There’s Not Enough Scotch in Tacoma, Part II.

What they hear: “Blah, blah-blah, blah-blah.”

As I was saying, grading is the worst part of being a professor. That’s when the brutal reality sets in (for you the professor) that an alarming percentage of students, despite (or in spite of) your best efforts, haven’t been paying much attention to anything you’re written, said, or done.

And that bites.

Keep in mind that, for the most part, professors really, really care about their material. Why else would you devote years of work, piles of debt, endless hours on weekends and “breaks,” and hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on unreimbursed (but virtually required) travel to conferences only to be paid twenty thousand dollars less per year than if you were teaching kindergarten or Language Arts in a public school? (This is in no way meant to disparage public school teachers; it just seems that a professor ought to be paid at least the same, doesn’t it? Just sayin’.)

Anyway, it’s no wonder that, after battling the general malaise and consumer university culture described by Mark Edmundson, some professors give up on throwing themselves into teaching. It’s a bit like throwing yourself into a brick wall over and over. Sometimes you break through, but most of the time all you get are contusions.

Teaching is a full contact sport.

The funny thing is, the precious few times you do break through make it mostly worth it. Unfortunately it’s often the case that neither you, nor the students, really know when that’s happened until sometime in the future. Hearing about those moments from time to time helps you keep the faith, and I’m profoundly grateful to those students who have helped me keep the faith over the years.

And I also try to remember that if the rest aren’t held rapt by me, a lecture, of the class, it’s just okay. Sometimes they’re not ready. Sometimes it’s just not for them. Sometimes they really are — that hour, day, week, or semester — in crisis, in love, in despair, in debt, in pain, or in (some other way) deep shit

It’s worth it. Mostly.

But grading time is also when a another brutal reality sets in, and it provides a terrible dilemma for the professor.

You see, the reality is …

You know, this is really difficult to say. I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to say this next bit because, well, some people are not going to like it. And then I decided I should just say it.

… that most students are not the sharpest tools in the shed. And no matter how hard they work at it, they’re not going to be.

And that bites too.

Now, saying this is practically heresy in a country that prizes the myth of our equality and of the ability of even the most challenged of us to succeed if we just work hard enough. As Edmundson points out in his essay, one of the great strengths of democracy is that it recognizes that genius can arise from anywhere. But although we generally recognize that we are not equally great in looks and in sports, I’ve found that we generally bristle at the suggestion that we are not all at least roughly equal in intellect or insight.

Gary Larson, The Far Side, but not that far.

Gary Larson, the Far Side. But not that far off.

Shouldn’t I say something comfortingly affirming at this point like, “of course all students are wonderfully talented in their own way,” or “Everyone shines given the proper chance and tools,” or venture that some were overwhelmed by college party culture, or something deferential like “But I could be wrong”?

Yes, I suppose I should. But let’s get something straight here. I’m not devaluing other aspects of our individual humanity that are just as important: our capacities for empathy, creativity, intuition, social dynamics, practical problem solving, and spirituality, just to name a few. But just as in these areas only a few people, I would argue from both evidence and observation, are truly gifted, there are just as few who are truly gifted intellectually. My own view is that education should work to open up the connections between all these aspects of the person, as well as work to strengthen them individually and collectively. It’s often the most gifted of people who need the latter the most, and the rest of us who need the former.

If I feel an urge to qualify, it’s because the bold and empowering democratic premise that genius can arise from anywhere has somehow morphed into the dubious conclusion that everyone is therefore a genius. Rewarded for participation, praised for the smallest contributions, and taught to the test so that all can succeed, students are used to having their self-esteem obsessed over and their failures blamed on pretty much everything (and everyone) else.  And above all, nothing is due to their own personal limitations. Their limitations have been imposed on them by “bad choices,” by a “lack of support,” by discrimination (or reverse discrimination), improper developmental tasks, gender biases, medications, the left, the right, boys, girls, teachers, parents, pets, peers, dust mites, or video games.

At any rate, students generally do not come into the university looking for something to challenge these general premises: rather, they’re understandably looking for personal validation and a clearly marked path to the relatively prosperous, morally unambiguous, and individually fulfilling life to which they are entitled as “our future.” After all, like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, they are all strong, all good-looking, and all above average.

But even if we bring multiple intelligences into to the picture, the fact of the matter is that most students are only average in their strength. That is to say that, just because her personal strength is “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” doesn’t mean she will make a college team, much less the WBA. And if his personal strength is “verbal-linguistic intelligence,” he may not actually write — or reason — all that well, will never make it through graduate school, or ever wow anyone with his poetry. Ever.

If your kid’s not a genius it’s YOUR fault.

“Wow,” someone objects, “That’s harsh. And anyway, aren’t you supposed to be nurturing these students into achieving their true calling in life and help them become everything they can be?”

Well, some people think so. I’m not sure that I would give myself that much credit. But the university is one of the places where “everything they can,” begins to take on a darker tinge, and the padded cocoon woven so thickly around our kids begin to fray as impending adulthood forces their internal grit of drive, character, and talent against the external abrasives of money, time, and opportunity. And this is the point where, it seems to me, over-protective nurture, like keeping kids in too clean of an environment, has sometimes paradoxically weakened students’ natural abilities to cope with what is actually out there in the world.

But for many students, hearing that their writing is incoherent or overwrought, that their ideas are inconsistent, unsupportable, or trite; that they do not have the chops to go to medical school; or, in short, that they are not the brilliant insightful person they thought (or were led to believe) is as devastating and enraging as the news was to Oedipus.

I find this part of the job particularly conflicting because I only made it to where I am because of the grace of God, the kindness of strangers, the support of friends and family, and professors and colleagues who were willing to take a chance on an unconventional dark horse. I made it through college unconventionally. Barely. I made it into and through grad school unconventionally. Barely. I got a job and tenure unconventionally. Barely. Each time, at each stage, I needed some kind of cavalry to come over the hill, and each time it did. But no one ever lowered the bar. And sometimes we don’t need nurture. We need a wake-up call. Deciding how frank one can, and should, be with that call is always a difficult decision. I want my dark horses to make it to the finish line.

Sometimes we don’t need nurture so much as a wake up call.

In fact, some of my professors had to take the bar and crack me over the head with it. “You’re a diamond in the rough,” my beloved mentor once growled at me, “But you’re running out of time to get polished. I can’t keep arguing for you on potentiality. You have to perform and produce at the level this takes or get out.”  (He also wrote “THIS IS NOT [SUPPOSED TO BE] A MYSTERY NOVEL!” across the first draft of my dissertation.)

And news like this is sometimes especially unpopular coming from a professor. (Elite ivory tower snob. Probably couldn’t make it in the “real” world. Who does he think he is?). In fact, I’ve had plenty of people, never mind students, insinuate that being a professor automatically disqualifies you to evaluate most things. It’s as if there’s a strange process in which you take from among (please note I’m saying, “from among”) the most talented high school students who go to college, and from among those the most talented who go on to graduate and professional programs, and from among those the most talented who get a job, and somehow wind up with idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about. I honestly don’t understand why the people who insinuate such things complain about themselves, or their kids, doing poorly at school when all doing poorly does, apparently, is to assure them that they are smarter than the ones who did well.

Yeah, yeah. We’re all experts.

After all, we live in the internet age of the “death of the expert,” where everyone is empowered to be his or her own expert, sage, critic, and news story. (I mean, look at me, I’m pontificating like a mad hatter! Look at yourself! You’re reading it! For god’s sake! What are we doing?) Enlightenment or sagacity is only a url away. With a good link to a list of quotes or Wiki, we can — with a deft tough of a screen — acquire and dispense aphoristic wisdom, obscure facts, and demonstration videos. If you can do that, who needs an expert? How hard can it be when wisdom is just a big fruitcake that can be cut into slices of 145 characters or less? We’ll all be wise guys if we just keep passing them around. (So, please. forward the url of to all your friends, put me on your Blog Roll, and tweet me to your peeps.)

But like it or not, professors, who are highly specialized experts, are also pretty good overall at assessing the ability to understand, make, and support complex arguments, warrants, and judgements based on complex evidence. They’re by and large careful readers, trained to evaluate rhetoric, sort out semantics and statistics, and parse out nuances. And they generally appreciate the differences between arguments based on partial, oversimplified, or basic comprehension; or a regurgitation of authority; and those which entail not just an understanding of material, but also original synthesis and individual insight. Yes, they can be a pain in the ass, out of touch, mired in their own little worlds, and hopelessly incompetent at making the projector work. And in those ways, they are not unlike practically everyone else.

You can go over the bar unconventionally, but you’ve got to get over.

However, in general intellect and insight, everyone is not like everyone else. And it doesn’t take a long time at this job to realize that. You work with each student, to the extent that they will engage with the discipline and with themselves, to develop the complex mix of prior preparation, innate drive, and natural talent they bring to the university. You work with each student to develop, shape, and integrate what they have. But when what they have is not what they think they have, or what they have been led to believe, it’s tough. You feel like an appraiser on the Antiques Road Show who has to tell someone that his family jewel is a fake.

It angers you when students haven’t received the preparation they need. It frustrates you to no end when they don’t have the drive to achieve what their preparation and potential makes them capable of. But it just kills you when, like a coach, you sometimes have to render grades that let students know that, despite what may be their best effort, they don’t have the talent. In many instances you ponder and agonize over what to do. Are you being fair to them? What will the repercussions be (financial aid, eligibility for sports, academic probation)? Are you being fair to your discipline and to the mission of the university? Did you really make things clear in the syllabus, in class, and on the assignment guidelines? Should you just let the whole charade continue and give them the grades to which they have become accustomed? Have they just been playing you and the system for a sympathetic fool? And that’s when the scotch runs out.


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