Imagine a first-year cohort of undergraduate English majors consisting of 200 students. In the first semester, they take a required course called, say, “Hamlet, Unlimited”. During the course, they read the play, watch three or four performances, and read a half dozen essays about the play, such as Eliot’s “Hamlet and his Problems” and Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem, Unlimited. (Obviously these selections are entirely at the discretion of the responsible course faculty.)
A series of lectures by a Shakespeare scholar is offered and the students are assigned to small TA-led tutorials (the TAs might simply be older students who have taken the course previously.) They are also offered workshops with a librarian, who shows them how to search the literature, and writing workshops where they can work on their prose style. Both workshops are centered on well-defined tasks, such as finding particular kinds of texts and writing particular kinds of paragraphs. These activities are entirely voluntary; the students can pick and choose what they want to attend.
At the end of the semester, the lecturer assigns a 72-hour, 1000-word essay question. It will always be something simple like “How did Hamlet feel about his mother?” and no further guidance on how to answer it is offered. The students are to have spent the semester readying themselves for a question of this kind, one that the lectures and their reading will have prepared them to answer. There are strict formatting guidelines, so that all students submit papers that are visually similar (same font, line-spacing, and referencing style.)
The essays are graded on a curve by a panel of two internal examiners and one external examiner. The panel is sequestered from all other activities for one week (perhaps in a retreat setting) to distribute 40 As , 60 Bs, 60 Cs, and 40 Ds or Fs. (These may be further qualified with + or -. And there would be some flexibility in boundary cases.) The graded (anonymized) essays would be made available to all students.
Such a course, it seems to me, would go a long way towards restoring sanity to the modern university, rife with both grade inflation and performance anxiety. The students would have a straightforward problem — that of becoming better scholars — and every bit of effort they put into solving it will be rewarded. Everyone, including the faculty, will have a clear idea of what is possible given a little effort, and the students’ minds will have been focused on a topic that is of central importance in their discipline. A similar course can, of course, be imagined for any other major. The trick is simply to choose materials that everyone in a discipline does well to be familiar with.