century, audiences were active; they engaged with the actors on stage. They exercised what Butsch called “audience sovereignty”. He wrote: “Audiences asserted their rights to judge and direct performances.” (p. 4)

By the next century, much had changed. “Audiences were being redefined from active to helpless, dependent, and passive, and would remain so through the twentieth century,” observed the professor. I would love to know what Dr. Butsch thinks about this whole new world we have entered now!

This review of audiences started after a conversation with an educator about grades. The frustration was palpable; the discussion involving whether or not teachers should be allowed to give students a zero during remote learning.

Yes, we have all been thrown into a Pandemic Wonderland; the White Rabbit is now a bat. The teacher could see two points of view–and I will add, two audiences. Yes, the teacher said, she understood the profound impact a zero could have on a student at this moment in time–the first audience. But, the second audience, parents, seemed to push their children when they saw a zero on an assignment or report card. Her biggest frustration revolved around students who were productive and getting A-s in school prior to quarantine, but under remote learning went academically MIA.

So several thoughts.

First, I find Butsch’s dichotomy of active-passive audiences applicable to what’s happening in remote learning. In school, while the landscape is changing, up to pandemic time, students were relatively passive audiences. Now, during remote learning, public school teachers and administrators expect them to become active audiences; to take control and responsibility for directing their learning. Some have risen to the demand; other students are apparently lost without the four walls of a classroom.

Secondly, I thought about the audiences for grades. There are several audiences, no? Parents. State DOEs. Federal DOE. Colleges and Universities. And students become an audience for grades because they know the other four entities judge them by letters and numbers.

Honestly, we all know the reality of grades. Once we meet the benchmarks and jump the hoops, no one cares. When my husband proposed, he didn’t ask to see my New York State Regents diploma; he didn’t ask for my GRE scores. And likewise, I didn’t ask to see his MCAT or LSAT scores. During a conversation the other day, we both noted medical school for him, and a doctoral program for me, were pass-fail. We worked to gain knowledge because we were interested in the subject matter and driven to learn.

How can educators create and support that kind of thirst for knowledge? The drive to find answers to questions? How do they help students become active audience learners? These are the tough questions right now.

This pandemic is not ending anytime soon. Teaching and learning sit on a precipice. Can all the stakeholders climb to the top to see a new paradigm, one which invites students to become active audiences in their education? Or, will education slide into the abyss of our own making?

Speaker talking to an audience
Credit: Ted Talks

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