Why peer grading, privilege, and competition don’t mix.

The scholarly article “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship” by Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson, published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (Vol. 42, No. 2, 304–315) in 2017 deals with the history of competition and its applications in modern eduction, discussing its advantages and disadvantages. One example in regard to historical and modern stances, is how peer grading is perceived and applied in both eras: Claiming that peer grading in the past used to be more constructive while it is perceived as ineffective today. In this particular example the compared components were renaissance master sculptors and modern university students. While they acknowledge the different historical circumstances, I think the different circumstances regarding peer grading and competition themselves and privilege have to be explored. Peer grading changes the face and structure of competition. Furthermore, people in positions of privilege can afford to lose competitions, thus one cannot compare the changes in peer grading in this example.

According to Werron competition is defined as followed: two parties struggle for the same scarce resource as an audience judges, the competitors do not necessarily have to interact. Bringing peer grading into the mix, one can quickly see that it complicates this model: Competitors become competitor and audience at the same time and not only get the chance to influence their own chances at reaching the scarce resource but can also manipulate their opponents chances. How this new power dynamic is applied depends on the competitor and their need for the scarce resource. Thus privilege has to be looked at since that can determine need.

Every reasonably reflective person is aware of their privilege. Privilege can stem from many different arbitrary or deliberate characteristics: country of origin, skin colour, sex, sexual or gender orientation, inherited wealth, degree of education, accumulated wealth, etcetera. The most privileged person in our western countries is by all means a straight, white, Christian or Atheist man. Even if born into poverty, he will have a much better chance at climbing the social/economic ladder than, for example, a queer woman of colour who will bump her head on countless glass ceilings.

One of the most current examples of a man using his privilege to a full extent would be Brett Kavanaugh: Kavanaugh was nominated as a judge for the US Supreme Court. However, upon that nomination Dr. Ford stepped forward, accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault, raising many questions about his eligibility. Investigations began, including hearings of both Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh. Observing both hearings, a stark difference could be seen between their behaviours.  One example is the amount of deflected or unanswered questions Kavanaugh’s hearing shows in contrast to Dr. Ford’s (a considerably higher amount). Furthermore, their attitude in court was starkly different: Dr. Ford stayed calm and composed, even though one could see the toll it took on her, while Kavanaugh was aggressive and petulant. If woman or person of a minority would have behaved the way he did, there would have most certainly been a broad outrage. As it is, it is a perfect example of rich white male privilege in this case their increased social/symbolic capital (Werron). The master sculptors also had a certain privilege the common university students does not have: They were master sculptors. One failed projects would not make or break their career, they would continue being master sculptors and get commission from many sources. Just as Kavanaugh would not have lost his position but simply would have been denied the promotion. 

The stakes for university students differ in a way that they have not reached the prestige and concomitant privilege (yet). They are still struggling for that scarce resource and their struggle is heavily influenced by grades, desirably high grades, which are influenced by peer grading. So the stakes for competition and peer grading are vastly different: Those that are secure in their status can afford to be objective and chose the best option, even if its not in their self-interest. Those that seek the status, do not have the same amount of social security. Privilege can thus be defined as “being one step ahead” by possessing scarce resources in the form of symbolic, social or economic capitals others are generally struggling for.

We can apply the new power dynamic that alters traditional competition and the concept of privilege to a student peer grading their own and the class’ work: They all struggle for the same scarce resource: high grades. (“Rarity of high grades created by competitive norm-referenced assessment is an artificial scarcity” (Nelson & Dawson, p. 311), meaning the stakes surrounding grades has been artificially heightened to fuel competition.) Grades determine scholarships and awards, future education possibilities or job offers (actual scarce resources). 

In a scenario where a student is asked to objectively rank their peers’ works while their work is not the best-ranking, it is natural that they are not likely to be fully objective about peer work, since it is not in their best self-interest to do so. They simply cannot afford to be objective if it lessens their own chances to gain symbolic capital (=privilege).

However, that does not mean that university students are a homogenous mass: Even if not one of them has reached a higher sphere yet, their chances are significantly different due to their societal or economic privilege. Education in North America is by no means affordable. If the student in the scenario is not dependent on scholarships, they could afford to be more objective since a lower grade would not be precarious to their whole education opportunity. If the student in the scenario is dependent on merit-based scholarships, they cannot afford to be truly objective and most likely “bunch each other around the middle of the grading band” (Nelson & Dawson, p. 310), so that they are most likely about or above average.

This shows that when peer grading is involved, competition changes. Adding privilege into the mix fuels those differences to “regular” competition, which is why the example in the text was off. One cannot compare attitudes about competition across major privilege lines, since the less privileged’s goal is often the starting point of the more privileged. The one with privilege is one scarce resource ahead. Thus one cannot compare the attitudes about peer grading between masters in a field with learners. 


  1. I like your insight into privilege. It always exists, but we may not realize it. The example of Brett is a straight-forward one. If people with different backgrounds of privileges are putting together to compete, is this still fair and justice?


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