Thursday, November 30, 2006
Done with the Compass! Done with the Chart!
Well, actually, done with grading--but it feels so, so good.
I was tough this quarter, tougher than I've been in many a year. I kept myself honest as I graded. When I hit a paper that was just OK--not bad, not horrible, not ghastly, but not inventive, clearly written, or particularly insightful, either--I didn't shrug it off with a B- to keep the student from complaining or, worse, from hating poetry.
I gave it a C.
Then I did something worse.
On the final, I gave a series of objective questions. You know, things like a list of 10 words we looked up in class because their meanings turned out to be crucial to the poems we were reading. I gave the word, I gave the line or phrase, and I asked the students to tell me what the relevant meaning was.
I also asked them to describe a couple of literary schools or movements--just with a sentence or two--and say which poets we studied belonged to them.
Oops again. Did you know that Langston Hughes was a poet of the New York School? His work there evidently paved the way for Wallace Stevens, author of "The Red Wheelbarrow" and other works of the British Romantic movement.
What we say, what they hear. What they read, what they remember. I had students scoring single digits on a 50 point final exam.
Now, I don't know about your department, but mine has been under pressure recently to foster an "atmosphere of rigor" in classes. I'd like to say that I gave those grades and asked those questions to put a whiff of rigor--smells like teen dispiritedness--into my students' nostrils. But mostly I did it to live with myself for the next 25 years, teaching this course, facing these students. I need to be a hard-ass for a while.
Maybe my students feel betrayed this week, as though Captain Stubing suddently turned into Captain Ahab when exam week rolled around. Next quarter, I'm going to tell them on day one that I will, if need be, give a third of them A's, a third of them B's, and a third of them C's. But as God is my witness, I told the folks that didn't come to class, or who came and sat there without taking notes, or taking part, or taking the time to read the text, that the final was going to get them, and it did, just like the Kraken.
As for the 9 students who got an A from me this time?
Congratulations, kids. You earned it. And I can honestly say--not that I would ever, ever lie about such things, natch--that I hope I'll see you in a class again.