When I was a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I spent a lot of time worrying about fairness in my marking. I didn’t have much problem at the start of a semester, because I hadn’t put names and faces together. However, by the second and third week, I knew all the students, and how they behaved in class would start affecting how I marked their essays. Those I liked would get the benefit of the doubt, while I could never be sure if I was marking fairly those who disrupted their classes or skipped them. Worrying about such biases, I came up with an obvious but effective way of making marking fairer that I believe would also go a long way towards increasing the gender and ethnic diversity in hiring.
My solution was simple: early in the semester, I distributed a formatting guide. Besides the usual suggestions for font selection and citation methods, and a suggestion that students should not waste their time adjusting margins and fonts to fit each assignment’s page count, I asked students to provide a title page. I asked that the title page include their name and contact information, but no other part of the assignment. When students submitted papers, I asked that the title pages be folded back.
In this way, I had no idea whose paper I was marking, and could feel confident that I was marking the contents alone. Only after I had assigned a grade and made a final comment did I turn to the title page so I could enter the grade in my mark book.
I pride myself on fairness, and the ability to put personalities aside when considering an issue. Yet the first times I marked blindly, some of my worst suspicions about myself were confirmed. Before I started marking blindly, by the semester’s second or third assignment, I often would save certain student’s work to cheer me up after a dismal run of papers, or put off marking another student’s work because I knew it would likely challenge my patience. Naturally, my expectations tended to be confirmed, although if I had the time (which I rarely did), I would check the best and the worst and sometimes change my marks.
However, after marking blindly, I would often be surprised by the results. The students I judged as talented were still at the top of the class, but often their ranking was lower. Similarly, the students I disliked sometimes ranked higher than before.
But the real difference was in the middle. Students I had little sense of because they rarely contributed in class almost always received higher marks when I marked blindly – occasionally, as much as two or three grades higher. Even more so than the students at the extreme, I had been short changing those in the middle, due entirely to my personal reactions or perhaps their lack of social skills.
What I had been doing was no different from what other instructors were doing. In fact, in the department common room, I regularly heard professors and instructors exchanging stories about students. Sometimes, they even spoke with vindictive glee about how they would punish students with bad marks. I had generally keep aloof from such discussions, but now I was forced to admit that my sole saving grace was that I believed I should try to be fair. Too many of the other department members didn’t seem to care about fairness at all.
In fact, some tenured professors seemed to regard punitive marking as one of the perqs of their position. One even marked me down in a grad seminar because he had a longstanding feud with my mother, who lived near him. When I described my efforts to mark blindly, these professors were surprised that I would take such concerns for people who only students, after all.
All I knew for sure was that marking blindly made living with myself much easier. I was proud of the procedure, and, having discovered it, inevitably followed it.
Years later, I learned that I was not the only person to make such a discovery. I remember seeing one study in which the number of women in orchestras rose considerably when auditioners could hear the music, but not see the musician.
Why, I wonder, should employment policies not be required to be similarly blind? Obviously, a time comes when interviewers have to see the job candidates face to face. But we regularly hear that male or English-sounding names have an advantage in the initial screenings, so resumes, at least, could be screened blindly.
I can easily imagine other procedures, such as one person doing the interview and the decision-maker reading the transcripts. But such steps, although fairer, would make the arduous process of hirer harder yet, and perhaps are not essential.
After all, it is the initial selection that seems to be the main bottleneck for women and minorities. Discrimination is much easier when exercised against a name than a person on the other side of the table, and many women and minority members acquit themselves well enough in interviews if they can only get one in the first place.
In fact, I sometimes think that blind assessment would accomplish as much as affirmative action, but with less resentment. Arguments can be made against affirmative action, although I believe that I can disprove them. But what can anyone say about procedures that are fairer for everyone? Give everyone the chance to be judged on their accomplishments rather than their background, and equal hiring practices might follow naturally and unobtrusively.