Friday, March 20, 2015

First Day of Class: Grading, Forms of Address

             Before teaching my first course in College Composition, I had been thinking about teaching for a while (my most likely alternative to teaching was a brief but exciting career as a tunnel rat for the US Army in Vietnam), and my initial pedagogical decisions may strike normal folk — who do not teach College Comp. or throw around "pedagogical" — as a little weird. I don't mean that the decisions were weird in themselves, but a little weird in that they were the decisions I made first.

            First of all of them, I decided on a grading system.

            I'm not sure the "CIRP Freshman Survey" of attitudes and values was up and running in the mid-1960s — I remember it from the later '60s on — but I didn't need a scientific survey to tell me that the primary concern of most of my students would not be what they would learn in my course but the grade they got. I didn't like that attitude, but I decided to go with it; after all, even my most idealistic colleagues usually talked about grading student essays, not, say, "carrying on a dialog" with the essays.

            So my very first decision was that I would grade "blind," not looking at the students' names. This system would make it difficult to track individual students' progress in learning how to write, but it would be fairer: I'd be grading the essay, not the student.

            Later, I got some indication that grading blind was a good decision when several of us TA's compared our grading and found that those who looked at students' names were far more consistent, "across the line" of grades in their gradebooks than those of us who didn't. Our inference was that teachers looked at a student's name on the paper, had an idea of the student's ability, and honestly saw — or tended to see — a paper in that grade range. "A" students wrote "A" papers, and so forth. Not always, but usually, what people expect to see is what we do see, and seeing a students name may set up in a teacher's mind a grade range.

            Still later in my career, a student said that she counted on this teacherly tendency in her schoolwork: she established herself early in a course as a "A" student and tended to get "A's" even if she subsequently slacked off and handed in what she saw as pretty much "B" work. My system, she ruefully noted, interfered with her system.

            In any event, grading "blind" allowed me in one sense to respond more to my students as human beings, including my human response of liking some human beings more than others. So long as I was professional and polite to all, I could feel my human feelings without worrying about favoring students I liked and penalizing any I didn't like — although most students did a good job at invisibility in class, so I didn't feel much about them one way or another, and I'm confident that's how most felt about me. There was always a potential there for an "I/Thou"relationship with some of my students, but ordinarily we were "instrumental" for one another: they supplied me with essays, and I supplied them with grades and comments and, if all went well, aid in improving skills. We also taught each other important stuff, on occasion, and on rare occasion made real human-to-human contact — friendly contact mostly (I remain friends with some former students) — but such moments weren't central to our day-to-day operations.

            I also decided that I'd grade numerically, in part, and on a kind of sliding scale: a system of "weighted" grades. That is, I'd give the essay a letter grade, but then translate the grade into a number according to the standard university system: A: 90-100, B: 80-89, C: 70-79, etc. And then I'd translate those standard numbers into something more modest for the early essays and of increasing "weight" as the term went on. So the initial essay in the course might be worth 5 points, then 10, 25, 50, 75, and 100, with some tweaks to encourage revision — "Good essays aren't written; they are rewritten" (usually) — and I gave moderately generous points for participation.

            With this system, every piece of writing counted, but improvement was rewarded; and with this system someone could sit in class in silent invisibility and get an "A," but it would really help if s/he occasionally bloody well, as we used to say, contributed something. (When e-mail came along, shy people could get credit with e-mail participation, and I stressed even more that there was at least an ethical imperative to participate in some way: it's not fair to just take notes and pick others' brains and never add anything of one's own.)

            My second decision came a bit later, after a colleague of mine got my attention by throwing back at me one of my favorite lines — but the groundwork for it had been laid long before.

            My first day as a college freshman, after my advisor and I had reviewed the few choices I had to make in the "Specialized Chemistry" curriculum for budding biochemists, my first real question was, "Uh, what do you call people around here?" The answer to that question, at that place and time and in that context, was "Mister." In my introduction to serious academic snobbery, my advisor told me, "In a department such as this, everyone has a doctorate" — and just about everybody on the U of Illinois Chemistry faculty ca. 1961 was male.

            So I'd call my instructors "Mister _____," and they'd call me "Mr. Erlich." Now to some extent we were in a civilian variation on the story of the British sergeant major telling his second "leftenant" trainees in the standard-issue sergeant-major voice, "I shall call you 'sir,' and you will call me 'sir'!" (beat, more softly and intensely) "The difference will be … that you will mean it." Not much, though: for the most part, I think that during my undergraduate career, my teachers called me "Mr. Erlich" as a matter of custom and courtesy and, that far, meant it. Only as a graduate student was I called "Rich," and then I very tentatively guessed and called my adviser "Barry." (When my adviser was being recruited to be my adviser, I'd been referred to as "a cynical little bastard from Chicago, with a background in the sciences" — but that's another story.)

            Anyway, I'd been brought up on "Mr./Miss/Mrs./Ms." and addressed my students that way, until some of them told me the formal forms of address made them uncomfortable, and I complained about that complaint to one of my colleagues. "Jeesh!" I said, "It's a matter of indifference!" To which he replied, "If it's a matter of indifference to you, but not to them, just do it their way."

            As I said, that got my attention.

            My colleague might have known — as in, Iikely bragged about it in his presence — that my first and only big "gotcha" moment on my first student/faculty committee was when a very senior colleague said to me, "It's a matter of indifference," and I smiled and replied sweetly, "Then just do it my way"; so that won the argument for my students. Or did in part, since I also saw what would later be called a teaching opportunity.

            In succeeding semesters, I would go over my grading system first day of class and then spend a few minutes on our one moment of class democracy: determining "Forms of Address." Simultaneously, I introduced "Forms of Address" as a possible topic for the class's first essay/writing sample, a topic just about nobody ever selected.

            (The other topic was on clothes, with some very brief selections from John T. Molloy's Dress for Success and a paragraph from Sir Thomas More on how in Utopia, anyway, clothing competition is forbidden. [The Utopians are commies and pretty egalitarian.] Many of my students were scarily sophisticated on matters of dress and did well to write on it.)

            Anyway I'd offer my student a Formal Option for forms of address, where we'd call each other "Mr./Ms." — few married undergrads at Miami University, Oxford, OH — and an informal option where we'd call one another by first names. I also mentioned the option where I'd call them "Mr./Ms. Whatever" and they'd call me "Rich," but rejected that one, and also rejected anyone's calling anyone else just by their last names: that's either really, really friendly among equals or the form for a social superior to address a social inferior. I'd tolerate, I said, calling them by their first name and their calling me "Mr. Erlich" or "Professor Erlich," and I told them the U of I Chem Dept. story for "Dr. Erlich" — but I'd be a little uncomfortable, I said, with that "cross-over" form.

            With maybe one exception in many years of teaching, my classes elected informality, and I said, "Hi. Call me 'Rich'" (beat) — "but I'm still giving the grades." And we'd spend a bit more time talking about forms of address and their significance and how writers can find topics all around us if we just look at "The weirdness of everyday life," or what starts appearing weird when we start thinking about it.

            I was trying to get them into what's called in an awkward English word "defamiliarization" or even more pretentiously Verfremdungs(effekt) or priyom ostraneniya. To paraphrase a dead White male poet, I'll say that I was trying to "make the familiar strange" for them, as a way to find topics.

            And more than that.

            Every now and then, I think, my mini-lecture on grading got students thinking about grades and what they mean and how grades function in their (academic) lives. Moving out from there — the great majority of my students prefered blind grading, and their recognizing that preference could, on rare occasions, get a few asking potentially radical questions on whether they really wanted to be treated personally and be graded as human beings — or, given that preference, was it okay to treat them rather impresonally and professionally and grade them on their work?

            Forms of address are no big deal in themselves, but they tell us something about power relationships. "Hi. Call me 'Rich' …" but I gave the grades, and choosing forms of address was one of the very few exercises of democratic choice my students were going to encounter in their classes. Equally, forms of address are what we might call "age and generation inflected." My students were uncomfortable calling me "Rich" in part because they very legitimately didn't want to think themselves old farts such as I was to them even in my thirties, which is fair enough. But to what extent did they reject the "Mr./Ms." designation because they were uncomfortable thinking of themselves as adults and, as adults, my social equal, however much I might outrank them as their teacher?


            Grading in a College Comp. class is no big deal, and neither are forms of address. (When asked once how I'd like to be addressed, I said I'd like "His Grace, Richard, Duke of TriStates" — Oxford, OH, is near Indiana and Kentucky — so you have some idea how earnestly I take the issue.) But "awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us," as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said; getting young Americans to see the weirdness of the world we see as natural, as I would vulgarly put it: that's basic to education and good to get to on the first day of class. 

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