So, Grading is at last rearing its ugly head. I handed out the first grades in the lit classes yesterday (for a short assignment in the Brit lit class, and for the first group presentation in drama), and I should be collecting the first freshman comp papers on Thursday. Ouch. I hate this time of semester, not only because it's when teaching starts to feel like real work, but also because the whole carrot-and-stick arrangement changes the dynamic of a class in ways that I don't like. (Most of the time, anyway. I'm beginning to feel like a few of the freshman comp students NEED to be whacked with a stick or two, but that's a different rant for another time.) Anyway, I feel like this whole exercise ought to be about inquiry, not about evaluation, or at least not about the sort of evaluation that can be expressed as a single letter. I'd really like to teach at one of those hippie SLACs that have narrative evaluations instead of grades, for all that it sounds like more work.
Freshman comp is where it gets particularly awkward, because you have all these brand-new students like little snails, just starting to poke their heads out of their shells and express opinions of their own, and then you have to smack them with the Grading Stick and send them quivering back inside.
I never had a freshman comp class when I was in college. I had what was called a Writing-Intensive Freshman Seminar, taught by an eccentric Classics professor and about an eccentric topic, with short ungraded response papers every week and one ten-page term paper. No grades until after the class was over. And I had Introduction to Shakespeare, which was really Introduction to Shakespeare and Assorted Other Stuff, including anecdotes about the Soviet news service, a look at the Victorian-era illustrated Shakespeare the professor had picked up over the weekend (and musings about how the female characters were depicted, and which ones weren't depicted at all, and why), and reminiscences about the freshman humanities program at the professor's alma mater, thirty years ago and more. It was, in short, an introduction to the kind of connections that thinking people make, and I believe everyone should have a class like that in their first semester of college.
I feel like there ought to be a way to pull that sort of thing off in freshman comp -- where better than in a course that has no set factual content and is ostensibly all about how to write and think? -- but I've never been able to make it work. I wonder if the fact that comp students are openly being graded on these abilities, rather than on their mastery of a specific body of course content, is precisely what kills their drive to think and inquire and make connections. (My Shakespeare professor would assuredly have said so; he was quite vocal about his opposition to the grading system, which didn't, however, stop him from delivering frequent smackdowns-by-grade.)
Blah. There isn't really much to be done, I guess, except to make one's own reservations about grading, and the trade-offs and limitations involved, public -- which I do intend to do, as soon as I collect that first set of papers. But I have the feeling that they are not going to pay attention to my thoughts on the subject, probably will not pay much attention to the course reading for Thursday, and will pay a great deal of attention to that single letter at the bottom of their papers. And why shouldn't they? The letter is what they will have to explain to their parents and advisors and, eventually, graduate admissions officers or employers, and none of these other people are going to care what we actually did in the class on any given day -- particularly if the activity in question is something as ephemeral as a conversation. Maybe not even an honest conversation, because how often are we honest with our judges, our adversaries, our evaluators? We say what we think they want to here (or, perhaps more often in the case of college freshmen, keep silent and hope they don't call on us).
Right, these thoughts probably aren't going into the statement of teaching philosophy any time soon...